Winter 1993

How they lost the paper war

Paper’s troubled PR

When Mary Blake, the paper expert at Greenpeace’s London office, stood up to ask a question at the last World Pulp and Paper conference, an almost tangible ripple of hostility went through the audience. After question time, in what should have been a coffee break, Blake was surrounded by half a dozen people desperate to convince her that her claims about the effect of the paper industry on the environment were wrong. Voices were raised and tempers barely controlled: it was far from the urbane trade talk that had characterised the rest of the two-day event.

The extent of the hostility was perhaps not surprising. Environmental pressure groups, and Greenpeace in particular, have had paper manufacturers on the run for at least four years. Directly or indirectly they have caused the industry in both Europe and North America to spend millions of pounds altering its production processes and defending itself from criticism – all at a time when prices were at rock bottom and many mills were running at a substantial loss.

For designers, the result of this sort of environmental campaigning is that choosing paper has become hedged with political overtones. Should it be recycled? If so, what sort of recycled? Should it be non-chlorine-bleached? If so, which is best – TCF or ECF? What’s the difference? Will the printer kick up a fuss if something new is specified?

Whereas the designer used to be able to consult the printer, choose a paper and then get on with the job, it is now quite likely that the client will have strong preferences about the paper to be used, regardless of insignificant matters such as print quality. However, if for designers the politicisation of paper is a nuisance, for the paper industry it has been far worse. While few would deny that the changes made to production methods have been for the good, most admit that the public relations battle has been well and truly lost. As British paper merchant Peter Gilbert puts it: ‘The public perception of the industry today is that we are raping the rain forests to provide something nobody wants.’

It could all have been very different. As far as environmental credentials go, paper has a flying start. It is one of the few commercially manufactured products that is made off an easily renewable resource – trees. Creating this resource – growing forests – is about as environmentally friendly as can be. Even better, paper is easy to recycle and is biodegradable.

Given all this, it seems somewhat inept of the paper industry to have got itself such a bad press. But perhaps it was the fact that the production of paper is far less harmful than the production of so many other things that lulled it into a false sense of security. ‘I think the industry was caught off guard,’ says George Milner, director of environmental affairs at the Mohawk mills in New York State. ‘The paper industry is very visible. Mills, particularly integrated mills, consume a lot of water and create a lot of sludge. In America they tend to be located in pristine areas, so they stand out.’

However, as Milner points out: ‘The by-products of the paper industry are far less than, for instance, the chemical industry, but the chemical industry doesn’t seem to have the big gun held to its head that the paper industry has. I think that after the Bhopal disaster in India, the chemical industry employed a lot of top PR people. They really got talking to the public, trying to convince them that they were doing their best, inviting people in to see what was happening.’ It seems to have taken the paper industry a little longer to learn this sort of approach.

According to Mary Blake of Greenpeace, the paper industry was targeted by the organisation precisely because it was relatively environmentally friendly. ‘We thought that the paper industry had the potential for being compatible with the environment,’ she says. ‘We thought that with some improvements, it could be a model for other industries.’

As ever, Greenpeace used the media skilfully, raising issues one by one, and producing plenty of well-argued, well-prepared and well-presented publicity material. It was hard not to be convinced by, for instance, the Greenpeace Guide to Paper, published in January 1990, which explained how paper is made, and exactly which parts of the process cause concern.

Unlike the chemical industry, the paper industry failed to produce a slickly co-ordinated PR response to its image problem. Some producers, appalled at what they saw as an unjustified attack, dismissed the environmentalists as over-emotional hippies and refused to admit that there were any environmental concerns whatsoever. As any public relations expert could have predicted, this refusal to talk created an impression that something nasty was being hidden.

Other companies, better attuned to the public mood, which by the end of the 1980s was becoming much more environmentally aware, launched ‘environmentally friendly’ papers. Unfortunately, some of the claims made were misleading, causing further distrust and confusion. Genuine issues became muddled with disinformation – such as the myth that the paper industry was making paper from rain forests – which have proved difficult to dislodge from public consciousness.

In Britain, the organisation in the best position to co-ordinate a response to the environmentalists is the British Paper and Board Industry Federation. Jeffery Bartlett, its director general for the past 15 years, admits that, with hindsight, the issue could have been handled better. ‘The paper industry, throughout the world, was not used to dealing with general public issues,’ he says. ‘Historically, it is a manufacturing industry that supplies to intermediaries, such as merchants, but doesn’t deal with the public directly.’

As Bartlett points out, one reason that paper caught the public imagination as an environmental issue was that it is so ubiquitous. Everyone comes into contact with it every day, and choosing an environmentally friendly paper is a cheap and easy way of making yourself feel that you are doing something positive about the environment. You cannot choose to plug your domestic appliances into a source of environmentally friendly electricity, and buying a less polluting car is a major expense. Changing your paper is so much simpler.

In the US the issue so far has been recycling. Because of the shortage of landfill rubbish dumps, any way of recycling is being promoted, with each state preparing its own regulations and environmental standards for paper. Chlorine-bleaching has also been a hot issue. In January 1992 Time magazine published an editorial comment saying that as a result of Greenpeace’s campaign it had had more than 22,000 letters asking why it was still using paper made of chlorine-bleached pulp.

In Britain too, now there are so many recycled and part-recycled papers to choose from, chlorine-bleaching is becoming the big environmental concern. While everyone in the industry now admits that using chlorine gas to bleach paper pulp is bad for the environment – it produces toxic chemical compounds which can cause disturbing mutations in living organisms – the argument rages about what to replace it with.

Greenpeace argues that chlorine should be left out of the process altogether and some other bleaching agent, such as ozone, used instead. This is now being done in some places, producing totally chlorine free (TCF) pulp. It is, however, expensive, and the paper is less bright. The option favoured by the industry is to use chlorine dioxide, producing elemental chlorine free (ECF) pulp, a process which is cheaper to convert to and disperses much less chlorine into the environment.

In Germany chlorine-bleaching has been an important issue for some time. As a result of German buying power, nearly all the bleaching done in Sweden is ECF. However, so worried was one bleaching company, Eka Nobel, that the public would start to demand TCF-bleached paper, that it ran a large publicity campaign in the European creative press and gave away thousands of lavish brochures putting the case for ECF as against TCF.

While the debate rumbles on, paper manufacturers and merchants continue to improve the environmental impact of their products in the knowledge that whatever they do, they are in the public spotlight in a way few would have once thought possible. In the UK, brands such as Mellotex, an uncoated paper made by Tullis Russell, and Huntsman Real Silk from Robert Horne are introducing ECF and TCF versions at a rate of knots.

In fact, so comparatively open has the paper industry become that consumers of its products can routinely find out an extraordinary amount of information about them. In the UK, for instance, merchants such as Robert Horne keep environmental fact sheets about every paper they sell.

For designers, this new openness can only be good news. While the material with which they work most closely has had a very bad press over the past few years, this seems unlikely to continue, as production and recycling go on being improved. And as environmental groups turn their attention to other, tougher targets, it will probably become apparent that paper – one of the oldest manufactured materials we have – is really not so terrible after all.

First published in Eye no. 11 vol. 3, 1993

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