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How Partnerships Boost Sustainable Paper Pulp Supply

By Nithin Coca

As sustainability enters the mainstream, demand for sustainable paper pulp, fiber and wood is growing fast. And companies like Procter and Gamble (P&G), Home Depot, International Paper, and others have made strong public commitments to source sustainable forest products.

While many hoped that such a shift would pay dividends for the world’s forests, a surprising challenge is emerging. Deforestation is continuing, nearly unabated, and there aren’t enough sustainable forests to meet this new demand for ethical pulp.

The key to better use of forest resources is transparency. That is why the companies mentioned above have pledged to meet their pulp and fiber needs from sources that adhere to what many consider the gold standard for certifying sustainable wood products: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

But merely being a member is not enough. To truly move toward sustainable forestry, companies must invest time to understand their supply chain and work within every level – otherwise, there will never be enough sustainable wood, fiber and pulp to go around.

“Companies have to play a leading role in both boosting demand and supply of FSC products,” Corey Brinkema, president of FSC’s United States office, told TriplePundit. “They go hand in hand.”

FSC was founded after the historic 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the world recognized the challenge of climate change and the need to protect our forests. For more than two decades, this third-party certifier worked with companies, consumers and suppliers to ensure the growth of sustainably-managed forests around the world. FSC’s rigorous standards mean that getting certification is not easy, but that the label -- unlike other schemes -- means something.

The flip side of such high standards is that getting certified can be a challenge. That is where companies have to play a more active role if they really want to source more sustainable raw materials for their products.

“Direct relationships are vital,” Brinkema told us. “Through FSC certification, we’re reconnecting producers with their raw material supplies.”

That means knowing the land where trees are grown for paper pulp. Most consumer brands are often four or five steps away from this source. And, until recently, few had any relationship with those growing trees. But the rising demand for sustainable feedstocks is changing that.

FSC plays the role of an intermediary, connecting big companies directly with the small and sometimes family-run farms that are the source of their wood.

“Unless the land owners have a very clear and obvious signal that these forest practices are important to [companies], they just don’t see the need to improve practices or seek certification,” Brinkema explained. It makes sense: Unless farmers know buyers want a more sustainable product, they will remain unwilling to spend more money to change their practices. “It’s a challenge ... to convince suppliers that it's worth meeting those standards."

For P&G’s partner, Domtar, this meant meeting with the small- and medium-scale land owners who produced its wood, and working with FSC to bring other land owners into the fold.

“It’s important for P&G and Domtar to bring in a diversity of land owners,” Brinkema said. The paper company Domtar and P&G, which mostly uses paper to packages its consumer goods, have partnered for years on a steadier sustainable paper supply. “Every one of those [participating suppliers] allows [P&G and Domtar] to produce more FSC-certified products.”

Big companies like P&G and Domtar can help small-scale farmers to participate in a group certification scheme like FSC, while few of these farmers could afford such measures on their own. In just one year, Domtar was able to bring in 400,000 new acres of land under FSC certification. This means more sustainable wood for its yards, and brings partners such as P&G one step closer to their lofty sustainability goals.

“We’ve been really surprised at how important, and how impactful, bringing all these actors together is,” Brinkema told 3p.

Creating a truly sustainable forest supply chain requires actions from all sectors. Groups like FSC are doing their part to increase sustainability and improve consumer confidence. But more companies need to work across their supply chains to increase the capacity of suppliers to produce sustainable pulp, paper and wood.

The final piece is, of course, consumers. FSC is still not well known outside of those who care deeply about global forest issues or the environment. That does not mean consumers do not care about sustainability in the forestry sector, but that FSC and its partners must educate consumers on what certified, transparent supply chains really look like.

“It’s really important that . . . brands begin to associate themselves with that responsible supply chain they’ve developed,” Brinkema explained. “Labeling alone is not enough.”

That’s why FSC recently launched a new digital campaign called One Simple Action that shows consumers just how big of a difference buying certified products can make.

Consumers need to reward companies that make the decision to go sustainable. Look for the FSC logo the next time you go shopping, and do your part to increase demand for sustainable forest products. Only then can we transform this supply chain and end illegal, costly deforestation around the world.

Image credit: Soil-Science.info via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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