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Is the Focus on Environmental Certification Hurting the Environment?

We are told that one of the benefits of environmental certifications is to help business owners and executives make smart decisions that help the environment. By looking for environmental certifications on paper use, energy use, and others, it simplifies your decision-making. By selecting the certified product, you can be certain that the choice is better than a non-certified product. Right?

Not necessarily. In fact, there is a growing chorus of voices sounding caution about over-simplifying environmental decisions based on certifications alone. This is because many certifications look only at a slice of the process. An examination of the entire lifecycle may show that other, non-certified products or products with lesser-known environmental certifications actually have lower overall environmental footprints.

As one example, Phil Riebel, an environmental consultant to the pulp and paper industry, argues that while Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC) papers are heavily promoted as the right choice for greening one’s paper choices, when you look at the full lifecycle of the paper production, the management of the mills themselves should be taken into consideration (which the FSC certification does not do). On a case by case basis, this can actually have a huge impact on whether or not the FSC-certified product is, in fact, the better environmental choice.

In a recent blog post for RISI, an information provider to the global forest products industry, “Are Environmental Campaigns Misleading the Public?“, Riebel makes the following argument:

Paper with recycled and/or FSC fiber can have twice the carbon footprint of a wood-based or SFI/PEFC certified grade, just based on fossil fuel use at mill sites and purchased power. They can also be manufactured at mills that have below-average environmental performance compared to industry best practice levels.

For example, a de-inked pulp mill producing pulp from recovered paper could be landfilling all of its residual de-inking solids if it isn’t equipped with the proper boiler technology to burn solids for energy generation, or if it has no other alternative for disposal. Such mills can have significantly higher costs and environmental impacts related to landfilling than a modern wood-based mill that re-uses most of its solid waste. Such environmental performance issues can also apply to other parameters such as wastewater quality parameters and greenhouse gas emissions, to name a few.

The environmental footprint of paper depends on many measured indicators across the product life cycle and it is also very site-specific, i.e. it depends on forestry practices, environmental impacts of raw material suppliers, mill emissions to air, water and soil, waste to landfill, water and energy use, carbon footprint, chemicals used, etc.

If decisions are made based only on single elements of the life cycle, like specific types of fiber used, companies will be excluding wood-based paper grades that are certified to other systems (i.e. PEFC, SFI, CSA) and have a lower overall environmental footprint than the recycled or FSC grades.

This issue goes beyond paper.  There are many industries applying environmental logos on a variety of products designed to make selection of their product the “obvious” choice. The concern is that, by accepting logos as sufficient measures of a product’s environmental footprint, we are setting ourselves up to be mislead.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that logos and certifications are helpful in the overall decision-making process, but they shouldn’t be used as the only factor. If you want to make the truly sustainable choice, you still need to your homework. Logos and certifications are simply a starting point.

Written by Heidi Tolliver-Walker

Heidi Tolliver-Walker has been a commercial and digital printing industry analyst, feature writer, columnist, editor, and author for nearly 20 years. She is known for her meticulous research and no-nonsense perspective. In addition to having written thousands of industry articles for top industry publications, she and Richard Romano have been the face of the well-respected industry research firm The Industry Measure (TrendWatch Graphic Arts) for many years. In her more than 13-year tenure with the firm, she has written countless reports on digital printing, 1:1 (personalized) printing, Web-to-print, personalized URLs, and other hot industry applications. She is also a long-time contributing editor and columnist for Printing News, for which she writes two monthly columns, including "Personal Effects," which features monthly analysis of 1:1 (personalized) printing case studies. She is also the author of three titles for the National Association of Printing Leadership: Designer's Printing Companion, Ink & Color: A Printer's Guide, and Diversifying Via Value-Added Services. As a small, niche publisher (Strong Tower Publishing), she is active in utilizing these technologies in her own business, as well.

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