Certified Wood Tops the List for International Paper’s 2013 Sustainability Report

IP_sustainability_2013_USFSBeing ahead of the sustainability curve isn’t unusual for International Paper (IP). Over the last few years, the company has proven that sustainability goals are just markers to be surpassed.  This year, with the release of the 2013 IP sustainability report, the company proved yet again that environmental stewardship is possible in the forestry sector and, in fact, is really what sustains business success. And it’s proved that all stakeholders, including consumers, play a direct role in creating that success.

In 2012, IP’s company goals included increasing its certified fiber content by 2020. Fifteen percent certified fiber was a reasonable target for the 70,000-employee company that maintains operations on five continents, but as Teri Shanahan, IP’s vice president of sustainability, pointed out: Reaching that goal seven years early and exceeding it by more than 5 percent reflects IP’s historic focus on sustainable forestry practices.

“We’ve been working on wood fiber certification for about 20 years. So it isn’t a new concept for us,” said Shanahan, who noted that of the 71 million tons of wood IP it buys, a lot of it comes from the U.S., where it has invested significant resources into the certified wood market.

“[The] wood that we buy supports the existence of 21 million acres of forest in the U.S. So our wood comes from well managed, healthy forests that are going to remain forests as long as there is an economic use for those forests.”

Having increased their certified wood content by 22 percent since 2010, IP reset its 2020 goals to 35 percent this year. While those markers are inspired by an increased global recognition that sustainable forests are worth supporting, said Shanahan, “It’s still completely voluntary.” IP recognizes that customers feel they gain value when they realize that purchasing sustainably grown wood helps ensure that the “landowner is replanting wood on that acre and [they are] helping to keep that acre of forest harvested.”

IP also made significant gains with regards to air emission reductions in 2013–not only meeting its 2020 goals, but exceeding them by 4 percent.

And in 2013 it notched up the register regarding goals that were either set for 2020, or were initial steps to broader initiatives:

  • Greenhouse emissions: It met 5.8 percent of the 20 percent goal for 2020.
  • Waste reduction: It developed new strategies to implement in reducing waste.
  • LIFE Events: A 21 percent reduction life-changing injury and fatality elimination (LIFE) events since 2010.

Public perception and the role of consumers

Interestingly, Shanahan noted public perception about the forestry sector as one of the company’s greatest challenges these days. It’s not surprising, she said, that consumers often have the impression that if they stop using paper and work even harder to eliminate their dependence on wood products, they’ll save a tree and improve the sustainability of world forest regions. This challenge has helped IP realize that even though it is primarily a B2B (business to business) company, consumer misunderstandings directly affect their sustainability efforts.

“And I think we’re beginning to understand how that lack of information has invited people to … come to exactly the wrong conclusion about our business, which is: ‘Oh darn, when I’m using this piece of paper, that means somebody had to go destroy a tree in a forest, and so that is a bad thing to do.’ And we really need to help people understand that sustainable forestry means they are keeping the land and forests for a long, long period of time–hopefully indefinitely. When managed properly, there’s no reason that can’t happen forever.”

To aid in this process, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the support of private industry, will be implementing a new Commodity Check Off program to help educate consumers about the value of forestry products. Shanahan likened it to the ‘Got Milk?’ program that educated the public about the value of the dairy industry.

Shanahan said another public misnomer is the concept that electronic debit programs like Pay It Green actually preserve the forests by decreasing dependence on paper products. The logic sounds reasonable, she says, until you consider that forests these days are often replanted via the revenues that are made from market-based products like paper and wood fiber.

“When a paper mill no longer has demand–such as has been the case here in the U.S. where the use of paper is declining because of this electronic substitution–when that happens, that paper mill no longer needs to buy wood. And so the mill closes down and people lose their jobs, which is bad enough, but on top of that, the landowners no longer have anybody to sell their wood to.  And so the wood that used to supply that paper mill now doesn’t have a market. And that means that those acres of forest are very likely to be converted to a non-forest use.”

Therefore, increasing the public’s understanding of the consumer’s role in ensuring sustainability in forest initiatives, the impact on the recycling potential that bleach has in paper production, or what happens to paper when it’s added to landfill, for example, is critical to ensuring that forests remain vibrant and properly managed.

But it isn’t always easy. “[If] you’re asking people what they care about as it pertains to the environment, this one is be pretty low on a list of priorities,” said Shanahan. Where forest sustainability does seem to count is in the B2B relationship with those who purchase and use IP’s products, and that’s been invaluable in helping customers to understand why they need to support informed choices about properly managed forests.

IP’s many goals this past year also count indirectly toward increasing the public’s understanding of its role in ensuring that global forests are used properly. Employee educational programs like its First Line Leadership program, which helps educate new leaders about the rising demand for sustainable management practices, and the efforts that IP invests in global business organizations around the world Shanahan said, are all ongoing tools to ensuring that forests stay sustainable and stakeholders – including consumers – recognize the value of that investment.

Image courtesy of International Paper

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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