Sustainability, Schmastainability

It’s been a long time since I’ve worked in print, so I don’t often think about the wonderful world of paper. As a print designer working in a design studio, you tend to think a lot about the stuff; what paper to run a job on, what it costs, who stocks it, where it comes from, etc. To be honest, it bored the living heck out of me; there were few things that I found more tiresome than rifling through an endless and disorderly stack of paper samples, each one obtusely named in a vain attempt to differentiate white from, um, really white.

I almost never think about paper companies, either. Until I got heavily involved with AIGA again, I had almost forgotten about their enormous influence in the design community. And their deep, deep pockets. In spite of the portents of doom for printed matter, paper companies continue to spend freely to promote their wares, or at least that’s my outsider’s impression.

Don’t Worry, Chopping Down These Trees Is Environmentally Friendly

Below: Posterization. Details of three beautiful StoraEnso promotional posters.

Which made this paper promotion that I received in the mail today seem all the more absurd. It’s from the “integrated forest products” company StoraEnso, and it features three really beautifully designed posters by Marian Bantjes, Christoph Niemann and Paula Scher, all impeccably ‘curated’ by Bill Drenttell and Jessica Helfand at Winterhouse. The ostensible subject of the promotion is the concept of sustainability in paper goods — all three posters are in fact illustrations of the word ‘sustainability’ — but its real purpose is to explain to its audience why this particular company’s paper goods are environmentally responsible.

StoraEnso Sustainability Posters

I recognize StoraEnso’s right as a company to try and reassure customers that they’re thinking about green matters; in fact, I applaud the sentiment. But I find the whole promotion a little off-putting. There’s something ironic — and perhaps, not altogether serious — about going through the expense and waste of printing a promotion in order to get the word out on this particular subject. I’m not altogether unsympathetic to the paper industry here, either; they’re in a position where the responsible message would be to discourage using their products, which is not exactly a sensical business proposition. Still, I feel like it would have been a damn sight greener and more sustainable if they’d just sent me an email instead.

Mail Order Pride

On a related note, here’s my favorite way of doing my little part to improve our environmental situation: for the past year or so, I’ve been faithfully canceling the multitude of useless, wasteful mail order catalogs that get sent to me.

I had never really thought that there was something one could do about receiving all this paper waste in the mail every week. But a friend advised me that the toll-free numbers that most mail order companies provide in their catalogs also happen to be hotlines to operators who will help you cancel your subscriptions immediately. Just dial the number, politely ask to be removed from the mailing list and when asked give the operator the customer code printed near the mailing label (usually on the back page) and the catalogs will stop coming. It’s immensely satisfying, especially when, in a month or two, you start to see a dramatic decrease in junk mail arriving in your postal box.

They should have printed that advice on a poster, really.

  1. If every bank and phone company stopped sending multi-page accounts to their tens of millions of customers and offered the option of online/pdf statements that would count for something too.

  2. We keep getting company-wide desk-drops of leaflets highlighting new environmental policies – always with “printed on recycled paper” written on the bottom – and then the self-same thing sent as a pdf. Why?

    The other thing that works surprisingly well when you move into a new house and keep getting the previous owner’s junk mail is to return to sender with “no longer at this address” on it. In fact, that would probably work even if you haven’t just moved…

  3. I am also not enamored by the print design realm. However, towards the end of last year I had to work on some print collateral for the company I worked for.

    I contacted several paper merchants who supplied copious amounts of funnily named paper samples, which I’m told helps add character.

    Reading product literature and doing some research myself, I found it possible to make an informed environmentally responsible decision as to what kind of paper I chose.

    There are three main parts to this:

    1. As you alluded to in your article, choose paper from a Sustainable forest. In Scotland, we have many of these types of forests which are ‘farmed’ much like shifting cultivation.

    2. Use paper, mills and merchants that are accredited by the international body, The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

    3. Use recycled paper types, especially ones with Post Consumer Waste (PCW). It is possible to find 100% recycled paper that is as white as you would expect from virgin fiber paper. It is also possible to use paper from Mixed Source e.g. 80% recycled PCW + 20% Virgin fiber.

    There are additional environmental issues relating to the printer you use. For example, try and source a printer who uses Vegetable Oil based Inks rather than Petroleum based.

    You could look at all of this a little deeper and question whether using recycled materials relies on using more fossil fuels, and there by negating any positive impact. While I can’t prove or disprove that, I think it is important that we look to reduce, reuse and recycle where possible.

    While, I also see the irony of the promotion, (making some assumptions) I feel it is both valid and correct for a paper manufacturer to promote its recycled, FSC paper. Ultimately this promotion can and should be fed back into the recycling loop anyway.

  4. @ Marty: I’m surprised that we still have any financial paper trail at all. (Well, not really surprised.) I think receipts (i.e., from ATMs and grocery stores) are such a huge waste of paper; I know I’m not the only one who almost always throws them away. I wish there was an option not to receive one _everywhere_.

  5. 🙁

    Can’t find a full picture of those anywhere. I guess the one on the right is from Bantjes. Scher did the middle one?

  6. OK, I appreciate your point, but, um, you work for the New York Times. Short-run posters and flyers ain’t got nuttin’ on people who buy their paper by the freighter-load. I’m just sayin’…

  7. Not for nothing, but the bulk of papers made today come from sustainable, responsible forestation and are made with a decent-sized amount of post-consumer paper. So really, I don’t have a probem at all with using print material to promote this, if the material actually uses sustainable paper products and inks.

    The issue I have is when something says “recycled paper” on it and the paper is a tree-hugging shade of brown, people assume that’s a good thing. Truth be told, ALL paper is recycled by industry definition: any excess from any step of the process is recirculated to the beginning of the process so there is little to no waste, to increase profits. It has nothing to do with responsibility in this case, just giving people warm-and-fuzzies. The thing to look for is post-consumer waste content, what people think of when they see “recycled paper”.

    Marty and Matt hit it right on the head where to start scaling back.

  8. You can also unsubscribe from many catalogs online, either through the customer service portion of the company’s website, or by sending an email to their customer support address. This is usually quicker than a phone call. I was able to unsubscribe from about 20 catalogs in a matter of minutes this way, and my mailbox has been thanking me ever since.

  9. As much as pretty much everybody(including myself) questions the whole “print is dying” idea, I wonder if the paper industry is in a bit of a defensive stance anyway.

    I recently got a promo from Domtar entitled “Why Paper” that consisted of four small books with all sorts of inserts, die cuts and tear outs in an elaborate cardstock fold-out slipcase thing, each on a different theme:

    • Inspires: “We’ll never escape the lure of the blank page.” Okay.
    • Protects: “Digital media have given rise to an alarming assortment of electronic hazards.” …which is why you make backups. Just like you back up your books, right?
    • Works: “Even in an age of electronics, paper is a natural.” Huh?
    • Sustains: You can figure this one out.

    Also a one-page insert, presumably on the assumption nobody was going to go through the four books. It was all a little “Methinks the lady doth protest,” really.

  10. Speaking of green… I work at a Starbucks, and we go through a LOT of paper cups. Please, bring your own mug and stop using our napkins. What’s wrong with your sleeves anyway? 😉

  11. @ Sean Flanigan: Could you point me somewhere with more information regarding the “sustainable forestation” you mentioned? Google isn’t returning anything useful immediately, and I’m a little skeptical that the bulk of paper is the product of sustainable practices. (Calling it “forestation” sounds euphemistic — isn’t deforestation what makes paper?) Is it na№ve to assume trees just don’t grow fast enough to sustain the way wood is currently harvested?

    @ Dan: I’m talking about personal, incidental transactions that don’t appear on my tax return at all — ATM receipts and a one-line receipt for a few bananas at the grocery store, for example. Most of the receipts I throw away are for transactions whose records are automatically duplicated in my online banking software anyway, because I’m using my debit or credit card most of the time. If there were a way to set my preferences for receipts on ATMs just as there is for my default language, or at least the option to forgo receipts at ATMs on an individual basis, I think it would be a step in the right direction.

  12. Matt,

    You should voice your desires regarding ATM slips to your bank. I’m with PC Financial in Canada, and the ATM always asks me whether I’d like a printed receipt – so it is possible.


  13. I would have loved to Quickpost this post at AIGA/LA, but I’ve been banned for my recent QBN review, but perhaps you can accomplish in NYC with AIGA National what I failed to make happen in LA:

    I lobbied parties unnamed in the local chapter to allow me to persue the development of a technical solution that would allow members to *unsubscribe* to ALL print mailings from the AIGA. I already get email blasts, and when all 4 AIGA members in-house at our LA office started getting the same posters stuffed in our small mailbox it was the last straw. The fact that the org touts their Carbon reduction while refusing to allow members to voluntarily not receive their reams of [junk] mail was one of the last straws that prompted me to resign from the LA chapter. The reality seems to be that the organization is still so tied to print designers (who just love making posters) and paper companies (that need to promote their paper lines) that change will be very slow indeed — unfortunately, and ridiculously.

  14. poomoo: Thanks for the links! I didn’t even know the FSC existed, but coincidentally, after reading your comment, I opened a newsletter that came in the mail and found the “100% Recycled” FSC stamp right on the inside cover. An investigation of a few other publications around the apartment revealed the seal hiding in other places, too. I’m glad this is going strong, thank you for addressing something I was ignorant about before.

    Khoi, it seems Stora Enso holds a number of forestry certifications. Is there an FSC logo (or that of another company) anywhere on the posters or the accompanying material?

    (Of course, I’m not taking the existence of these bodies and their certifications as incontrovertible proof that it is, in fact, sustainable, but the outlook seems better than I had previously thought. The FSC does have Jared Diamond’s endorsement.)

    Christine: Good idea. I’ll certainly look into that; my experience with my bank here has been great so far. Too bad the preference is ATM- or bank-specific and not customer-specific, though. I would love to have that information embedded in the account information each ATM accesses. I suppose there’s a lot of room for improvement with ATMs in general.

  15. Let’s add a bit of perspective here. Computers, and internet, are all but ecological either. They consume shit-load of electricity, and the parts cables, computers and servers are made of are often environmentaly unfriendly and unrecyclable.

    And yes, cutting trees and replanting them is often rather good for our environment, if well managed. The biggest poluter in print is ink, actually. And varnish.

    What has been troubling me lately is the excessive ease of print – and email spam. It’s not just an environmental worry, it’s more a “leave my mind alone / unclutter my world” question. Print should cost three times as much. Emails should have a price too. The amount of useless messages we are being tounted with daily is just ridiculous. Printing a flyer or a folder has become more of a reflex than a considered action. Television used to be spared of this fenomena until lately over here – the hight cost imposed more consideration to it. Ads were done by talented people. Looks like that’s slowly coming to an end too.

    Typical conversation with a client :

    – so; how many posters do we print ? 2000 ?
    – how many does that cost ?
    – …
    – oh, that’s it? Make it 4000.

    Or :

    – so, what was the return on that email campaign?
    – 8 % clicked a link, 4 unsuscribed
    – mmh, we’ll send another one next week.

  16. Hey, Khoi,
    In addition to canceling subscriptions yourself, you might try out GreenDimes. I like them very much, and they catch a bunch of mail-order catalogs I would receive when current retailers sell my address. My incoming junk mail has decreased significantly, in addition to my own cancellation efforts.

  17. But in a managed forest, trees are crops, planted, grown, and harvested with the same kind of forethought and investment that one sees on a farm growing corn or tomatoes – only the cycle takes much longer.

    One can always pin hopes on cotton, kenaf, so on.

    Some fiber comes from wilder forests, of course, or even old growth. I suspect that the real environmental effects of paper production come from the energy inputs at paper mills, and from the energy used to transport materials around the world.

    But as others have pointed out, the electronic world is hardly free of its environmental costs. A 2006 Wired article notes that “the planetary machine is on track to be consuming half of all the world’s output of electricity by the end of this decade.”

    Actually, I’m not sure how much energy costs paper has. After all, a paper mill draws a large portion of its power from biofuels – from waste wood products – not from fossil fuels.

  18. I have a big sign on my mailbox that says “No Junk Mail Please” – it doesn’t get my name off any mailing lists, but it does keep all that ‘unadressed ad-mail’ crap out – ie, the supermarket and tire flyers. It makes a huge difference.

    I think hemp was probably the best & most economical alternative to paper, if it was easy to legally grow. There’s a conspiracy theory that, way back in the early 20th century, the forestry industry helped demonize marijuana so that hemp products were severely handicapped and knocked out of competition with trees…

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.