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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jul/Aug 2005 : Blazing a Paper Trail to Sustainability


Blazing a (Paper) Trail to Sustainability

Staples’ commitment to the resposible use of forest products has grown into a broad dedication to sustainable practices.


By Phil Storey

In November 2002, Staples Inc., the world’s largest seller of office supplies, was getting kudos from environmental organizations for adopting their industry’s first environmental paper-purchasing policy, making steps to protect endangered forests and increase recycled content in their paper products. The praise was a welcome change for the company that had been the target of a two-year-long negative publicity campaign led by ForestEthics and allied activist groups, known collectively as The Paper Campaign, with high-profile participation from popular rock band R.E.M. Since then, Staples has gathered its paper-purchasing policy along with initiatives in recycling, energy conservation and other areas into a comprehensive environmental commitment that continues to both develop and impress.

If you’ve been to a Staples store recently, you’ve probably seen collection boxes for recyclables. The company offers recycling for inkjet cartridges, laser toner cartridges, cell phones, PDAs, pagers, chargers and rechargeable batteries at all of its U.S. retail locations. Staples has also been addressing the recycling needs for larger electronic equipment, participating last year in a pilot project with the U.S. EPA and the Product Stewardship Institute to study the compatibility of equipment recycling with Staples’ current logistics system. (The results of the “eCycling” pilot project were encouraging, according to the recently completed analysis of the pilot, suggesting that retail distribution systems can be utilized relatively easily as “reverse logistics” systems to facilitate recycling.) In addition to its recycling initiatives and offering products that contain post-consumer-recycled materials, Staples’ environmental commitment emphasizes energy conservation and renewable power purchasing (the company purchases 10 percent of its energy from Green-e-certified renewable sources), and environmental education for associates and consumers.

Part of Staples’ success in improving its environmental performance has come from its constructive relationships with stakeholders that include suppliers and non-profit groups. What began as dialogues with environmental groups as the company was formulating its environmental commitment has developed into effective working relationships with solutions-oriented non-profits and collaborative groups. One of these groups, dealing specifically with forest products use, is the Paper Working Group: a collaboration between 11 leading companies (including FedEx Kinko’s, Starbucks and Time Inc.) and Metafore, a non-profit that pursues market-based approaches to supporting healthy forests and communities. The Paper Working Group is currently developing a tool (The Environmental Paper Assessment Tool) that will facilitate communication between the buyers and suppliers of paper products in consistent and meaningful ways. Through their participation in groups such as this, Staples extends both their understanding of key issues and their ability to address them productively.

green@work recently spoke with Mark Buckley, Staples’ vice president of environmental affairs, about the company’s approach to forest products use and other environmental issues.

How did Staples turn the issues of a very aggressive activist campaign against the company into a commitment that makes
business sense?

Initially the reaction tends to be pretty defensive for most folks when you’re challenged and attacked in the media. At Staples we thought it was important for us to develop our own point of view around the issues—not just forestry issues, but sustainability and environmental stewardship in general—and really take a holistic approach to our business.

What we found was that it was important to facilitate the input from a number of stakeholders. It was really an interesting process we went through where we tried to learn more about the environmental attributes of the paper we sell and what we could do to improve that. But throughout the process we had a desire to really develop a Staples point of view around these issues.

What is the demand like for recycled- content paper?

I think in many cases it’s regionally specific as it relates to retail. But there are more and more corporate customers that are concerned about this and are requesting higher recycled content in the paper products. What the buyers and merchants at Staples have done, particularly around Staples branded products, is position our product as: If you want high-quality printer paper, you come to Staples. You want a 92-bright and 24-pound printer paper, you buy it first for the performance attributes you’ve come to know and expect, at a price point that’s a great value, and oh, by the way, we’ve built in the added benefit of 30-percent post-consumer-recycled content. And ultimately, it’s not like we have a virgin alternative to that product on the shelf.

That’s very different from asking people to accept lower quality in order to support recycled content, isn’t it?

The paper technology has improved considerably in the area of recycled-content paper. The unfortunate thing is that from a customer’s perspective, many times they look at recycled-paper quality as being less than optimum. Nothing could be further from the truth. Or they think they have to pay a premium for that. And again, nothing could be further from the truth, from a Staples perspective. So we’re able to provide them with a high-quality product at a compelling price point with environmental attributes that certainly make sense for the future. We think that’s truly a sustainable model.

And we’re not selling this as a niche market offering—this is our primary offering, the product we’re selling every day. File folders are a good example. If you shopped our stores six months ago and bought something as utilitarian and mundane as a Staples-branded manila file folder, it was 10-percent post-consumer- recycled content. Today it’s 30 percent. We don’t charge any more. It’s the same high quality you’ve come to know and expect. But we’ve improved the environmental attributes 200 percent.

How do these policies relate to your normal business processes in practical terms?

As it relates to recycled content in paper, it’s been a really collaborative effort internally in Staples. We’ve had the backing of the merchants and the operational and marketing folks within Staples. And we’ve collaboratively worked with our suppliers—informed them of our position and our desire to improve the environmental attributes of our paper. And when you walk into our stores today or go online to shop for Staples paper-based products, most are at 30-percent post-consumer- recycled content or higher. That took some time to accomplish, but we believe that model is a sustainable model for the future.

How do you measure the success of your policies around sustainable forest product use?

There’s certainly tangible evidence that would suggest we’ve made tremendous progress in these areas. We were looking at an offering just a few years ago of less than 10 percent of our product (SKU) mix was recycled content, and now we’re looking at somewhere north of 27 percent average recycled content for all the products (SKUs) we offer, by weight.

The real impact is the percentage of post-consumer-recycled content per ton sold. We’ve moved that from the mid-teens to close to 21 percent this past year. Clearly the impact that the buyers and suppliers have made, relative to the environmental attributes of the paper we‘re purchasing and selling, has made a difference. And that translates literally into hundreds of thousands of trees being saved every year in the forests.

In terms of your supply chain and the availability of forest resources, are the benefits of what you’re doing near-term or long-term?

There’s practical, tangible evidence that what we’re doing is good, smart business today and it’s going to be good, smart business tomorrow, because of the way we’re positioning ourselves in the marketplace.

Historically when there have been requests to mills to get increased recycled content in paper, the challenge has been buying paper on the secondary fiber market. On the spot market price, there’s no long-term commitment and no consistent demand. What we’re trying to do is to provide consist demand. With that we should stabilize the prices on the secondary markets to some degree. We should encourage more recycling as a result of that. The hope is that now pricing can be much more competitive. You can run this paper on larger, higher-efficiency equipment, and that will continue to drive the price down. So over time you create a whole new paradigm. That’s really where we want to head with this model, with the understanding that we still need to derive some of the fiber from a forest source, and we want to make sure the forest is being sustainably managed, not only for today, but also for future generations.

So the approach we’re trying to take at Staples, in conjunction with Metafore and some of the other Paper Working Group members, is to take a more holistic approach to paper and paper-sourcing—everything from sustainable forestry to recycled content, clean production, reducing energy impacts, and the end-of-life decisions on where this paper goes.

What are the advantages you’ve found participating in the Paper Working Group led by Metafore?

Staples is trying to align itself with solutions-based organizations and take a collaborative approach around these complex issues. As big as Staples is, from the paper (industry’s) perspective we’re relatively small in terms of purchasing. So we need to take this dialogue and move it to a much broader group of stakeholders.

What Metafore was able to do is convene a group of like-minded companies who had a desire to create more access to affordable, environmentally preferable paper products and take a life-cycle approach. Not just focus in on sustainable forestry, not just recycled content, but really take a broader view of paper and its whole life cycle.
And Metafore has really been a solutions-based organization that is credible among a number of diverse stakeholder groups, and I think our ability to get things done is greatly enhanced because of that.

So what can Staples accomplish by virtue of its position in the supply chain?

First and foremost, we can continue to offer more products with improved environmental performance. Once you move down this path of sustainable business, it really is a path of continuous improvement. What’s acceptable this year shouldn’t be acceptable next, and what’s acceptable next year shouldn’t necessarily be acceptable the year after.
The other contribution I think we have an opportunity to make is to start to educate customers that may not have sustainability on their radar screen at all. We’re looking to make it easy for our customers to make a difference. That’s truly exciting in terms of where we sit in the marketplace. We’ve done a lot of work with our corporate customers, trying to provide them with information on how they can run their business more sustainably. We’re starting to do some of that with our retail customers. We’ve created a business-to-business Web site in conjunction with Earth 911 that helps small businesses find resources in close proximity to them.

We think the position we have in the marketplace is kind of a unique one, and we’re excited about the opportunity to really be our customers’ sustainability partner for years to come. This is the way business will be done in the 21st century. We think that all of these values are complimentary to traditional business values, not mutually exclusive. The model we’re working with clearly indicates that.

It’s a really interesting time to be in this business.

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