Can White Paper be Green?

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This page is based on an article published in AIC News: Tedone, Melissa and Robin O'Hern. 2013. “The Conscientious Conservator: Can White Paper Be "Green"?” AICNews 38(5): 9-11.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Why should conservators care about sustainable paper certifications? The global paper industry not only consumes enormous amounts of energy and produces greenhouse gas emissions, but also has fueled social conflict around the world between modern industry and local communities, including indigenous peoples. As responsible conservators, we cannot very well preserve cultural heritage at the expense of vulnerable social and cultural groups and our living environment. Article 12 of the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) Code of Ethics states that the conservation professional must practice in a way that minimizes risks to the environment. Making smart choices as paper consumers positively impacts the environment and society and also influences the development of better paper industry standards. This article will tease out the meaning behind four of the most common green certification seals seen on office paper and some conservation grade, machine-made, Western papers, and offers practical recommendations for making greener paper choices. These certifications include:

  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC®) [1]
  • Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) [2]
  • Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) [3]
  • Green Seal [4]

When it comes to identifying environmentally responsible or “green” paper, there is a marked divide in the information available at office supply stores versus through conservation suppliers. For example, Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot all identify recycled office paper using several different certification standards. Additionally, the majority of these retailers also include information about the paper’s percentage of post-consumer recycled content, one of the most important and reliable factors to consider when choosing an environmentally friendly paper product. Post-consumer recycled content refers to the percentage of the final paper product sourced from previously-made paper products. Most suppliers of conservation papers (such as those used for bookbinding endsheets, interleaving materials such as buffered and unbuffered tissues, glassine, and blotting papers) do not typically include any information about sustainable certifications or recycled content. Many of these paper products are specified as being made from virgin materials, which is preferable for most conservation applications, since conservators must choose materials which are the least likely to harm the artifacts with which they are used. The demand for virgin paper materials in conservation practice may seem irreconcilable with sustainable initiatives. However, at least one company, Conservation Resources, has found a solution in carbon neutral boards. Certifications that evaluate the chain of custody for virgin pulp papers focus on the fiber content and its sources. Additionally, FSC, SFI and PEFC all provide methods for chain of custody certification of paper with recycled content.

Forest Stewardship Council Certification (FSC)[edit | edit source]

In 1993, a group of businesses, environmentalists, and community leaders came together to create the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which has grown to over 100 member countries including the United States. The FSC board of directors is comprised of leaders in the for-profit forest industry as well as directors of non-profit organizations. FSC Certification of forests, paper manufacturers, printers, and distributors is carried out by third-party accredited, certifying bodies, including such for-profit entities as PricewaterhouseCoopers and non-profits like the Rainforest Alliance. Certification enables companies to print the FSC logo on their products. The FSC website lists FSC-certified papers and printers. [5]

There are two types of FSC certification that are relevant to paper made from virgin materials and post-consumer materials:

  • Forest Management Certification, which requires forestland managers to meet certain standards of environmental and social responsibility; and
  • Chain-of-Custody Certification, which tracks raw materials from their FSC-certified source forest along the production pathway from FSC-certified manufacturers to distributors to retailers.

To achieve FSC certification, companies must comply with all applicable domestic laws, international treaties, and FSC criteria and principles, as well as defining ethical behaviors with respect to treatment of the environment, interactions with indigenous peoples, support of the economic and social well being of workers and local communities, and forest management practices. The principles and criteria for various aspects of FSC certification of paper products are available online as downloadable PDFs. [6]
The Rainforest Alliance, one of the certifying bodies for the FSC, uses the FSC-Certified seal as well as two additional seals with images of green frogs.

  • The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal signifies farms or forestland that have met the standards of either the FSC (for paper products) or the Sustainable Agriculture Network (for food products).
  • The Rainforest Alliance Verified seal is awarded to projects which meet additional criteria such as Smart Logging and Legal Origin.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative Certification (SFI)[edit | edit source]

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is a non-profit, fully independent, charitable organization. The organization was originally founded in 1994 by industry leaders and is overseen by a three-chamber board. Its original principles and implementation guidelines began in 1995, and it evolved as the first SFI national standard backed by third-party audits in 1998. Thirty-seven Implementation Committees that represent local interests make up the North American network. Accredited, third-party bodies carry out the SFI certification process.
There are three types of SFI certification, two of which are relevant for virgin paper and two of which are applicable for paper with post-consumer content:

  • SFI Forest Management Certification applies to owners or managers of forestland and requires certified participants to demonstrate sustainable long-term harvest goals, minimize chemical use, protect water resources, conserve biodiversity, and comply with all federal and local laws and regulations, among other criteria.
  • SFI Certified Sourcing is a program designed to address non-certified forest content, such as pre- and post-consumer recycled content, and fiber sourced from non-controversial sources. The full 2010-2014 SFI Program Technical Standards are available for download on the SFI website [7], and includes criteria about transparency. Certification documentation for any SFI-certified entity is available to the public. [8]
  • SFI Chain-of-Custody Certification verifies companies’ claims about certified forest content and post-consumer recycled content in products by tracking fiber content from source to end product.

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)[edit | edit source]

The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is to be the world’s largest forest certification endorsement system. Particularly popular in Europe, the PEFC system is implemented in 36 countries. Both the SFI and American Tree Farm System (ATFS) in the U.S. have been endorsed by PEFC after a detailed examination by a PEFC-approved assessor. PEFC is an umbrella organization endorsing other national systems. The sustainability benchmarks for PEFC were developed through a multi-stakeholder and international process.

PEFC is an umbrella organization. It works by endorsing national forest certification systems developed through multi-stakeholder processesand tailored to local priorities and conditions.

  • For Chain of Custody certification, every entity along the supply chain, from sourcing all the way to the final product, must meet PEFC standards. To date, nearly 10,000 companies have received PEFC Chain of Custody certification. Recycled raw material can be included in products with a PEFC Chain of Custody certification, but it must also be PEFC certified for the absence of contaminates and its percentage available to consumers.
  • For Forest Management certification, biodiversity must be maintained or enhanced, ecosystem services preserved, chemicals minimized, worker welfare protected, indigenous peoples’ rights protected, and all operations legal according to international law. Technical standards are available on the PEFC website for download as PDFs. [9]

Green Seal Certification[edit | edit source]

The non-profit organization Green Seal was founded in 1989 and its board is made up of environmentalists from both non-profit and for-profit companies. No paper industry leaders sit on the Green Seal board, although stakeholders from various sectors were consulted in the development of the Green Seal standards. The current edition of the Green Seal standard for writing and printing paper, the GS-7 Standard, was released July 12, 2013. [10]

Green Seal evaluates specific products based on life-cycle sustainability assessments. The requirements for Green Seal Certification of paper include specifications about product performance, post-consumer recycled content, chlorine bleach use, and the amount of heavy metal components used in the packaging. The Green Seal website offers a list of its certified papers.

Conclusions[edit | edit source]

While there has been some criticism of standard setting organizations (FSC, SFI, PEFC, and Green Seal) as having a financial interest in the certification process (Gunther 2011), the standards organizations refute that criticism. The certification bodies, which are auditing firms separate from the standards organizations, must complete an accreditation program before they are approved to perform certification audits, and they are accredited and audited annually by either the American National Standards Institute or Standards Council of Canada. SFI and FSC are both non-profit organizations, and PEFC, which does not profit from its activities, is not a direct certifying agency like the other groups. It endorses national systems. Mohawk, which produces office papers as well as papers used by some conservators for book and paper conservation applications, has received both FSC and Green Seal certification, but the company outspokenly favors Green Seal as a more significant indicator of environmental responsibility than FSC certification (Mohawk 2010). Certification is a good sign that a paper’s fiber content was made with support for sustainability efforts, including Forest certification and chain of custody, but the manufacturing process adds a layer of opacity that is worthy of further investigation.

Given the number of certifying bodies and product seals, it can be difficult choose a truly “green” paper. Since a certification seal alone may not convey enough clear information, there are several additional questions to consider when purchasing sustainably sourced paper that has been manufactured using environmentally friendly processes.

  • What type of green certification is on the paper product?* What percentage of post-consumer recycled content does the paper contain?
  • Was the paper manufactured without the use of chlorine?
  • If virgin pulp paper must be purchased (for example, for conservation applications), has the paper been certified as sustainably sourced?
  • Is the paper carbon neutral?

By asking these additional questions rather than taking green certification seal at face value, we can make more responsible choices that actively support a more sustainable paper industry.

Acknowledgments[edit | edit source]

We would like to thank the members of the Sustainability Committee (formerly the Committee on Sustainable Conservation Practice) for their comments and encouragement throughout the process of writing this article: Geneva Griswold, Mary (Betsy) Haude, Christian Hernandez, Sarah Nunberg, Denise Stockman, and Jia-Sun Tsang.

Melissa Tedone (tedone [at] and Robin Ohern (robinohern [at]

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

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