Paper and Sustainability: Interview with John Fields of J&A Printing

John FieldsAre digital media really more sustainable than paper?

That’s the common conception – that posting something online has little to no environmental impact, while paper represents waste.

But have you ever stopped to analyze this assumption?

John Fields has.

John Fields is a sales rep for J & A printing in Hiawatha, IA, He is also a regular attendee at LOHAS and other sustainability conferences, is a member of the Regional Sustainable Business Alliance in Cedar Rapids, IA, and continues to educate himself about what sustainability is.

Last month, John was kind enough to agree to speak to me about paper and business sustainability.

You can listen to the entire interview here.

John had a lot of fascinating things to say about the topic, but I especially wanted to share his thoughts on the digital vs. paper conundrum. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:


Anne Michelsen:

So, a lot of people look at the use of print, they look at the papers, the inks, everything that’s used, and they think, “Oh, I won’t go there. Let’s just stick with digital because it’s a lot more sustainable.” How can a sustainably-minded company justify the use of print? And is it really any more difficult on the environment than digital? Because I know there’s a lot of issues with digital, as well.

 John Fields:

Well, when I first agreed to this interview, I did some looking online for facts and figures on sustainability and printing, and I came away way more confused than I was before.  I found that there’s so many statistics online to support whatever view you want them to have. Some of them go back to the 90s and were referring to studies back in the 90s, which are really no longer relevant. But if you look at the sustainability of print versus digital, I think that there’s room for both. Of course, I embrace the digital, I have all the gadgets, and the computers. And I like to file my things electronically so I don’t have a messy desk.

But if you look at sustainability with the advent of FSC-certified papers – Forest Stewardship Council certified – the sustainability of paper has come a long way. Just last week I saw an article, I believe online, that said that carbon emissions in the United States are going down while carbon emissions in China are going up.

Anne Michelsen:


John Fields:

And most of your digital products are, where are they produced? China.

Anne Michelsen:

This is true.

John Fields:

Several years ago I went to a conference where they went paperless. By the way, I have a blog with a terrarium in it that has a biodegradable cup that you can watch online biodegrading. So, when I went to this specific conference, I put an old Blackberry in there and a piece of paper with a note and the date on it and it said, “Tell me which one of these will biodegrade first.” So, I now look at paper as sustainable. It’s biodegradable, it’s renewable. It is compostable and it’s recyclable. All of the above. You look at the electronic device you use for your phone, it comes from nothing that’s renewable. They’re starting to do better on some recycling now, but it’s not biodegradable. And it becomes outdated so fast that you’re literally changing them year to year.

I’d like to say, too, if you take a book and a DVD, put them in a time capsule, and in a hundred years, open that time capsule. And just try and find a DVD player (to play that DVD)…

The first LOHAS Forum I went to, I was challenged. I made the statement, “We use vegetable oil.” And I remember the one person that I said that to said, “Well, what’s the mean?” And at that point, I realized I have to be able to back up what I’m saying. I have to know what I’m talking about for people to understand what I’m saying. So, I created the blog to kind of chronicle what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been learning on it.

Anne Michelsen:

And that’s an excellent take away point for anybody that’s marketing green products is that it’s so important to document anything, any statement that you make. The FTC has regulations that, you know, if you make a green claim about a product, you have to have scientific documentation. People who are interested in green products are very, very up on it and they will catch you if, like you experienced, if you don’t have that. So, excellent idea to post that on a blog.

John Fields:

That’s very interesting because just yesterday I was contacted by the QA auditor for for Frontier Natural Products here at their location in Iowa. For most of their products, we use New Leaf papers. And New Leaf has an eco audit that they use that tells us how many resources were saved by using that paper, their QA person wanted us to verify that the eco audit statement was accurate, and she wanted to see documentation on how we came up with that. That we used the paper we said we were going to use and the number of sheets. We’ve got a complete procedure in place for that.

We also are FSC certified. I push FSC paper wherever I can.

Anne Michelsen:


John Fields:

I feel FSC is probably more important than recycled paper, in fact.

Anne Michelsen:

I was going to ask you about that. The difference between using recycled paper and FSC paper. And why would you go with the virgin FSC paper rather than recycled?

John Fields:

FSC just means that the paper that you’re buying comes from pulp that comes from a forest that was properly managed. And there’s quite a bit that goes into what that properly managed forest is. They’re not doing any clear cutting and things like that. So, I can say if I sell you a postcard and say, “This is on FSC paper,” I could show you the chain of custody all the way back to the forest it came from. Where that paper came from. Everybody has to sign off on it and document that they handled this paper. We have a whole set of procedures we have to follow. FSC auditors come in once a year and they audit us. And it’s a real audit, we have to verify everything we do for them. We do sell paper that’s not FSC certified, I’m not saying that it doesn’t come from a properly managed forest, but it’s just that it doesn’t have the chain of custody on it. But everybody I talk to, new customers, old customers, if I can switch them over to FSC certified paper, I do.

End of excerpt. Listen to my interview with John Fields in its entirety here.

(You can see the terrarium mentioned in the interview for yourself on John’s blog, along with the adventures of its resident, Bart the Biodegrader. – A.M. 🙂 )

The takeaway points:

Every marketing message carries an environmental impact. The important thing is to be as responsible as possible with the media you choose to use.

Consider John’s observations:

    • Most electronic products are made overseas and have to be shipped long distances to reach US consumers, consuming large amounts of fossil fuel.
    • Electronics have a short life span and need to be replaced frequently, resulting in resource consumption and landfill waste.
    • Electronics often contain environmentally toxic components. Yes, so does ink. But a large percentage of electronics are “recycled” overseas with little to no concern for the environment, under conditions which expose workers – often children – to notoriously hazardous conditions.
    • I might add that storage of digital information consumes huge amounts of energy. (See graph, courtesy of Alliance Trust Investments.)

data center electricity use graph

While using even FSC certified paper is not without its environmental implications,  domestically produced paper made with eco-certified wood is renewable, biodegradable, and relatively local.

Rather than vilifying one or the other, as marketers it makes sense to do as John suggests and use both digital and print media as responsibly as possible. (Especially in light of his observation later in the interview that he’s seeing a lot of customers come back to print after trying to go paperless because they find integrating print into their promotions to be more effective.)

What is your experience? Do you use print media to promote your environmentally responsible business? Why or why not?

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