In part because technology has made transportation easier and cheaper, supply chains have been globalized: products that would have been made by one person or in one factory or in one city are now assembled in multiple countries. These products are sold in markets that might be hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from the person that produced them, meaning that we lack a direct link to the producer and may even lack any knowledge of where the producer is located, his working conditions and lifestyle, the materials that have been used and the methods of extraction. This makes ethical consumption extremely difficult: there’s just too much to think about most of the time, and too little information available.
It isn’t that consumers don’t care about acting ethically. There is evidence that most people do want to buy socially and environmentally responsible products. For example, a 2014 poll surveyed 30 000 consumers in sixty countries, finding that 55% of global consumers are willing to pay more for socially responsible products. But it isn’t always – or even often – easy to tell which choices that implies in practice. I’ve always found that frustrating.
I am starting Pullback as a small way to combat this problem. As a broader aspiration, I am working on building a tool that will help consumers to get information on easy changes they can make to better match their purchases with their specific values. I’m setting up this blog as a part of that effort. For now, I’ll be spotlighting a common consumption item every week and ‘pulling back’ the product messaging by researching available evidence and expertise and offering practical advice. My aim is to provide easy to understand information (backed by facts) that will help you to make everyday choices that accord with the ethical priorities that are most important to you.
As a teaser, this week I want to talk about paper.
The Issue: Deforestation is a big problem, driven by paper made from unsustainably managed forests.
Advice: Experts generally agree that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme is the eco-label with the most stringent standards and most robust certification procedures. So, check for an FSC label. There are 3 different FSC labels you might come across: FSC 100%, FSC MIX, and FSC Recycled. These are all responsible choices, but the FSC MIX and FSC Recycled labels are an even better choice because they include recycled materials. By buying FSC-certified, you can ensure that your paper has been extracted from forests that are managed in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Remember, though, that paper is still energy-intensive to produce. Consider using less paper, where possible, and always recycle. Going paperless, where you can, is a good way to reduce your environmental footprint. Check out these sources for tips on going paperless at home and in the office.
PAPER AND DEFORESTATION
Paper: it’s boring, but we use it all the time. Paper was invented in China around 200 BCE and since that time has become ubiquitous. And even though communications technology allows us to do a lot of things online for which we would have used paper, there is no sign that we are set to become a paperless society. Amid the digital revolution of the last twenty years, consumption of paper products has actually increased 126%.
Our increased use of paper has contributed to the dramatic deforestation rate. Forests, which currently cover a little under a third of all land on Earth, are integral to sustaining human lives. In addition to helping us breathe, forests store carbon and clean the air, support 80% of biodiversity on land, influence regional weather patterns to promote rainfall, reduce soil erosion/pollution and flooding, protect downstream ecosystems, refill aquafilters, and block wind, among many other benefits.
Deforestation has been and continues to be one of the most pressing environmental challenges. Over the past half century, about half of the world’s original forest cover has already been lost. Each year, we lose another estimated 18 million acres of forest – an area that is roughly the same size as Panama.
The paper making process generally includes the following steps: logging, de-barking and chipping, pulping, cleaning, paper making, and finishing. Check out this video for more detail on the paper making process. Today, I’m focusing on the first of these steps and the sustainable management of forests. However, as with any consumer product, there are other moral issues arising from each production step that are worth considering. For example, manufacturing pulp and paper takes a substantial amount of water and is energy intensive. Although pulp and paper workers are unionized in Canada, labour practices can be a concern in some cases.
FOREST CERTIFICATION: HOW IT WORKS
Forest certification was first introduced in the late 1980s but continues to evolve. All forest certification programs consist of three elements:
- Forest certification: the evaluation of forest operations against predetermined criteria;
- Chain-of-custody: a system for addressing the origin of raw materials; and
- Eco-labels: labels that appear on products.
Today, three prominent eco-labels compete with one another in North American and European consumer markets: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) – which in Canada is instantiated as Canada’s National Sustainable Forest Management Standard (CSA).
It can be difficult to assess the comparative effectiveness of different certification schemes (academics are struggling with this), but there is a general consensus that the FSC eco-label is the best, because it has the most stringent standards, the most robust assessment mechanisms, and because companies have been banned from using the eco-label for failing to live up to FSC standards.
THE THREE MAIN ECO-LABELS
1. Forest Stewardship Council: FSC, which was spearheaded by World Wildlife Fund, was founded in 1993. Since that time, it has grown substantially: the total area of FSC certified forests, as of 2013, was 180 538 563 ha, with a rate of growth of 7%. Europe and North America continue to dominate FSC sustainable forest management and chain of custody certificates – although Chile, India, Thailand, Turkey, Romania and Vietnam have all seen substantial increases in FSC certified forest area. As of November 2014, FSC certification accounted for 39% of total certified areas in North America, 45% in Europe, 7% in South America and the Caribbean, 3% in Africa, 1% in Oceania and 5% in Asia. FSC is often seen as the most stringent forest certification program. It has in some instances banned companies from using the FSC trademark following complaints by advocacy NGOs, although its complaint procedure has been the subject of criticism. Notably, however, FSC has been opposed by some environmental groups that view it as too business-friendly.
2. Sustainable Forestry Initiative: created in the U.S. in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association (the national trade association for the industry) as a response to the FSC, SFI originally emphasized organizational procedures and flexible, discretionary performance guidelines and requirements. As SFI competed with FSC for legitimacy, it developed a process by which companies could choose to be audited by an outside party to assess their compliance with the SFI standard. This means that SFI program participants can now choose to verify SFI compliance on their own, using a second-party verifier (another firm or trade association), or through an independent third-party auditor. Participants that want to use the SFI eco-label must be third-party certified. As of 2003, about half of SFI participants were third-party certified.
3. Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC was created in 1999. It is a framework for the mutual recognition of different national or regional sustainable forest management schemes, which means it operates as an umbrella organization for different national standards. PEFC is a membership organization consisting of national organizations representing national forest certification schemes. Program participants use a common eco-label, but national accreditation bodies accredit certification bodies, which then certify forests.
In Canada, the PEFC-endorsed certification standard is Canada’s National Sustainable Forest Management Standard. It is referred to as ‘CSA’ (because it was established by the Canadian Standards Association) or the CAN/CSA Z809 standard. Over 60 million hectares of Canadian forest were third-party certified to the CSA as of 2011. To be certified, a third party independent auditor must verify that 17 critical elements are met.
 Nielson. (17 June 2014). Global Consumers are Willing to Put their Money where their Heart is when it Comes to Goods and Services from Companies Committed to Social Responsibility. Nielson Marketing Institute. Online at http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2014/global-consumers-are-willing-to-put-their-money-where-their-heart-is.html
 Auld, G. & Cashore, B. (2012). The Forest Stewardship Council. In Reed, D., Utting, P. & Mukherjee-Reed. (eds.) Business Regulation and Non-State Actors: Whose Standards? Whose Development? Routledge.
 FSC. (2013). FSC Market Info Pack
 Rainforest Action Network. (13 August 2013). NGOs Welcome the Forest Stewardship Council Decision to Cut Ties with Companies Linked to Indonesia Pulp Giant APRIL.
 FSC Watch. (2008). Another NGO Quits FSC in Protest Against NORFOR Plantations.
 Cashore, B., Auld, G. & Newsom, D. (2003). The United States’ Race to Certify Sustainable Forestry: Non-State Environmental Governance and the Competition for Policy-Making Authority. Business and Politics 5(3), 219 at p.224
 Anderson, C. & Hansen, E. (n.d.). Forest Certification: Understanding Ecolabel Usage Requirements. Oregon State University Wood Science & Engineering.