Environmental Paper Choices: Beyond FSC, SFI, or PEFC

The environmental impact of paper is front and center in the print world, due to both its large contribution to a final printed product and because environmental groups and customers continue to push for “green” or sustainable products.

Currently, the main environmental focus in paper is forest certification by programs such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Due to the escalating costs of these chain-of-custody programs, many printing operations are questioning their value and are seeking alternative options to satisfy their customers’ demand for a greener product.

When asked why they require that products be produced on FSC-, SFI-, or PEFC-certified paper, print customers typically respond these are the only green paper programs they are familiar with and they want to showcase the green attributes of their product. Customers are not typically aware of alternatives, because they have not been educated about them. Additionally, many customers do not understand there are several critical environmental impacts not addressed by FSC, SFI, and PEFC programs, including uncertified fiber sourcing, recycled fiber content and the actual paper manufacturing process, which should all be considered when supplying customers with environmentally preferable paper.

Limitations of FSC, SFI, and PEFC

There is a common misconception that paper certified under these programs is far superior from an environmental perspective. However, the scope of FSC, SFI and PEFC does not cover all of the environmental impacts associated with paper. Essentially, these programs only focus on the source of the fiber used to produce the paper and address forest management issues such as land use, harvesting practices and social responsibility. While forest management is important, these programs do not address the environmental impacts of transportation and paper manufacturing or printing, which is their primary limitation. In addition, there are two weaknesses that create some uncertainty with respect to the fiber source in certified paper.

One source of uncertainty of forest certification programs is the “transfer” and “credit” system allowed by the standards. To increase the supply of “certified paper,” the CoC programs have developed a “credit” approach that allows a paper manufacturer to label paper as certified, even though not all of the fiber is actually certified.

Under the transfer and credit systems, the paper manufacturer only has to show that during the course of the year enough certified fiber was used in manufacturing paper to account for the entire labeled product made during the year. By using this approach, paper manufacturers can use certified and non-certified fiber in various ratios and allow for the use of the “mixed source” label (FSC) or “average percentage label” (SFI). The PEFC-certified label indicates the product contains at least 70 percent certified fiber.

Due to the ability to mix certified and controlled wood fibers in certified paper, printers and print customers are using paper that has an unknown amount of non-certified fiber. It is also essential to understand that, although paper is labeled as certified, it may not be made entirely of certified fiber. Under the current labeling approaches, the only paper that can be certain to be made from 100 percent certified fiber is paper labeled as “Pure.”

The other source of uncertainty is how they address recycled fiber. All of the CoC programs have a label that can be used on paper that contains recycled fiber. However, the source of the fiber that is mixed with the recycled fiber does not have to be known or traced. Omitting this information on the logo implies that the paper has been made exclusively from fiber whose source is well understood, which may not be the case.

These concerns do not mean that FSC, SFI, and PEFC are without value. These programs provide a structured system that defines a set of management practices designed to conserve a precious natural resource. However, it is important to understand these programs have limitations, and other options exist for print customers concerned with environmental issues.

Communicating the Message

Once a printer has made the commitment to use environmentally preferable paper, it is important to communicate that commitment correctly. Greenwashing is always a concern when marketing the positive environmental aspects of a product. One way to avoid greenwashing is to only use logos that have a clear meaning and do not overstate the environmental benefits of a product.

One of the most recognized logos is the “chasing arrow” recycling symbol. The American Forest & Paper Association has established guidelines for the use of the “chasing arrow” recycling symbol that can be used on printed products. The guidelines can be found at http://www.afandpa.org/PaperRecycling.aspx under the “Recycling Symbol Guidelines” link.

Another logo is the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP). Organizations that achieve SGP Certification can print the SGP logo on their customers’ products. The SGP logo is becoming more recognized, and in some instances, print customers are requiring the logo to be used on their products. More information is available at www.sgppartnership.org.

In order to provide customers with paper that will meet their environmental requirements, printing companies need to consider all aspects of the paper they are sourcing. Printers should take the time to learn about the types of environmentally preferable paper that exist and learn about fiber sourcing, recycling, chlorine use and other relevant issues. By creating and instituting a paper procurement policy, printers can show customers they understand the complex issues regarding the environmental impacts of paper and build credibility with environmentally conscious customers.

Excerpted from an article that first appeared in the July 2011 issue of Printing Industries of America The Magazine.