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The environmental footprint: Steps towards sustainable development

What was once a gentle nudge has now become a shove. Companies can no longer ignore the palpable cultural emphasis and insistence upon corporate responsibility for the environmental ramifications of t...


December 1, 2005
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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What was once a gentle nudge has now become a shove. Companies can no longer ignore the palpable cultural emphasis and insistence upon corporate responsibility for the environmental ramifications of their operations. Although at one time it may have been acceptable to argue the vagueness of what the term implied, there now exists a concrete definition for the term sustainable development, one that leaves no room for misinterpretation.

“Sustainable development has three facets,” explained Dr. Thomas Browne, program manager of sustainability and environment at Paprican. “Any sustainable economic activity must leave the environment in a state where it can provide the same benefits to future generations as it provides to us today; it must be economically viable, and it must sustain the social environment of the people surrounding the activity, whether directly employed or not by the activity.” The definition only gains clarity when applied to the activities engaged in by a pulp or paper operation. “From a mill perspective,” Browne continued, “this means ensuring responsible use of resources, such as air, water, land, fibre or energy, while ensuring that the mill remains economically viable and supportive of the community in which it operates. Making better use of fibre and energy will have an environmental benefit and is likely to have economic benefits as well. Reducing air emissions, decreasing or eliminating the toxicity of water discharged to rivers, and either reducing the generation of solid wastes, or improving the beneficial use of ashes and sludge, all lead to improved quality of life for the surrounding community and ensures that the economic benefit of the mill is not maintained at a larger cost to society.”

The movers

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Although most pulp and paper companies have worked to incorporate a recognizance of sustainability into their corporate portfolios, some have been trailblazers. Domtar made impressive headway with its launch of a product line of socially and environmentally responsible papers that corporations can use to communicate and reinforce their brand identities. “Today’s savvy customers demand more from companies than ever before,” acknowledged Domtar’s director of business development – corporate markets – EarthChoice, Lewis C. Fix. “High quality products and services offered at reasonable prices are no longer enough for businesses to sustain a competitive advantage. Companies of all sizes have begun to realize that the intangibles, such as how they give back to their communities and how they treat the environment, significantly influence customer loyalty.”

In addition to propping up its product line with environmentally conscious offerings, the company has also worked diligently in the area of forest certification. As Tom Browne pointed out, this remains an area of critical importance in terms of sustainability. “Forest certification is a large part of a sustainable vision for the Canadian forest products industry,” he emphasized. “We must ensure that the forests remain healthy and productive, in order to maintain the economic and social benefits the industry brings to Canadians.”

All 22 million acres of Domtar’s managed forests and its pulp and paper mills have received the ISO 14001 environmental certification. A founding member of the Boreal Leadership Council, an organization that works to protect Canada’s Boreal Forest, the company is also involved in striving to expand protected areas in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Currently, the company is working towards the certification of all its operations to Forest Stewardship Council standards while creating incentives to help the supply chain pursue and achieve Chain of Custody certification.

The work has paid off. For the past six years, Domtar has been the only North American forest products company to have gained admittance to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index. (The DJSI keeps tabs on the performance of sustainability-driven companies in 62 industry segments and is selected from 2,500 of the largest capitalized companies on the Dow Jones Global Index). However, and as Fix attested to, “the need for corporations to be socially responsible is here to stay. Companies of all sizes are facing demands from consumers, shareholders and other stakeholders to operate to the highest ethical standards.”

The shakers

Although the environment has always been important, the circumstances currently surrounding the pulp and paper industry are a strong catalyst for working towards sustainability. As Browne rationalized, fibre shortages and skyrocketing energy prices have worked to hammer home the acute need to incorporate accentuation on sustainability into a company’s operations. Another cause and effect relationship has been the demand coming from citizens, communicated through government officials or ENGO’s (Environmental Non-Government Organizations). “This has added to the incentive,” Browne contends, “especially where environmental issues such as clean air or water are concerned. There is a new realization within the industry that offering a product produced in a sustainable manner can be good business sense.” (See Sidebar).

Unfortunately, some of the same issues that render emphasis on sustainable development such an attractive option maintain a chokehold on its realization. Although the acknowledgment that sustainability is unarguably vital in today’s business environment, the logistics can pose a real challenge. “Much remains to be done,” Browne accedes, “given that the industry is saddled with aging mills and lack of capital, as some changes will require substantial improvements to mill infrastructure. Reducing water and energy use, for instance, can require expensive process modifications once all the easy fixes have been implemented. As an example, the first step in improving the efficiency of your home is to caulk your windows, at a low cost. Eventually though, it becomes necessary to replace windows or insulate the roof, at a substantial cost, if further gains are to be made. Many mills are in the position of doing the best they can with the capital equipment they have, in some cases further improvements may be expensive.”

Despite the financial difficulty imposed by the induction of sustainable activity into a company’s operations, organizations such as Paprican and Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) lend support to facilitate the process. A foundation created by the federal government, SDTC operates a $550 million fund that supports the development and demonstration of clean technologies, typically solutions that focus on issues of climate change and clean air, as well as water and soil, to deliver environmental, economic and health benefits to Canadians. A total of 9% of the foundation’s portfolio goes to the forestry/wood products industry. Of the $169 million doled out to 15 different projects so far, the industry has received $14.4 million.

A current venture between Vancouver-based Nexterra Energy Corp. and consortium members Paprican and a pulp mill in western Canada, is being sponsored by the fund. The project will see the installation of a full-scale biomass gasification system that will be used to heat an existing line kiln at the mill. The direct firing of the synthetic gas (using a dual fuel syngas/natural gas burner nozzle) will potentially enable lime kilns to convert their energy feedstock from fossil fuels to gas produced from their own wood residue, which would reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Paprican is also lending its resources and expertise to the field. The institute runs a sustainability program designed to provide cost-effective technical research and development support for the industry’s sustainability goals. Research on approaches to improving air emissions, effluent treatment and toxicity, solid waste disposal methods, energy and water use, are all addressed through the program. Fibre resource issues are also included. According to Browne, further exploration of the
effects mill activities have on the environment is critical. “Research also needs to be done to understand the complex interactions within mill processes and how they impact the environment or use of resources,” he said. “Paprican is collaborating with a number of other research organizations, such as government laboratories, university researchers or other institutions such as NCASI (National Council for Air and Stream Improvement) in order to provide the best technical solutions to the challenges of building a sustainable industry.”

SUSTAINABILITY: A MATTER OF TIME

As a purchaser of 650,000 tonnes of paper on an annual basis, Time Inc. stands as one of the largest commercial paper consumers in the world. The company buys paper from 53 mills, which it then uses to publish its five weekly and 52 monthly magazines. It goes without saying that Time Inc. carries heavy weight in the industry, and has suppliers working hard to meet its demands. It is with this weight in mind that the company deserves recognition for its push to actualize the forest certification status of its suppliers, and the goals it has set on this issue.

David Refkin, director of sustainable development at Time Inc. has spent a total of 23 years with the company, 14 of those in a position where he was in charge of buying paper. “I got a really good understanding of the financial issues of buying paper,” he said of this point in his career. This understanding prompted Refkin’s deep-rooted appreciation for the importance of forest certification and sustainable development, and paved his way to become a champion for the cause. “We want to work with companies that have similar values,” he said of the way in which Time Inc. chooses suppliers, “and at the same time, we like to work on sustainability projects with them.”

Between 1993-1995, Time Inc. worked on the establishment of a paper task force, which saw the publication of a 250-page book that served as a guide to buying and using environmentally friendly paper. “We were ahead of our time with this project,” Refkin reflected, “but it really worked to balance the needs of recycling and buying paper and it became known as a sort of a bible for suppliers.”

The next several years, however, bore witness to a real push towards sustainability in the industry, a shift that Rekfin observed first-hand. “By the late 90s, companies that didn’t pay attention to this issue really started to get into trouble, with the government, and with citizens. We wanted to be proactive and started asking companies we deal with to certify their fibre, but the results on this front were really frustrating.”

In the summer of 2002, Time Inc. laid out its target: “By 2006, we want 80% of the fibre from everyone we deal with to be certified,” Refkin said. Although it may have been perceived as ambitious by some, substantial progress has been made. “We’re close to 60%,” Refkin confirmed. “We’ve really seen some big improvements.”

Forest certification remains an integral issue, although as Refkin acknowledged, this is somewhat easier to accomplish in Canada as so many forests are designated Crown land. However, he credits the Forest Products Association of Canada with propelling the movement forward, with its 2002 announcement that membership to the organization depended on certification. “It was this commitment that really made the setting of our own target possible,” he affirmed.

Although Refkin is impressed with the amount of headway that has been made, he contends there remain three obstacles. “We need to get more North American small landowners to care about certification,” he said. “Also, as more and more companies sell off their land to TIMO’s (Timber Investment Management Organizations) -International Paper recently sold 6.5 million acres of its land, the whole issue of who is going to buy that land, and how we go about getting them to care about sustainable development comes up. Lastly, Russia is a big issue. More and more fibre is coming from there. There is a lot of Russian fibre in Finnish paper, for example. So the question of how to make certification happen in Russia is a big one.”

Despite the amount of work that still needs to be done, Refkin is optimistic. “In 2002, our suppliers only had 25% certification. Today we have 60%.” Although UPM Kymmene, Stora Enso and International Paper are currently the publishing giant’s biggest suppliers, Refkin is quick to applaud the efforts of other companies. “There are lots of leaders, and people have worked really diligently.