Local group wins environmental victory

An Asheville-based environmental group has helped persuade America’s biggest office-supply retailer to switch to selling paper products with an average of 30 percent recycled content. Vice Chairman Joe Vassalluzzo of Staples joined the Dogwood Alliance’s Danna Smith and Todd Paglia of the San Francisco-based group ForestEthics in a Nov. 12 press conference to make the groundbreaking announcement. The $11-billion-a-year corporation also pledged to stop buying paper products made using timber from old-growth and endangered forests and to appoint an environmental-affairs executive who will report annually on the company’s progress.

“As a leader, we assume a role as a principal agent of change,” said Vassalluzzo, “which includes our commitment to encouraging a consumer demand for recycled-content products.”

Staples currently sells a wide range of paper products whose combined recycled-fiber content averages well under 10 percent. The recycling industry, meanwhile, is operating at only 73 percent of capacity, according to Paglia.

“This means that just with existing capacity, we could produce 1.5 million tons of 30 percent post-consumer [recycled] copy paper every year, without adding another mill,” noted Paglia. At a time when 95 percent of America’s old-growth forests are gone and hundreds of acres of endangered forest are being lost each week worldwide, he added, “This is going to be seen as not only a sound business decision but a moral choice.” The company’s commitment also includes stocking more paper products made from alternative fibers such as hemp.

Marketplace activism

“Working in the marketplace is relatively new in some ways, as far as forest protection,” Paglia observed. “And I think this is going to be increasingly the way of the future. While environmental protections are daily being dismantled in Washington, D.C., environmentalists have found a new way to protect forests. It is said that we live in a consumer society. If that’s true, working in the marketplace with companies like Staples that are willing to take a lead for our environment and for forests is an indispensable part of social change.”

Smith, the Dogwood Alliance’s chief negotiator with Staples, added, “At a time when the Bush administration and Congress are rolling back environmental protection for forests, water and air, citizens are forced to look outside the government for environmental leadership.”

The Dogwood Alliance — a coalition of 72 Southern environmental, religious, student and community groups and recreation companies — is working to stop the destruction of Southern forests by the paper industry. The coalition joined forces with ForestEthics, which was using marketplace activism to rescue the boreal forests of British Columbia from the same threat. The two groups modeled The Paper Campaign on the recent successful marketplace push to stop Home Depot from selling products made from endangered-forest timber. Besides using such traditional publicity tactics as protests, letter-writing drives and concerts (the band R.E.M. was part of the effort), the groups also generated consumer pressure on Staples by lobbying the employees and owners of many Fortune 1,000 companies that are big users of office paper (notably Silicon Valley giants Hewlett-Packard and Compaq) to begin demanding recycled paper from their suppliers.

“Shareholder activism,” another key marketplace tactic used in this campaign, was pioneered in recent decades by religious groups seeking to push corporations to behave with greater ethical and environmental awareness. In August of last year, the Rev. Pat Jobe, a Dogwood Alliance member who is pastor of the Tanner’s Grove United Methodist Church in Gaffney, S.C., led a delegation of ministers to a Staples shareholders’ meeting in Boston. They presented a letter signed by 127 other ministers urging Staples to stop buying and selling paper made using timber from endangered forests. A proxy from Calvert, a socially responsible investment firm, enabled Jobe to attend the meeting and speak to the other shareholders’ consciences about the destruction clear-cutting was causing in his community. The Paper Campaign also conducted an e-mail and Web-site campaign to reach Staples shareholders.

Now that the nation’s largest office-supply chain has publicly embraced the goal of switching to environmentally friendly paper, its competitors will be forced to “respond in kind or fall behind,” predicted Paglia. In contrast to Staples — whose management Smith says has developed a “solid working relationship” with the environmentalists over the last two years — competitors Office Max, Office Depot and Corporate Express have refused to cooperate with The Paper Campaign.

The marketplace pressure exerted by paper retailers and their customers, these activists believe, will prove far more effective than government regulation in slowing the destruction of endangered forests and the annual clearing of millions of acres of forest land to make way for herbicide-drenched tree plantations. “Ninety percent of forest lands are in private ownership,” notes Smith; on those lands, “no forest-protection laws are in place.” Staples’ two principal suppliers are timber giants International Paper and Georgia-Pacific. If IP alone begins supplying 30 percent recycled paper to Staples, 16,000 acres of Southern forest a year will be spared, asserts Smith. Meanwhile, the groups will continue to push the paper industry toward the ultimate goal of producing 100 percent tree-free paper.

Xpress asked Smith, who lives in Brevard, what advice she could offer other environmental activists who are frustrated by the increasingly uphill battle to protect the environment through government regulation of industry.

“I think the main thing is just to keep in mind that corporate executives are decision-makers in our society, and we do have the power — working through the market system — to influence decisions that they make. This is just another tool that we have in protecting the environment, and one that we should not discount or overlook, and [should] actually spend some time thinking about and focusing on, in light of the current political situation.”

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