Opportunities in the war on plastics

Challenge Sustainability - June 18, 2018

As the war against plastics remains a hot topic, more and more companies are responding with new commitments to reduce plastic use in a variety of ways, often in favour of paper-based products.  Having worked with the paper products sector for over 15 years, it’s been a constant frustration to us that as a sector it has failed to position itself with a strong sustainability message for which it rightly deserves. Is the war on plastics the opportunity the industry has long been waiting for?

Browsing through some recently published sustainability reports you find statements such as “a comprehensive biomass company shaping the future with trees”, “a company that is indispensable to society”, “shaping the biomass economy” and “deriving maximal sustainable value from natural capital”. Encouraging signs, but alone this is not enough.  

Here Challenge Sustainability shares the top five challenges the paper products sector must focus on to build communication messages that maximise the opportunity the war on plastics presents.

  1. Tell the innovation story

Forestry is often only associated with paper and packaging, when in fact wood fibre also provides the raw materials used in intelligent packaging, bio-based chemicals and bio-composites to name just a few. Innovation is not limited to products, with an ever-growing proportion of fuel use in a mill typically coming from materials in the past viewed as waste is just one of many examples of how the sector continues to innovate and invest in sustainable operations too. Get these messages out through your sustainability communications.  

  1. Create strong, positive and clear messages around forestry

What all paper products have in common (even those based on recycled fibre), is that first step in the supply chain; the forest. When responsibly managed, forestry has a strong positive environmental and social story to tell.  It’s true that risks are present, particularly around land rights, human rights and deforestation, but the industry should be presenting a strong and balanced story that transparently discusses these issues while at the same time speaking confidently about the more positive impacts; carbon sequestration, socio-economic impacts and community engagement projects for example.

  1. Gather and publish data on carbon sequestration

We are still a long way off a common agreed methodology for calculating the positive carbon impacts of well managed forests. Science Based Targets are beginning to be adopted, but surprisingly don’t require a company to calculate and disclose targets for scope 3 emissions, which for many paper companies is where forestry makes the impact.  Our advice for any paper company is that not doing so misses one of the biggest advantages available to you. The science may not yet be perfect, but providing you are clear and transparent with the calculation you will be able to communicate with confidence.  

  1. Invest in up to date product footprint data

It’s disappointing to read national newspaper articles that cite plastic vs paper product footprint data from 2004. While you can’t do much about poor journalism, you can ensure you to be able to provide credible and up to date product footprint data for your portfolio.

  1. Use the size and influence of brand owners to your advantage

Many paper products companies are not household names, reducing the impact they have on consumer opinion.  However, the sector supplies some of the most influential global consumer brands, so ensure you are engaging these customers through your sustainability communications. Too many sector reports are inward facing and provide very little information of use to the types of corporate customer that represent one important stakeholder group a report should address.

The way in which companies address these five challenges will vary. It’s not a one size fits all and will depend on the unique blend of product, geography, company structure and current level of maturity in approach to sustainability. If you need help addressing these challenges, get in touch.