PEFC, Eco Flower, NAPM, FSC… understand any of that? If you do then you could be in the minority. The paper industry, the most environmentally conscious sector in office products, is finding itself lost in a forest of green logos and labels.
The market, which heard of sustainability long before everyone else, is losing touch with its consumers, who are becoming confused with the endless environmental tags on paper packaging.
Riding the latest wave of environmentally friendly purchasing, the paper industry has found ‘the greener the better’ to be the way forward when courting largae organisations into buying their product, which has led to a battle for credibility within the industry.
Abi Pearson, brand manager at UK stationery manufacturer John Dickinson, has seen her company focus its environmental policy to include an environmental statement on the back of its exercise books for schools, and to raise awareness of the company’s commitment to using only virgin paper (paper made directly from wood pulp) from sustainable sources. All this is designed to educate concerned consumers about the manufacturing process.
"The paper we use in all of our products comes from a sustainable source and it is important that we communicate this effectively to both the trade and end user, as it can provide a distinction from some of the low-cost products being imported from the Far East," says Pearson.
The company has launched recycled ranges across many of its most popular brands, including its most recognisable, Black n’ Red. Predicting more revenue on the cards, the firm is launching a new recycled brand in January 2008. The move comes after working with market analysts Nunwood Research, which found that 75 percent of shoppers would opt for a recycled notepad if the quality was not inferior, and 60 percent of shoppers would be prepared to pay slightly more for a recycled notepad, again, if the quality was found not to be inferior – proving the market is keen but not prepared to compromise on performance, and that while paper makers have been able to improve the quality of recycled paper in recent years, perceptions have been slower to catch up.
With this information in mind, John Dickinson’s new brand will feature strong environmental credentials with a "heavy emphasis" on quality. Further research on this topic has uncovered confusion among end users surrounding the eco-labelling of paper products and terminology including ‘sustainability’, ‘post-consumer waste’ and ‘mill broke’.
John Dickinson’s response to this sees the introduction of a clarifying statement on its new notebook, explaining the recycled nature of its forthcoming range.
It’s the varying definitions that are part of the problem. John Dickinson refers to the term ‘genuine waste’, which it describes as "paper that has been collected that would otherwise have gone to landfills or incinerated". The problem with terms such as ‘post-consumer’ and ‘pre-consumer’ is that they are open to interpretation. If thousands of calendars are printed wrongly and never leave the factory (thus becoming mill broke), are they post or pre-consumer? The difference being the effort involved in the collection of waste that has been used in offices compared to re-using paper that has never reached consumers.
"Businesses really have to take a responsibility to be open and honest about their communication on this," says Pearson. "About 80 percent of our business goes through catalogues and each one has a different set of environmental logos for the products, and very few of them define what they actually mean. For instance, John Dickinson can say that every one of its products is an ‘eco-product’ because they are all produced from sustainable sourced paper. Furthermore, if the consumer can identify a recycled product, how do they differentiate between recycled products that, for example, use mill broke from those that use genuine waste- This lack of knowledge can be seen in the common misunderstanding of the Mobius Loop symbol. The symbol on its own means that the product can be recycled, but a number inside the symbol refers to the amount of recycled material actually used to make that product – something not many people outside the industry would know.
Buyer confusion over the understanding of sustainability logos also shows an increasing interest in the environmental history of paper products. This is backed up by figures recently released by the UK government’s recycling department, Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which found that the use of recycled paper in the UK is set to dramatically increase over the next five years.
The department spoke to major organisations and discovered that two-thirds had targets in place to increase the proportion of paper products using recycled content in the future.
This makes for interesting reading for companies like M-real, one of the largest producers of recycled paper in the market. The company is proud of its ecological approach to business and holds up its New Thames Mill in the UK as a shining example of its commitment to corporate ecological sustainability.
The plant, which produces the Evolve brand, operates a closed loop method of manufacturing where energy is turned, re-used and folded back into the process.
Kate Cathie is environmental manager at the mill, one of the world’s most environmentally friendly factories.
"The good thing about the environment is that if you do anything to help it, generally you will reduce the costs of your business at the same time; for example water saving, reduced energy waste, etc."
Cathie says the move towards recycled paper is becoming more prominent in regions without access to large forests, but it’s getting harder to collect the genuine waste needed for use in the process. Empty containers from Chinese exports are being filled with used paper from the West and shipped back to the Far East for processing.
China’s paper industry is growing rapidly and it has a need for raw material. The latest figures show that China imported 17 million tons of recovered fibre, by far the greatest amount in the world. As collection schemes develop, more genuine waste will find its way to Chinese paper factories, which could affect the amount of recycled paper imported into Europe, and raise questions among consumers about the environmental benefits of going down the recycled route.
Room for both
Both recycled and virgin products are needed to keep the paper industry ticking over – there is room and a need for both. Some manufacturers believe there is room for varying types of paper too, featuring the best of both recycled and virgin stock. But complicating different types of paper means more environmental logos and more information for the end user to decipher before making a choice, which some say is having a knock-on effect on the green credentials of the paper indsutry.
Among those taking flak is the widely recognised Navigator brand made by Portucel Soporcel. The popular range of office papers includes a full spectrum of virgin papers, from 120gsm (grams per square metre) card at the top end to an unusual 75gsm at the bottom. Tagged Eco-Logical and weighing in at 5gsm smaller than standard office paper, the 75gsm product is pitched as an environmentally friendly alternative – using less resources to make – but without any noticeable difference. Buyers are also invited to ‘name a tree’ and receive a certificate as proof of their involvement in the ‘environmental principles’ of the brand. However, not everyone is sold on the idea and the product has been criticised by some manufacturers as an example of using concepts that can confuse the consumer. One major manufacturer of recycled paper told OPI that a "100 percent satisfaction guarantee" stamp and green nature image on the packaging mimicked the 100 percent recycled logo found on recycled papers. The big-name firm also took issue with the 5gsm reduction, which it said only amounts to around a six percent reduction in resources, and stated that the name-a-tree promotion was a "gimmick" that achieved very little for the environmental cause.
Not so, says the manufacturer. "The paper is 6.25 percent more environmentally friendly. If we aim to produce 75gsm paper instead of 80gsm from 100 tons of pulp, we make 27 more reams, and use less energy and water in making it," says Michael Wittmann, the firm’s brand manager.
"Eco-Logical is as environmentally friendly as recycled paper," says Wittmann. "We should not forget that we are aiming at a customer who wants performance from the paper and who is concerned about the environment. With Eco-Logical paper they get both."
"We are the only company in Europe that gives a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee – meaning that if a customer is not happy with the product, we will replace it. This is one of the product’s USPs, and helps reassure customers that although it is 75gsm, they will not be disappointed."
Portucel believes the trend is moving towards lighter papers, especially for general office use, matching what Wittmann calls the needs of the modern office user with environmental concerns.
"It’s important that we use recycled fibres but we have to differentiate which fibres we use for office papers. A lot of recycling could be better used for packaging, because bleaching these papers is challenging.
"We will see a lot more products with a recycled paper content, because 100 percent recycled is not sustainable. These recycled content alternatives address the environmental issues and the performance issues. Paper made only from virgin fibres has a bright future but it needs to be from sustainable sources."
Symbols and meanings
Despite not carrying any of the well-known environmental logos, Eco-Logical uses wood from Portucel’s own land which, as Wittmann points out, it has always managed because it would be "shooting itself in the foot" to do otherwise.
This raises the question of logos and their meanings. Criticism has been levelled at the most widely known symbol in the paper industry (according to a recent report) – the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). The independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation and its famous tree insignia can, some manufacturers say, work against products that can’t carry it.
One manufacturer of recycled paper said it had lost out on a contract to supply paper for use in a brochure published by environmental campaigners Greenpeace because a rival (of no more ecological standing) had offered the FSC logo on its product – a claim firmly rejected by the FSC.
"What does the manufacturer suggest as a suitable alternative? Does the Fairtrade label lead to a mistrust of social accreditations- counters Rosie Teasdale of the marketing and advisory service for the FSC’s UK Working Group. She adds: "Some manufacturers and retailers develop their own environmental labels when they cannot reach the standards set by certification schemes, such as FSC, and perhaps it is these standards that play in confusing the consumer."
New FSC Mixed Sources and FSC Recycled logos have since joined the standard issue logo, "watering down" the original logo, say critics, and adding to consumer confusion.
"The use of FSC-certified timber and post-consumer waste or controlled wood helps to promote responsible forestry. In order to use any of the FSC labels, or to make any claim as to the FSC status of a product, the manufacturers have to gain FSC Chain of Custody certification.
"It is not always practical to use ‘100 percent’ FSC logos for a product," adds Teasdale. "The Mixed Sources and Recycled labels enable manufacturers to gain credit for using wood from FSC-certified forests or post-consumer waste in their products."
Eric Chartrain, from the industry giant International Paper, puts the world view in perspective. The company’s director of supply chain and manufacturing in Europe says that co-operation between the channels is the key to fostering a harmonious green approach.
"Achieving sustainability means using environmentally responsible practices to improve the health and productivity of forestlands while extending that commitment to the entire forest environment, which includes trees and other plants, wildlife, soil, water, and air quality. It also means partnering with a broad range of environmental, academic and governmental organisations to find innovative ways to encourage responsible forest resource stewardship and to identify and protect areas of high conservation value."
The firm is a "strong believer" in third party certification, chain-of-custody accountability and labelling of environmentally sound products, and believes these are key to the health and strength of the paper industry as a whole.
"We know our customers face increasing pressure from consumers to demonstrate that their products are environmentally sound, and we are working with them to address these demands," adds Chartrain.
"Certification helps International Paper’s customers demonstrate their own environmental commitments. Consumers can choose products that meet the highest environmental standards by looking for a sustainability label on pulp, paper and packaging made by certified companies."
If there is confusion in the industry itself as to what is the most environmentally friendly approach, then no wonder the consumer is struggling. The vast array of symbols from recognised sources coupled with marketing spin from manufacturers can only lead to baffled buyers. The criticisms of the FSC sound like they are genuine grievances but aimed in the wrong direction. The firms that don’t have or can’t get the most popular logo have to continue educating consumers about the credentials of their own products.
Muddying the issue are the home-made labels and marketing soundbites that aim to play on consumers environmental concerns. If this isn’t curtailed by real, honest education, it could see the credibility of an industry that has for many years led the way on environmental issues go up in smoke.