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The Reason 'Going Paperless' May Not Be the Greenest Option

By 3p Contributor



By Samantha St. Pierre

When people find out that I advise companies on responsible sourcing of forest products, most immediately light up with excitement to share how their workplace is "green."  Usually without fail, what makes these workplaces "green" are initiatives to go paperless. And we've all received emails that include a line at the bottom encouraging you to think before you print. These policies and initiatives are, of course, all grounded in the best of intentions. And I can agree, you should think before you print, but in a different way.

To understand why going paperless isn't always the best option, we must take a close look at the forestry industry. In this article, I will focus on the North American forest landscape. The important procurement regions of Brazil, Indonesia, Chile and others represent different realities.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, one of the most effective ways to protect forests is through responsible forest management; in other words, responsible and careful harvesting of trees to make forest products can serve conservation goals while contributing to a thriving local economy for forested regions. This is true for the forests that produce pulp for home and personal care products, like paper towels and tissues, as well as for timber products such as wood furniture.

The relationship between the forest products industry and forest conservation can get complicated, but there a few common-sense reasons that illustrate the link between healthy working forests, conservation, and the challenges of going paperless.

  1. Trees are a renewable resource: When forests are properly managed according to rigorous forest management principles, such as those established by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC®), periodic harvests help keep a forest ecosystem healthy. Responsible, planned harvests open the forest canopy so that younger trees can grow strong and healthy with better access to sunlight and rain. Periodic harvests can also reduce the risk and severity of large scale forest fires. From a practical perspective, forestry companies need forests to stay standing to stay in business, so it is in their interest to manage forestlands appropriately. Sustainable management has a lot of benefits, including the promise for the continued success of a centuries-old industry.

  2. A working forest is a valued forest: One of the biggest threats of deforestation in North America is urban development. Populations and cities continue to grow, and forests near these urban areas are at a high risk of being cleared to make way for the next suburb or shopping mall. However, if the forest is a working forest delivering economic value to the community, the risk of conversion for sub/urban development is much lower. Besides the benefit of providing jobs and contributing to the local economy, a working forest can also offer the added value of recreation for the community and visitors. As one example, old logging roads can be converted to recreational trails that provide an escape from the nearby hustle and bustle of the city.

  3. We're talking about your neighbors: The forestry and logging industry has been employing people within our communities for over a hundred years. From the landowner who relies on the income from the trees in their backyard to send their kids to college, to the logger who logs the land for their livelihood, to the woman working in HR at the local paper mill, to the owner of the general store in a rural logging town, the forestry industry touches peoples’ lives. Oftentimes, the jobs that the forestry industry provides are found in small, rural towns where the economic success of the town depends on the success of the local paper mill. Choosing to replace forest products with other materials or technologies can have a significant impact on these communities. Being from a small paper mill town in Northern Maine myself, I have seen this impact in real life.

Responsible forest use imbues our forests with economic value, recreational value, and helps move the needle on conservation. Paper products are one way to help keep forests standing.


But I'd like to come back to the point of thinking before you print. Not all paper is equal, and there are some bad actors in the forestry industry that are not managing this renewable resource in a renewable way. You need to be a discerning consumer, whether for business or personal purchasing. When selecting forest products, choose those that carry the FSC® label and be confident that the forest from which the product originated was managed in a responsible and renewable way.

Think also about those tissues on your desk and the paper towels you used to clean the microwave. These come from forests, too. Examine your purchasing choices, and trace it all back to the companies who are producing the things you use every day. Reward the companies who are contributing to healthy forests and a sustainable business model.

As with most things in life, the use of forest products is all about a healthy balance -- both in the forest and at your printer. So, if you really need to print that document, go ahead, but be sure to print it on FSC-certified paper and be part of the solution, not part of the problem, of a more sustainable forest products industry.

Samantha St. Pierre is a Manager of Markets Transformation at the Rainforest Alliance. Samantha is an expert in chain of custody certification and auditing, legality verification, policy setting, conducting supplier training and assessment, and corporate reporting. In her near-decade with the Rainforest Alliance, Samantha has conducted more than 100 chain of custody audits and brings over 7 years of experience in sustainable sourcing.

Image source: Adobe Stock 

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