WASHINGTON, Jun 19 2014 (IPS) — More than 120 environmental groups from across the globe have offered a comprehensive vision document on how to enact, strengthen and implement sustainability reforms across the paper sector.
Traditionally a key driver of deforestation, the paper industry has seen nascent though significant changes in recent years. Collaborations between activists, industry and government regulators have led to broadened consumer options as well as a series of sustainability practices and pledges unheard of a decade ago.
Yet watchdog groups worry that key policies and agreements aimed at strengthening such practices throughout the sector will be ineffective without coordinated action to ensure their robust implementation.
While the global paper industry has increasingly come under the scanner in recent years, the new set of principles offers the first comprehensive attempt to harmonise goals voiced by advocacy groups on six continents.
“We seek a world with new consumption patterns that meet the needs of all people while eliminating waste and over-consumption,” the Global Paper Vision, released Tuesday, states, “where paper production is less reliant on virgin fiber and not associated with loss of biodiversity or forests, maximises use of recycled materials, respects human rights including local people’s land rights, provides employment and has social impacts that are beneficial, conflict-free and fair.”
The full document is aimed at all parts of the paper lifecycle, addressing industry, investors, retailers, consumers, governments and civil society.
Its goals and roadmap cover responsible sourcing and clean production, as well as ways to reduce consumption and maximise the use of recycled content.
Organisers say they understand that such a broad set of goals brings about significant challenges. But given recent piecemeal advances around the world, they hope that a comprehensive civil-society vision can now harmonise watchdog activities and act as a springboard for discussion with industry and regulators.
“There is a new environmental literacy amongst consumers and new expectations of corporate responsibility, but there is also a tremendous amount of sometimes confusing environmental rhetoric from the companies,” Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), a U.S.-based umbrella group that spearheaded the vision document, told IPS.
“We wanted to lay out an authentic conservation message that sets a high bar and points to a place for us to strive for. There’s a lot of commitments and promises out there, and we wanted to show there’s a global, coordinated community committed to making the leadership practices of today into the standard practices of the future.”
500 million tonnes
Despite the rise of digital media over the past decade, the global paper industry remains a behemoth, responding to demand of some million tonnes of paper and related products every day.
That amounted to some 400 million tonnes of paper used every year in 2010, with half being consumed (and most quickly thrown away) in Europe and North America, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an EPN member. By 2020, the fund says, global demand will have increased to an estimated 500 million tonnes per year.
While efforts aimed at reducing consumption and strengthening recycling programmes have seen significant success in many parts of the world, demand is quickly rising in middle-income countries such as China. That rise has offset advances made elsewhere.
Indeed, even as paper consumption went down in most parts of the world over the past half-decade, China’s more than doubled. While North Americans in 2009 consumed more than 30 times the amount of paper than the average African, that same year China alone eclipsed all of North America, according to a 2011 report on the global industry from EPN.
And despite increases in efficiency and strengthened sourcing policies and environmental standards, producing 500 million tonnes of paper per year will inevitably continue to require significant water, energy and chemicals.
At the same time, recent years have also seen a string of important pledges from companies, likely propelled by strengthened consumer education on sustainability issues around paper, particularly on the sourcing side. Potentially one of the most significant of these came last year, when Asia Pulp & Paper, the largest producer in Indonesia and one of the largest in the world, announced a moratorium on all clearing of natural forests, among other reforms.
Canada, meanwhile, has temporarily halted logging in some 76 million hectares of public forestland, one of the largest conservation agreements in history, before pledging to switch to fully sustainable practices in the future.
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the area of forest certified standards, and today we have hundreds of [sustainable] paper products that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” EPN’s Martin says. “These are great opportunities to build on, but we really have to keep our eye on the ball and make sure this is still something people know is a global concern.”
He says the Global Paper Vision will now be put out as “an invitation to those companies that want to be leaders to partner with us on taking it forward.”
Crux of certification
Of all the issues touched upon in the vision document, forest certification will likely be a key focus. While several such schemes already exist, activists today see just one as being credible, overseen by a group based in the United States and Germany called the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
As of May, the council reports having certified nearly 185 million hectares of forestland in more than 80 countries, though North America and Europe make up more than 80 percent of this total. Still, the group says that FSC-certified paper has “exploded over the past few years, nearly becoming an industry standard”.
In an e-mail to IPS, the council’s U.S. president, Corey Brinkema, applauded EPN’s new vision document for “laying out a path forward that respects local communities, and balances environmental and social values with society’s need for pulp and paper.”
Brinkema said the FSC looked forward to “working with the signatories to help turn the Global Paper Vision into a reality for the world’s forests and for the current and future generations who rely on them.”
Other parts of the industry have been more circumspect in their immediate reaction to the EPN goals.
“We are committed to maintaining an open dialogue with interested stakeholders on ways to promote a sustainable future for the paper industry,” Cathy Foley, group vice president at the American Forest & Paper Association, a trade group, told IPS in a statement.
AF&PA members are “committed to continuous improvement in sustainability performance” through an industry initiative, Foley noted, with members reporting on related progress every two years.