Sourcing for Sustainability: How to Evaluate a Paper Manufacturer’s Sustainability Practices

December 27, 2019
A guide to the three key pillars to consider when evaluating your paper supplier’s sustainability efforts.

Most companies today know sustainability is more than just “going green.” They understand the three interconnected pillars (sometimes referred to as the “three legged stool”) that contribute to total sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. They also understand that if any one of those pillars is not adequately addressed, the “stool” will fall. However, understanding and adopting internal practices and procedures is only a first step. You should also consider your suppliers’ sustainability practices because, ultimately, their efforts will impact yours.

How do you go about evaluating the sustainability of a supplier? Start by clearly defining what sustainability means to your company, and what aspects you consider most important. Is it the materials used? Energy efficient practices? Employee working conditions? Or do you prioritize contributions to local communities? No matter how long or detailed the list, knowing your company’s values will put you in the best position to begin measuring suppliers.

In the following report, Boise Paper, the manufacturer of America’s top selling copy paper, outlines what to look for within each of the three pillars to help you make strategic sustainability decisions when sourcing your company’s paper.

Environmental Impact

A demonstrated commitment to environmentally friendly materials and business practices is a core component of sustainability. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most difficult to evaluate, with some manufacturers leveraging the popularity of “go-green” messaging to green-wash and exaggerate eco-friendly claims with little proof. As you evaluate a manufacturer’s environmental practices, look for these five items:

1) Third-Party Certifications

Every industry has certification boards that add third-party credibility to claims. In the paper manufacturing industry, the three top certification bodies are the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Program for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC).

While the process for certification varies by program, basic requirements include third-party site assessments, reporting, peer reviews and annual inspections. Forest certification verifies that a specific area of forest is being managed according to certain sustainability standards for the well-being of the environment, as well as the economy and humanity.

In addition to certifying responsible forestry practices, these bodies can also certify a manufacturer’s fiber sourcing and chain-of-custody practices. Fiber Sourcing certification governs how participants obtain wood fiber from both certified and non-certified forestland. This is applicable when organizations do not own or manage their own land, but purchase wood directly from forest owners. Chain-of-Custody
(COC) certification tracks certified wood and wood-based products throughout the supply chain – from the location of harvest to the consumer, including transportation, receipt, production, sale, resale, and declaration. COC certification verifies the logs came from sustainably managed forests, and helps ensure, for example, that legal and illegal wood did not intermix along the way. While certification may not be mandated by governments, credible programs like SFI, FSC, and PEFC conform to existing laws and basic sustainability requirements.

When evaluating a paper manufacturer, ask to see what types of forest, fiber sourcing and chain-of-custody certifications they have obtained, as this gives a strong indication of their commitment to sustainability.

2) Internal Management Systems

Sustainable manufacturers consistently seek improvements to minimize their environmental impact.
At the least, they should be tracking and monitoring environmental metrics, such as energy expended and solid waste volume produced. They also should be screening for hazardous contaminants, such as lead, in the supplies they use and the products they produce. Take a close look at the company’s compliance history. Have they had any major violations in recent years?
U.S.-based paper manufacturers like Boise Paper have dedicated resources that track metrics and develop practices to ensure compliance with robust U.S. regulations and improve their environmental position. It’s this level of commitment that’s the clearest sign of a commitment to sustainability.

3) Use of Private, U.S.-based Forest Land

In the United States, wood used to make paper comes from two places: privately-owned forests and public forests operated by the federal, state or county government. In fact, about 90 percent of the wood harvested in the U.S. for products like paper and lumber are made from trees grown on private forest land, owned by families and businesses who make their living operating sustainable forests, while just 10 percent is public land. By providing a dependable market for responsibly grown trees, manufacturers can encourage landowners to manage their forestland sustainably.

In addition, U.S. forestry operations adhere to strict local and federal regulations. As a result, paper sourced from U.S. forests is not a threat to the health of domestic forests. Other sources of paper, particularly some paper coming from overseas, cannot make the same claims.

4) Recycled and Fresh Fiber Paper Product Offerings

On the surface, it may seem that using 100 percent recycled paper would be the most sustainable choice for your company – but paper with 30 percent and 50 percent recycled content, or that has no recycled content, play a vital role in the sustainable recycling loop.

This is because the wood fibers used to make paper can be recycled up to seven times before cumulative breakdown makes them no longer usable. Because of this limit, paper products made from fresh, never-used wood fibers are needed to keep the recycling loop going. Responsible manufacturers understand this, and will offer your company a variety of options to leverage both recycled and non-recycled paper.

For office papers, look for recycled papers that are bright white and have a jam-free guarantee. If you’re unsure about a manufacturer’s recycled paper options, do a side-by-side comparison with its fresh fiber paper, and run both through a printer test to see how they perform. A quality recycled paper will stand up equally well to its fresh fiber counterpart.

5) Thought Leadership to Reduce Environmental Impact

Sustainable manufacturers think beyond the bottom line, knowing that strong environmental practices and protections contribute to a thriving forest-products industry with long-term sustainability. When manufacturers take a “seat at the table” with scientists and conservationists they demonstrate a commitment to elevate the industry as a whole. Investing and contributing in these organizations increases informed, accurate scientific research, improves environmental regulation and sustainability reporting and allows manufacturers to improve their own practices and reduce their environmental impact.

The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) – an independent, non-profit research institute that focuses on environmental and sustainability topics – is one such organization. NCASI was at the forefront of pioneering wastewater treatment practices that are widely utilized today, not only for treating paper mill effluents, but also for treatment of municipal and other wastewaters. It is this type of environmental innovation that has the potential to propel the industry forward. By contributing thought leadership, planning, and funding to organizations like NCASI, sustainable manufacturers help ensure a vibrant economic outlook for the industry and the people and communities they serve.

Economic Awareness

While every manufacturer has a goal of profitability, it should not come at the expense of quality products or long-term economic viability. Awareness of economic responsibilities – both within the industry and in the community – is a sign of a sustainable manufacturer. Look for the following when evaluating a manufacturer’s commitment to economic sustainability.

1) Domestic Manufacturing

Low-quality, cheap office paper comes at a price. Cheap paper leads to performance issues and delays that reflect poorly on your company. And manufacturers of cheap paper, often foreign suppliers, have little vested in the economic success of your company or the communities you serve.

A “Made in the U.S.A.” claim is not only patriotic – it has true economic impact. Nearly one million people are directly employed by the wood products industry in the United States. These jobs provide families with a source of income and help support local economies in the towns where they’re based.
This helps ensure the vibrancy of the community and continued operations of the manufacturer for generations.

The Federal Trade Commission heavily regulates the usage of “Made in the U.S.A.” claims in packaging and advertising, on the premise that “Made in the U.S.A” means all – or virtually all – of the product and its components were manufactured domestically. Companies making false claims open themselves up to significant litigation, so it’s a fairly safe bet that most “Made in the U.S.A.” claims you see are accurate. However, as a purchaser, you should look at the fine print, as companies may add qualifiers such as “with imported parts” that belie their production claims.

Another way to verify the extent of a company’s domestic manufacturing is to look up or ask for the addresses of their operations. Any overseas production locations should raise a red flag.

2) Well-Documented Protocol

Whether foreign or domestic, all manufacturers should have documented policies and procedures covering production and employee safety. To evaluate manufacturers in this area, look for public reports from federal and state regulators, like OSHA or the FTC. While incidents are bound to happen, well-documented and enforced protocol should prevent frequent citations.

If you’re planning to purchase from a foreign supplier, make sure you understand the laws of the country in which they operate. Government regulation of manufacturing can vary widely, and some foreign suppliers may not adhere to critical measures common in the United States.

3) Fair and Safe Supply Chains

In addition to internal control processes, responsible manufacturers should apply stringent checks and balances throughout their entire supply chain. Look for companies that adhere to an effective manufacturing code of conduct, outlining social and environmental activities based on fair labor principles and practices. Because your business is deeply affected by your vendors’ supply chains, you should ensure this code aligns with your own company’s expectations and values.

Another benefit U.S.-based manufacturers should provide is greater accessibility and shorter response times, which allows them to more quickly mitigate issues such as incorrect orders or delivery delays. Ensure your supplier can offer dedicated customer service relationships to provide immediate support and direct confirmation, thereby reducing potential ambiguity that costs time and money.

4) Investment in Industry Improvement

Thought leadership need not be limited to environmental issues. Sustainable manufacturers also invest time and resources in research and best practices that improve production and create safer work environments. Look for suppliers with good reputations in the industry. Even relative newcomers, without a lengthy record to review, can demonstrate a high-level of visibility and involvement in industry associations or investment in research studies that will move the industry forward. Partnerships, media coverage and overall presence can help determine their economic awareness and commitment to move the industry forward.

Social Responsibility

The final element of sustainability focuses on balancing the needs of the company with those of its employees, customers, local communities, and the world. Of all the pillars, this one is the most subjective. While different manufacturers may address it in various ways based on their core values, social sustainability can be distilled down most simply to “giving back.” Consider the following when evaluating a manufacturer’s commitment to social sustainability.

1) Connection to Local Communities

An engaged and happy workforce is a frontline indicator of a good company culture, and responsible manufacturers are both invested in the success of their employees and connected to the communities those employees call home. Whether donating school supplies to local schools or time, energy, and resources to spruce up local parks, these connections should extend outside the walls of the company.

Look for long-term and multi-generational employees from the same family as a sign the company treats their people well. Check out their social media presence to get a sense for employee engagement and sentiment. And, if possible, ask to visit one of their manufacturing facilities in person.

2) Partnerships with Reputable Associations

Responsible manufacturers partner with respected non-profit organizations and associations. It’s as simple as that. Even if they’ve launched their own initiatives, suppliers who connect with reputable, third-party non-profit or charity organizations add credibility to their social responsibility claims. Ask the manufacturer about its partnerships and contributions, and don’t be afraid to contact those associations for more information on the manufacturer’s efforts.

3) Alignment with Your Company’s Values

Consider the social causes your company champions. Do your suppliers share similar priorities, or are they working to impact different causes? Working with a manufacturer committed to the same causes may help extend your company’s impact in those areas, while manufacturers focused on other areas may help fill important gaps your company simply doesn’t have the resources to address. Whatever level of alignment you decide is right, be wary of very recent programs or donations that appear perfectly aligned with your company. These may be a sign the supplier is not as committed to the cause as they are to winning the contract.


Sustainability is a major focus for companies and consumers today – but true sustainability goes beyond being a good steward of the environment. A commitment to total sustainability helps drive innovations that change the way we think about products, technologies, processes and business models.

Evaluating manufacturers on all three pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic and social – gives a truly accurate perspective of the manufacturer as a whole. Choosing a manufacturing partner that excels at all three pillars not only “checks the boxes,” but it enhances and strengthens your own sustainability mission, which will ultimately help your company improve practices and processes to better compete and succeed in today’s economy.

Improving Communities with the Arbor Day Foundation Parks are at the heart of every vibrant community. That’s why Boise Paper and the Arbor Day Foundation partner to turn abandoned urban areas into neighborhood parks and green spaces through Project UP™. Boise Paper launched Project UP in 2011 as a way to demonstrate how a commitment to sustainability could breathe new life into communities in need. To date, hundreds of Boise Paper employees, partners and community members have volunteered to plant thousands of trees, shrubs, and plants at transformational projects across the country.

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