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Greener papers: Ex-lobbyist makes it a mission

A former timber industry lobbyist has started a company that brings together corporate users of paper and activists, looking at the economics of being more resourceful with trees.
David Ford, CEO of the nonprofit organization metaFore, poses on the roof of his office in Portland, Ore., holding a gift sapling presented to the 400 representatives attending a recent metaFore Forest Leadership Forum.Rick Bowmer / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

David Ford was on his way to becoming a top timber industry lobbyist when he decided he’d had enough of the fighting that erupted in the 1990s over forests and the northern spotted owl.

He now heads a nonprofit called metaFore, which evolved from promoting sales of wood products from forests certified as environmentally sustainable to helping Fortune 500 companies green up their paper supplies.

“Some of my colleagues in the forest products associations said, ‘You’ve gone to the dark side, David,”’ Ford said. “I learned that the conflict wasn’t getting us where we wanted to be.”

Improving their public image and their bottom line, major corporations are moving from using less paper to demanding the paper they use comes from environmentally sustainable sources, and letting stockholders and customers know they are doing it.

This month the metaFore Forest Leadership Forum drew 400 representatives of corporations like Bank of America, Starbucks, Nike, Staples and Time Inc. to talk paper with environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Forest Ethics and the Dogwood Alliance.

“Climate change is becoming THE issue,” said David Refkin, director of sustainability for Time, the world’s largest magazine publisher and largest direct buyer of coated paper in the United States. “Increasingly, businesses will look to do business with businesses that are leaders in sustainability.”

Aaron Sanger, corporate program director of Forest Ethics, which keeps a “naughty and nice” list on catalog merchandisers, sees the marketplace producing faster results than the old venues of courts, Congress and campaigns.

“I never thought our group would end up working with big companies to help them sell paper products,” said Sanger. “We are realizing that if good products don’t make money, then we don’t win.”

Green or greenwash?
Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School, said the question arises whether corporations embracing sustainability is “really true or is it greenwash.

“I tend to think a lot of it is real,” he said from Vermont. “You have to look hard at performance, at actions, and penetrate the nice-sounding expressions of sustainability. That’s a very opaque term. You have to get to the bottom of what people are doing.”

To that end, Time Inc. publishes an annual sustainability report that lists its paper suppliers and printers. It also plans to switch from using its own questionnaires to rank paper suppliers to using the Environmental Paper Assessment Tool, a computer database that metaFore is rolling out later this year.

The assessment tool was developed by a working group that metaFore put together three years ago with representatives from Bank of America, Nike, Cenveo, Norm Thompson Outfitters, Hewlett-Packard, Staples, Kinko’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Time Inc. and Toyota.

It considers 30 factors, including labor practices, air and water emissions of mills, recycled content, and whether virgin pulp comes from forests certified as sustainable.

Sanger is not happy that it cannot yet identify pulp coming from forests identified as endangered, but Ford said metaFore is working on it.

With the United States using 100 million tons of paper a year, every business is in the forest business, whether it is Toyota packaging auto parts, or Starbucks pouring coffee, said Ford.

“We really want to use this as a methodology to transform the market,” Ford said.

Retailers signing up to use it include Wal-Mart, L.L. Bean, and Lands’ End, Ford said. Paper producers Weyerhaeuser Co., Louisiana-Pacific Corp., and Kruger Inc. are taking part.

Bank of America has been greening up its paper chain since 1991, when it started looking for paper with more recycled fiber, said Kaj Jensen, vice president for public policy. It has boosted recycled content to 70 percent, and reduced internal paper use by 32 percent, and hopes to do better with electronic bank statements, which already go to more than 1 million customers.

“It’s driven by the economics of it and the pursuit of our environmental principles,” said Robert Kee, senior vice president for document management for Bank of America, which has committed to using the new assessment tool. “Our shareholders value the reduction of expense. Our consumers seem very receptive to the environmental aspect.”

Economics of environmental actions
Time Inc. — which buys 600,000 tons of paper a year from the United States, Canada, Finland, Scotland and Russia — was buying 25 percent of its paper from certified sustainable sources in 2002 and hopes to hit 80 percent this year, said Refkin.

“What you’ve seen in the last year or two is more and more leadership companies recognize that sustainability is not just about environmental and social responsibility,” said Refkin. “There are also economic opportunities that are available.”

If Time can push paper mills to produce a lighter grade of coated paper for magazines, fewer trees get cut for pulp and less fuel is burned for shipping, both of which are good for the environment, but also save Time money, Refkin said.

“There are two aspects to this question,” said Cassie Phillips, vice president of sustainability for Weyerhaeuser. “One is about managing your own environmental impacts from your operations. The other thing to recognize is your products can be a solution to your customers’ desire to solve environmental problems.”

MetaFore’s roots go back to the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection, a small group of architects, furniture makers and musical instrument craftsmen formed in the late 1980s to assure the exotic woods they used came from sustainable forests, said Bruce Caberle, global forest program director for the World Wildlife Fund. A group of business and environmental interests decided to recruit Ford to take that to a higher level.

A former timber sale planner for the U.S. Forest Service, Ford had worked for a series of timber industry organizations, including the American Forest Products Association, which merged into the American Forest and Paper Association, the nation’s leading timber industry group.

“If you’re going to make an impact you’ve got to go to scale — you’ve got to go to name brand industries,” Caberle said. “We recruited David Ford. It was monumental at the time. Folks on the green side of the issue reached into the heart of the industry and grabbed a person on track to be the leading lobbyist of the industry.”