Like most people on our planet, I care about forests. But until recently, I actually knew very little about forests other than how much I enjoy spending time in them. That all changed when I began this new role in sustainability in 2012. Since then, I’ve been researching to build my knowledge and engaged dozens of people in conversations to gain lots of different perspectives.
The biggest thing I’ve learned? The story of sustainable forestry has not been told, and so it is dreadfully misunderstood. When we tell this story, people are surprised or even shocked. So I want to share it here with you, too.
Let me start with some facts (from the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization or UN-FAO):
Forests cover about 30 percent of the Earth’s land, or about 10 billion acres
About half of all these forests are used to make products for people like fuel, building materials or paper and packaging
Here are two really critical things to know:
Only a tiny fraction – 0.64 percent – of the wood from those forests is harvested each year
And the amount of wood growing on these forested acres has remained steady for the past 20 years
How is this possible? Well, that’s the untold story of sustainable forestry.
A productive “working forest” creates value for people and for the environment. Unlike agricultural crops, a forest can be sustained infinitely through a cycle of planting, growing, harvesting and replanting forests – all while improving the surrounding soil and water quality.
The UN-FAO knows that few people understand this:
A significant challenge for the forestry profession is to communicate and demonstrate the simple idea that one of the best ways of saving a forest is to use it.”
I have come to realize it is a counterintuitive story: harvest trees to save forests. So let me try to put that story in better context through some industry examples.
Over the last six years or so, production capacity of uncoated free sheet – that’s everyday printing and copy paper – has decreased by more than 4 million tons in North America. That’s a 30 percent drop in North American production capacity in just six years! As more people convert to electronic forms of communication, nearly every company in our industry has made the difficult decision to convert or shut down paper machines or entire paper mills.
Now, while studies have shown that people retain more information when read from a piece of paper, there is no arguing that electronic communications are often faster, easier and cheaper than paper-based communications. But messages like “go paperless, save a tree” or “think before you print,” certainly add fuel to the fire. And in almost every instance, the real motivation is not saving trees, but rather saving money – the cost of a few reams of paper or the postage to mail it.
So how does this impact the environment? The 4 million tons of paper cut out from our industry required about 14 million tons of wood to be grown and harvested each year. Now, that wood – and the 14 million acres it grew upon – no longer have an economic reason to grow.
Since landowners in the affected wood baskets – the nearby acres that supply mills with wood – no longer have a customer to buy their product, all of those 14 million acres of trees are at risk of conversion to agriculture, strip malls, or some other way for those landowners to generate income.
Turning back to International Paper, many of our wood suppliers are families who have been selling to International Paper for decades. They take pride in managing their land wisely, with both current economic gain and their great-grandchildren in mind. If you could have a chat with them, these landowners would tell you that if they can’t make money selling wood, they simply will find another use for their land. And who can blame them? Owning land and reinvesting in planting and maintaining forests takes time and money; it definitely isn’t free!
Our planet – and our business – needs the efforts of these tree farmers and the “working forests” they manage. In the U.S., a whopping 70 percent of forestland (500 million out of 750 million total forested acres) are “working forests” that rely on an economic driver for their existence. Putting that in perspective, 500 million acres is roughly the size of Alaska and California combined – and IP plays an important role in driving demand for that acreage. The fiber tonnage that we buy annually supports about 62 million acres of working forests – roughly the size of Michigan.
Now, you may be reading all of this and thinking, well sure, she would say this. After all, she works for a paper company! That’s why I offer data and opinions from third party experts, like this quote from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Countries with large, steady quantities of industrial wood use are more likely to maintain their forest base.”
Experts now agree that what pushes forests off the land are not forest products – and forest products instead help maintain forests around the globe. The real deforestation culprits are agriculture, mining and urban development.
I’m not claiming that every forest product manufacturer sources wood from well-managed, sustainable forests. But nearly all do. You might not have expected me to say that my competitors operate correctly, right? Well, it’s true – and I’m glad to report that!
At IP, our operations are global, and we buy 15 million tons of wood from outside the U.S. each year. In Brazil, where deforestation is a prevalent issue, all our wood is from company-owned, renewable hardwood plantations. These nurseries take pressure off native Brazilian tropical forests. In India, we are providing local farmers with tree seedlings; so far more than one billion seedlings have been distributed, supporting 40,000 tree-farming families – and introducing tree cover to a region in serious need of wood fiber. And in Russia, we source from government-owned and managed forestland.
When we buy wood, we also maximize its use. International Paper recycles, repurposes and collects more than 6 million tons of paper per year in the U.S. That makes IP one of the country’s largest recyclers, and the industry in total follows that trend. More than 90 percent of cardboard boxes are recycled yearly, according to industry data. That means paper is the most recycled product we humans use!
No matter your location on the globe, each of us can play a role in the sustainable forestry cycle. By using paper, recycling that paper, and choosing paper once again, you can play a part in preserving our planet’s forests.
So the next time someone says, think before you print – just tell them, you really have considered it, and you’re choosing paper.
Teri Shanahan is Vice President of Sustainability for International Paper, based in Memphis, Tenn. Her role was newly established early in 2012. Teri has been with International Paper since 1991 and has held positions in sales (Chicago, Newport Beach, and Memphis) and marketing (Memphis, the Netherlands) and business management (Memphis).