Catalog Industry Works to Adopt Recycled Paper

Recycled paper is a problematic issue for the catalog industry, eliciting impassioned appeals for its wider use by some while others declare that environmental efforts are better directed elsewhere.

Catalogers used 3.6 million tons of paper in 2003 and produced 17.7 billion catalogs, according to Resource Information Systems Inc., Bedford, MA. The paper research group predicts that for 2004 the catalog industry's paper consumption rose 5.8 percent to 3.8 million tons. That paper was used to produce an estimated 19 billion catalogs, up 7.2 percent from last year.

Though no estimates exist regarding how much of this paper was recycled, industry sources have reported that several big-name catalogers rely almost exclusively on virgin paper. A recent public relations campaign by environmental group Forest Ethics, San Francisco, highlighted that Victoria's Secret mails 36 million catalogs annually that are printed on “predominantly virgin paper.”

This year, Victoria's Secret started using paper with 10 percent post-consumer waste paper in the 24 million clearance catalogs it distributes annually, a company statement said. In February 2005, these clearance catalogs will be printed on paper that is at least 50 percent PCW.

Recycled paper is only part of the picture, according to the Direct Marketing Association. When environmental groups and the media focus solely on recycled paper, they do a disservice to the catalog industry because they fail to consider the numerous ways in which catalogers show environmental responsibility, said Louis Mastria, DMA vice president of communications. An example would be the elimination of undeliverable addresses from their mailing lists.

One reason for the focus on recycled paper is that the environmental benefits are significant when a catalog switches from virgin paper. In December 2003, Office Depot launched The Green Book, a catalog of environmentally friendly products printed on recycled paper made from 100 percent PCW. By using 100 percent PCW, the company calculates it conserved 275 fully grown trees, 116,900 gallons of water, 193 million BTUs of energy, 12,400 pounds of solid waste and 24,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Office Depot said the 275 trees absorb the carbon released by 475 cars driven 15,000 miles each in a year, and the water conserved equals the amount consumed daily by 1,800 people.

Why don't more catalogers use recycled paper?

The reasons, according to the DMA, are that recycled paper is costlier than virgin paper, its supply is limited and the quality diminishes quickly.

However, a few catalogers have switched to recycled paper in recent years as well as paper with higher levels of post-consumer waste, an important yardstick when talking about recycled paper. Some catalogers accomplished this without incurring a cost increase.

Norm Thompson Outfitters, which publishes catalogs under three names — Norm Thompson, Sahalie by Early Winters and Solutions — is a proponent of recycled paper. It developed a partnership in the late 1990s with nonprofit group Environmental Defense to provide a working model for the catalog industry on how the switch to recycled paper can be made. Norm Thompson introduced a catalog in 1999 with 10 percent PCW that was created with no additional cost, and has since raised the PCW level in its catalogs to 15 percent.

“Where we can find neutral financial impact, we keep ratcheting up the percentage,” said Derek Smith, Norm Thompson's director of communications and corporate responsibility.

Another example is the Patagonia catalog, which has been printed on recycled paper since 1990 and today is up to 20 percent PCW.

“I was never given more money in my budget for PCW,” said Peggy Bernard, Patagonia's paper and printing consultant. When the boss wanted the catalog printed on recycled paper, she negotiated with various mills, and the ones that wanted the business worked with her on pricing.

Poor quality is a myth surrounding recycled paper, said Peter ver Weeme, vice president of marketing and communications for Mountain Equipment Co-op, Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Recycled paper has the brightness, the opacity and performs on web presses fine,” he said. Smith and Bernard echoed this sentiment.

Mountain Equipment Co-op, a retail cooperative that sells outdoors gear, prints 1.6 million catalogs annually on paper with 35 percent PCW. The company pays about 10 percent more for its paper than if it used virgin paper, but its members demand that the company reduce its ecological footprint as much as possible, ver Weeme said.

Norm Thompson and Patagonia customers may not have demanded that they switch to recycled paper, but there was no negative response when they made the change. In fact, response has been positive for both companies.

“Catalogers have been slow to recognize that their customers really do care about the environment and expect companies to be part of the solution to environmental problems,” said Environmental Defense project manager Victoria Mills, based in the group's Boston office. “Catalogers ignore this at their peril. Studies increasingly show that people like to buy from companies they feel good about, and environmental performance is a big factor in a company's overall reputation.”

However, the supply of recycled paper can be lacking and has even diminished recently because of several factors. The poor economy of the past few years is one reason. Some smaller mills that were willing to work on customized projects, such as producing recycled paper, were purchased or went out of business, Bernard said. Whether the larger mills will be as interested in these projects remains to be seen.

Also, demand for recycled paper hasn't been significant.

“The more companies that ask for — and insist upon — recycled paper, the more that would be available,” said Bernard, who noted that quality and price then would become even less of an issue.

An entire company doesn't wake up one day and decide it's time to start using recycled paper.

“Leadership from the top is a huge thing,” Bernard said when asked how the switch to recycled paper occurs.

Chantal Todé covers catalog news for DM To keep up with the latest catalog news subscribe to our free e-mail newsletter DM News Daily by visiting //

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