Paper and the Untold Sustainable Forestry Story

Ipaper sign

An op-ed from International Paper 

By Teri Shanahan Vice President, Sustainability, International Paper

Like most people on our planet, I care about forests. But until recently, I actually knew very little about forests other than how much I enjoy spending time in them. That all changed when I began this new role in sustainability in 2012. Since then, I’ve been researching to build my knowledge and engaged dozens of people in conversations to gain lots of different perspectives.

The biggest thing I’ve learned? The story of sustainable forestry has not been told, and so it is dreadfully misunderstood. When we tell this story, people are surprised or even shocked. So I want to share it here with you, too.

Let me start with some facts (from the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization or UN-FAO):

  • Forests cover about 30 percent of the Earth’s land, or about 10 billion acres
  • About half of all these forests are used to make products for people like fuel, building materials or paper and packaging

Here are two really critical things to know:

  • Only a tiny fraction – 0.64 percent – of the wood from those forests is harvested each year
  • And the amount of wood growing on these forested acres has remained steady for the past 20 years

How is this possible? Well, that’s the untold story of sustainable forestry.

A productive “working forest” creates value for people and for the environment. Unlike agricultural crops, a forest can be sustained infinitely through a cycle of planting, growing, harvesting and replanting forests – all while improving the surrounding soil and water quality.

The UN-FAO knows that few people understand this:

A significant challenge for the forestry profession is to communicate and demonstrate the simple idea that one of the best ways of saving a forest is to use it.”

I have come to realize it is a counterintuitive story:  harvest trees to save forests. So let me try to put that story in better context through some industry examples.

Over the last six years or so, production capacity of uncoated free sheet – that’s everyday printing and copy paper – has decreased by more than 4 million tons in North America. That’s a 30 percent drop in North American production capacity in just six years! As more people convert to electronic forms of communication, nearly every company in our industry has made the difficult decision to convert or shut down paper machines or entire paper mills.

Now, while studies have shown that people retain more information when read from a piece of paper, there is no arguing that electronic communications are often faster, easier and cheaper than paper-based communications. But messages like “go paperless, save a tree” or “think before you print,” certainly add fuel to the fire. And in almost every instance, the real motivation is not saving trees, but rather saving money – the cost of a few reams of paper or the postage to mail it.

So how does this impact the environment?  The 4 million tons of paper cut out from our industry required about 14 million tons of wood to be grown and harvested each year. Now, that wood – and the 14 million acres it grew upon – no longer have an economic reason to grow.

Since landowners in the affected wood baskets – the nearby acres that supply mills with wood – no longer have a customer to buy their product, all of those 14 million acres of trees are at risk of conversion to agriculture, strip malls, or some other way for those landowners to generate income.

Turning back to International Paper, many of our wood suppliers are families who have been selling to International Paper for decades.  They take pride in managing their land wisely, with both current economic gain and their great-grandchildren in mind. If you could have a chat with them, these landowners would tell you that if they can’t make money selling wood, they simply will find another use for their land.  And who can blame them?  Owning land and reinvesting in planting and maintaining forests takes time and money; it definitely isn’t free!

Our planet – and our business – needs the efforts of these tree farmers and the “working forests” they manage. In the U.S., a whopping 70 percent of forestland (500 million out of 750 million total forested acres) are “working forests” that rely on an economic driver for their existence. Putting that in perspective, 500 million acres is roughly the size of Alaska and California combined – and IP plays an important role in driving demand for that acreage. The fiber tonnage that we buy annually supports about 62 million acres of working forests – roughly the size of Michigan.

Now, you may be reading all of this and thinking, well sure, she would say this. After all, she works for a paper company! That’s why I offer data and opinions from third party experts, like this quote from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Countries with large, steady quantities of industrial wood use are more likely to maintain their forest base.”

Experts now agree that what pushes forests off the land are not forest products – and forest products instead help maintain forests around the globe. The real deforestation culprits are agriculture, mining and urban development.

I’m not claiming that every forest product manufacturer sources wood from well-managed, sustainable forests. But nearly all do. You might not have expected me to say that my competitors operate correctly, right? Well, it’s true – and I’m glad to report that!

At IP, our operations are global, and we buy 15 million tons of wood from outside the U.S. each year. In Brazil, where deforestation is a prevalent issue, all our wood is from company-owned, renewable hardwood plantations. These nurseries take pressure off native Brazilian tropical forests. In India, we are providing local farmers with tree seedlings; so far more than one billion seedlings have been distributed, supporting 40,000 tree-farming families – and introducing tree cover to a region in serious need of wood fiber. And in Russia, we source from government-owned and managed forestland.

When we buy wood, we also maximize its use. International Paper recycles, repurposes and collects more than 6 million tons of paper per year in the U.S. That makes IP one of the country’s largest recyclers, and the industry in total follows that trend. More than 90 percent of cardboard boxes are recycled yearly, according to industry data. That means paper is the most recycled product we humans use!

No matter your location on the globe, each of us can play a role in the sustainable forestry cycle. By using paper, recycling that paper, and choosing paper once again, you can play a part in preserving our planet’s forests.

So the next time someone says, think before you print – just tell them, you really have considered it, and you’re choosing paper.

[Image credit: International Paper]
Teri Shanahan is Vice President of Sustainability for International Paper, based in Memphis, Tenn. Her role was newly established early in 2012. Teri has been with International Paper since 1991 and has held positions in sales (Chicago, Newport Beach, and Memphis) and marketing (Memphis, the Netherlands) and business management (Memphis).

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4 responses

  1. Good points… but it’s really an awful lot more complicated that this. What exactly is the definition of “Forest” anyway? I completely agree that reducing the demand for paper might have the effect of encouraging certain landowners to sell to developers, but it’s certainly not the only reason, and I can’t believe it’s reason alone to go out and start printing my emails like crazy :-)

    There are may ways that folks can be encouraged not to cut down forests in developed countries – not the least of which is better valuation of the ecosystemic services that those forests provide.

    Still in terms of the US paper industry, I think you make valid points…

  2. Good points made, however, the international demand for wood products is still growing. Rather than worrying about too little demand we need to worry about too high demand, I think. Recycling rates are still comparatively low and sustainable forestry can be defined in many ways. From a wood production view point it’s easier to talk about sustainable forestry than from a multiple use view point that includes other ecosystem services, biodiversity or socioeconomic factors.
    Nevertheless, at the end of the day I agree that using the forest is a powerful tool to conserve it as long as it’s managed in a multiple-use sustainable way.

  3. The US with 5% of the planet’s population consumes a third of the paper produced thus the decline in uncoated free-sheet is a small down payment on the resource allocation necessary to achieve a sustainable consumption level. Paper pulp is an internationally traded commodity; there should be a market for all the sustainably harvested fiber for the foreseeable future/
    Aside from the container board 90% recycling rate, there is at least a third of paper consumed in the US that is not recycled and too much of what is reclaimed is included in single-stream recycling where it is typically down-graded to disposable paper instead of recycled into printing and writing grades that may be reclaimed up to a half dozen times.

  4. Although I am speaking for South Africa, I am sure my comments apply to other regions in the world and I hope will make people who read this ask their ‘sustainable’ forest industries some hard questions.
    South Africa has a low mean rainfall, so that most of our vegetation is non-woody. There are a few areas of natural forest, but most of the softwoods and hardwoods have long ago been cut out for commercial use. The timber industry in South Africa therefore consists of exotic forest tree species with much faster growth rates than indigenous species. Our current commercial species fall into three main genera, Eucalyptus, Acacia and Pinus, which are grown as artificial man-made even-aged monoculture forests. Being exotics, these are mostly highly invasive species and are extremely water loving, being grown on mountains where rainfall is higher.

    There are a number of problems, therefore, with the claim by the 2 dominant timber/paper companies in South Africa that they follow sustainable forestry practices.

    1. First is that in many places indigenous forest has been cut out to make way for these exotic monoculture plantations, which is by no stretch of the imagination sustainable and has been disastrous for the ancient remnant forest of the Knysna region.

    2. Second, these exotics are very thirsty, and it has been shown that they severely deplete the available water resources of the areas in which they are grown. This is not good news for an already water-stressed country and is not sustainable.

    3. Third, these exotics are highly invasive and spread for miles in every direction, up and over the surrounding mountain slopes,and down into river systems, unchecked. If left alone, they take hold and strangle out the indigenous vegetation, invading even the most difficult to reach places up mountain kloofs which makes them almost impossible to eradicate. Eradicating exotic alien vegetation has become one of the biggest environmental problems in this country, but the timber/paper companies seem to not be held accountable for monitoring and controlling the spread of their exotic trees and it then become the problem of the local municipality or private landowners to eradicate the invaders, at huge cost. My questions to the timber/paper companies are:
    If you are as sustainable as you say, surely your responsibility is to control the growth of these exotics so that they do not invade surrounding indigenous vegetation, water sources or other land? Or does your definition of sustainability apply only to the plot that you are growing your forest on – i.e. that you can regenerate another exotic forest to replace the one that has been harvested? Where is your social responsibility in ensuring that you leave no footprint on the surrounding countryside but that you improve it?

    Don’t let the paper/timber company spin doctors beguile with false advertising and make them accountable.

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