Myth vs. reality: the debate about using recycled paper in catalogs
By Gabrielle Mosquera
Enough wood to make a 6-foot fence stretching across the United States seven times, or to make copy paper for 18.2 million people. That's how much the entire catalog industry could save if it used paper composed of just 10-percent postconsumer recycled content, according to experts.
A study by the Alliance for Environmental Innovation (the Alliance), a project of Environmental Defense, a nonprofit organization, revealed that despite such potential environmental savings, most catalogers instead print their pages on virgin (non-recycled) paper.
Several industry experts largely attribute catalogers' resistance to using recycled paper to concern about cost and possible decrease in sales. "It's not that [companies] don't care about the environment, but if something doesn't pay for itself, you just can't do it," says Kathy Johnston, creative services manager at consultancy J. Schmid and Associates.
However, proponents insist that catalogers can use recycled paper without hurting their bottom lines, brands or business overall. Here's a closer look at some of the issues surrounding the use of recycled paper.
Advocates trumpet its business advantages, in addition to its ethical ones. For example, catalogers whose products emphasize outdoor products, support for the environment, animal rights, recycled materials and/or organic materials can bolster their brand messages by using recycled paper. Marci Zaroff, president and founder of organic cotton apparel cataloger Under The Canopy, thinks her company's sales would actually decrease if she didn't use recycled paper.
But even companies that don't offer such items can benefit. Customers respond to companies that take social responsibility seriously, especially in this era of corporate scandal and growing consumer advocacy, says Victoria Mills, project manager at the Alliance. For example, a 2002 corporate citizenship study from strategy firm Cone discovered that 91 percent of Americans would consider switching brands if they were to learn of a company's negative corporate citizenship practices. Eighty-six percent agreed that companies should reveal the ways they support social issues.
Zaroff says the publicity from a pronounced shift to using recycled paper would benefit the catalog industry as a whole: "I think consumers are really turned off by the amount of catalogs they get and how much paper that's wasting. From a marketing standpoint, [using recycled paper is] good for everybody."
Myths and Realities
Some of the common arguments against using recycled paper (e.g., extra cost, less availability) may not necessarily be accurate.
Myth: Recycled paper is more expensive than virgin.
Reality: A study of paper vendors done by the Alliance in 2001 found that 16 North American paper suppliers offered recycled-content coated Web paper (in grades one through five) either at price parity with virgin or at a premium subject to negotiation.
Some catalogers and vendors acknowledge there's a slight difference between prices of virgin and recycled paper. But they say catalogers may be able to negotiate the price of recycled paper down to the same level as virgin paper. Mills says the negotiations may depend on a paper vendor's current supply of recycled stock.
Myth: Not enough paper vendors offer recycled paper.
Reality: According to the Alliance, 17 of North America's top 20 paper suppliers offer options containing at least 10-percent postconsumer recycled content. And the organization's Recycled Paper Capacity Study, released in October 2001, found most mills providing deinked pulp (the component that gives paper its "postconsumer" title) are operating at less-than-full capacity. On average, a deinking mill operates at 73-percent capacity.
Anecdotally, representatives from three catalog companies using recycled paper—Gaiam, Norm Thompson and Under The Canopy—said they found more than enough vendor options from which to choose.
Myth: Deinking causes its own pollution problems.
Reality: The process of deinking repulps (which turns paper from sheets into its original components of water and cellulose fibers), separates and removes ink and other contaminants from paper recovered through community recycling programs. A common argument claims that deinking yields toxic sludge that must be disposed of at hazardous waste sites.
Kim Hoffman, account manager at San Francisco-based recycled-paper provider New Leaf Paper, says this argument, though a favorite of recycled-paper opponents, is disingenuous. "Without using [recycled paper], that ink will go back into the paper, which would go back in the landfill," she says. "It's the difference between a one-way system and a closed-loop system."
Mills concurs, adding that on a life-cycle basis, recycled-paper production and recycling generates far less pollution and solid waste than virgin-paper production and disposal.
Myth: Paper mills' aggressive replanting procedures often replace four trees for every one cut down, so choosing recycled paper doesn't reduce the number of trees on the planet.
Reality: While this may be true, Mills says replanting trees is not the same as preserving natural forests, which is the real issue.
For example, in the U.S. South (where most trees used to make paper originate), the area of natural pine forests decreased by 52 percent from 1953 to 1999. Meanwhile, pine plantations increased 39.3 percent during the same period. Though pine plantations yield ample amounts of wood, they're not well-suited to provide wildlife habitat or preserve biodiversity.
Recycling paper extends the overall fiber supply and reduces the pressure to turn forests into tree farms. Additionally, it reduces pressure to destroy other, more endangered forests to meet paper industry demand, says Hoffman.
Myth: Recycled paper yields poor ink retention and color reproduction.
Reality: This idea surmises that because the ink retention in recycled paper doesn't match that of a virgin free sheet, catalogers may struggle to replicate product colors in print, which may lead to merchandise returns.
But in nine test mailings done during a year's time, multi-title mailer Norm Thompson showed only one variance between recycled and virgin paper—and it favored the recycled book!
Similarly, multi-title mailer Gaiam and apparel cataloger Under The Canopy—both of which use paper containing at least 10-percent postconsumer waste—report no customer complaints about color misrepresentation.
Though they appear to be in the minority right now, most recycled-paper advocates believe industry demand for this product will only grow in the future as more consumers request companies use it.
"Concern is growing, especially among the younger generation," says Hoffman. "The big question is whether catalogers will wait until consumers demand it, or if they'll act now."