Paper Tiger Repents

November 17, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Two months after a damning report claimed office supply giant Staples was lying to customers and shareholders, the $11 billion retailer has finally committed to phasing out its consumption of paper products made from old-growth and endangered forests.

The announcement November 13 by Staples vice chair Joseph Vassalluzzo put an end to a more than three-year campaign by a number of conservation groups that had criticized Staples' environmental efforts.

The Framingham, Massachusetts based retailer of office supplies also pledges to achieve an average 30 percent post consumer recycled content across all paper products sold by the company. In 2000, company executives admitted overall copy paper sales across all brands consisted of 97 percent virgin forest fibre, with a scant 3 percent coming from recycled sources.

Staples ( and promises to create an environmental affairs division responsible for overseeing environmental and procurement policies. A senior executive reporting to the Staples CEO will head the department.

The office supply chain with more than 1,100 stores in North America will also provide annual public reports on its progress toward reaching their new goals and will aggressively market and promote recycled paper products.

ForestEthics ( first sent a letter to Staples' CEO in February of 1999 complaining the office super store was getting the vast majority of its paper from trees despite the ready availability of recycled fibre. During the next 18 months at least eight people in Staples corporate headquarters were contacted, involving over 20 separate phone calls.

When no real dialogue occurred, The Paper Campaign ( -- a coalition of dozens of citizen groups dedicated to moving the marketplace towards recycled paper -- was launched and it quickly became one of the biggest campaigns in the forest protection movement.

The grassroots campaign (led by ForestEthics of San Francisco and the Dogwood Alliance of Asheville, North Carolina) included more than 600 demonstrations, almost 35 banners dropped on storefronts, 21 arrests in acts of civil disobedience, and street theatre. In addition, thousands of phone calls were made and more than 15,000 postcards and hundreds of letters from concerned citizens were sent to the corporate headquarters and regional offices. Other events included coverage in national and local media outlets, a shareholder's resolution, and flying the CEO over clearcuts on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. (See for more details.)

Staples suffered unfavourable media attention in dozens of news outlets including reports by the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Jim Lehrer NewsHour and the Boston Globe. A public service announcement for The Paper Campaign by the rock band R.E.M. also put Staples executives on the defensive.

Socially responsible investment organisations also worked hard to sharpen the company's commitment to the environment.

In 2001, US Bancorp Piper Jaffray's Philanthropic and Social Investment Consulting (PSIC) worked together with the Calvert Group on filing a shareowner resolution with Staples. The proposal, which asked Staples to perform a feasibility study on implementing the kinds of environmental reforms encompassed in the new policy, was withdrawn after dialogue resulted in Staples' agreement to perform the study. PSIC and Calvert then worked with Staples to draft the policy. Trillium Asset Management, another SRI firm, also engaged in dialogue with Staples independently.

The straw that broke Staples' back was likely the release September 9 of a report entitled "The Credibility Gap at Staples" ( that found old growth fibre from forests in Indonesia and Canada in products sold by Staples -- including copy paper, carbonless paper, and fax paper. The report was based on six months of intensive research, including fieldwork and site surveys, meticulously tracing a paper trail between Staples' suppliers and the razing of old-growth forests.

Staples executives earlier repeatedly went on record in defense of the company's environmental record. In an open letter to customers, Vassalluzzo wrote, "We work closely with our vendors to ensure they do not sell Staples any products made from old-growth forests."

The report details evidence linking Staple' paper products to deforestation in Canada's Boreal forest and in British Columbia. Staples buys and sells Xerox and Domtar brand copy paper, which contain old-growth fibres from the Canadian Boreal forest which is the breeding ground of 40 percent of North America's waterfowl and billions of migratory songbirds and hundreds of species including caribou, wolves and bears.

Staples sells a variety of brands of carbonless, thermal and fax papers that use fibre manufactured by Cariboo Pulp and Paper, which operates almost entirely on old-growth fibre from BC's interior forests. Bordered by mountain regions, these forests house more combined biodiversity than any other east of the Rockies, including endangered species such as the grizzly bear and wolverine.

Now Staples will have to walk the talk.

"This is a significant moment for Staples and our commitment to environmental stewardship," Vassalluzzo said at the November 13 announcement. "This is the right thing to do." The new policy should have no negative impact on Staples earnings, he added.

"By the end of 2006, we will offer only certified paper products or as many such products as possible within the constraints of market conditions, consumer demand and cost factors," the Staples website states.

"Today is a milestone for forest protection and recycled paper," said Todd Paglia, campaign director for ForestEthics. "Staples has put itself way ahead of the pack."

ForestEthics was part of an earlier coalition that pressured Home Depot Inc. to modify its procurement practices. Paglia said the group's strategy is to target a big chain in a certain retail category; if that chain can be made to change its policies, other chains in the category are expected to fall in line.

With recycled paper now becoming comparable to virgin fibre in quality and price, The Paper Campaign is hoping that other office supply companies will begin moving away from cutting trees for paper. The campaign called off a national day of action against Staples, planned for months to take place on America Recycles Day (November 15), and now plans to shift its attention to Staples' competitors Office Depot (, Office Max (, and Corporate Express (

"Past experience shows that when the market leader shifts its environmental practices, other companies in the sector strive to meet or exceed its standards," said Kristy Chester Vance, a spokeswoman for ForestEthics.

Staples plans to work with its suppliers to increase the availability of recycled paper products and to provide incentives for consumers to choose recycled content paper. The company plans to educate customers about the benefits of recycling and the use of products made from recycled resources, which are sometimes priced a bit higher than those made from virgin wood.

One means of reducing the price of recycled paper is to increase consumer demand, Vassalluzzo said. Staples will have help in this task from conservation groups that already work to educate their members about the benefits of buying recycled products. Increasing the demand for products made from recycled materials will eventually increase the value of those materials and the importance of recycling.

The Paper Campaign has already received commitments from a number of companies such as Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft, to phase out their use of virgin paper and to phase in post consumer recycled products.

William George, vice-president of communications for Domtar concurred with Vassalluzzo's assessment about recycled paper pricing. If consumer demand is behind the decision, he told the Vancouver Sun newspaper, more paper with recycled content will be produced and prices will drop.

"If not, the consumer will pay a premium," he said.

International Paper, the largest forest company in the world, worked with Staples in developing its new policy.

"We have the capacity to make more recycled content paper. It all comes down to what the consumer wants to buy," said Jenny Boardman, manager of media relations for International Paper.

So over to you. Do you or your workplace have a policy of purchasing paper products with high post consumer recycled content? If not, it is time to put some resolve in your environmental beliefs. Don't be a paper tiger or otherwise the efforts of ForestEthics and hundreds of other campaigners will go to waste.

ONE GREEN STEP - ForestEthics published a report in September 2002 by Heather Sarantis entitled "Business Guide to Paper Reduction: A Step-by-Step Plan to Save Money by Saving Paper." It includes case studies of efforts at such well-known companies as Bank of America, AT&T, and Nike and is available at Some of the shocking statistics contained in the report include: The average American office worker is estimated to use a sheet of paper every 12 minutes -- a ream per person every two and a half working weeks -- and to dispose of 100 to 200 pounds of paper every year. It's pricey, but Staples Canada ( sells a quality, eco- responsible stationary paper made entirely from plant fibres. Contains 85% sugar cane, 15% hemp. 24- lb weight. Elemental chlorine free and acid free. 100% pulp free. It's called Forest Free and made by Domtar.

RESOURCES - With almost 10 million square kilometres and a population of just over 30 million people (3.1 residents per square kilometre), Canada has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Canada contains over a third of the world’s boreal forest, one fifth of the world’s temperate rainforest, and a tenth of the total global forest cover. Canada has the second major repository of northern forests, after Russia. Canada’s boreal forest is one of the three largest ‘frontier forests’ remaining on the planet. The other two are in Russia and Brazil. The timber productive forestland totals almost 2.5 million square kilometres, or about one quarter of Canada’s land area. Logging is the dominant activity in Canada’s forests and a key sector in Canada’s economy: the forest industry generated over $68 billion in sales and $11 billion in wages in 1996.

In 2001, the Canadian paper industry transformed 4.8 million tonnes of old newspapers, magazines, corrugated containers, communication papers, boxboard (cereal/shoe boxes, etc.) and other grades of paper into new newsprint, containerboard, boxboard, communication, kraft and sanitary papers, as well as construction papers and boards. Some 2.9 million tonnes or 60% of this recovered paper came from Canadian sources; the balance was imported primarily from the United States. In 2001, the Canadian industry recovered approximately 41% of the paper and paperboard consumed in Canada and transformed it into new paper and paperboard products.

The forest products industry in Canada is an export industry. Of the 20 million tonnes of paper and paperboard produced by Canadian mills in 2001, only 5.0 million tonnes or 26% was shipped within Canada. The remaining 14.6 million tonnes or 74% was shipped to export markets around the world, primarily to customers in the United States.

The report "Canada's Forests at a Crossroads: An Assessment in the Year 2000" was prepared by Global Forest Watch and is available at The Canadian Pulp and Paper Council ( is a gateway site to the Paper Recycling Association and other industry groups.

Reach For Unbleached! ( is a national foundation and Canadian registered charity working for a sustainable pulp and paper industry. It has a paper buying club which promotes clean paper. Other valuable websites include Conservatree (, a non-profit organization providing information about environmentally sound papers and market development, the Recycled Paper Coalition ( which encourages paper recycling and stimulates demand for recycled paper products made from post consumer materials, and Rethink Paper ( which provides educational resources about environmentally preferable papers.

"The Myth of the Paperless Office," authored by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, was published by MIT Press in 2001. It provides some interesting information about how to change the culture of paper use in a company. The advice -- the goal must be motivated by significant organizational changes, rather than a superficial desire not to use paper anymore.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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