Report: A look at corporate demand for sustainably managed or certified forest products from Columbia University research

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA , January 10, 2012 () – Over the past few months, GreenBlue has been working with a group of students from Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program on a research project related to our work in forest products. As part of this master's program, students are required to complete a capstone project in which they undertake a semester long research endeavor for a nonprofit or government client, and GreenBlue was very fortunate to have been selected as a client for this past semester.

Sustainable forest management is one of the most important strategies for reducing pressure on the world’s forests. Increasing corporate demand for sustainably managed forest products will be crucial in increasing the global share of sustainably managed forestland and ultimately in safeguarding our valuable forest resources. Through our work with the Columbia team, we wanted to get a better understanding of the current market for sustainably managed forest products and to identify practical actions that can be taken to increase the availability of these products in the marketplace.

More specifically, we asked the team to evaluate the corporate strategies and level of commitment that the largest buyers of forest products in the United States have in place for addressing sustainable forest management in order to analyze the current and trending demand for these products by leading corporate consumers. These results were then compared to supply of forest products being produced from a limited amount of sustainably managed forestland.

The students collected corporate procurement policies and strategies from publicly available corporate sustainability reports of 74 leadership companies across three primary sectors: paper and publishing, packaging, and solid wood. The students then developed a proprietary technique to evaluate the sustainability performance of these companies based on 17 criteria related to sourcing of forest products, and company progress was tracked over five years to evaluate industry trends.

The results showed that leaders in the paper and publishing sector have been increasingly moving towards greater use of certified paper, and that there has also been a proliferation of new sustainable sourcing policies. In this sector, leading companies have paper procurement policies with clear goals to increase their use of certified paper, robust supply chain platforms that ensure chain of custody compliance, initiatives to increase the share of certified forestland, and various paper recycling efforts. Corporate policies in the packaging sector tended to focus more on use of recycled fiber content and designing for recyclability rather than on sourcing of certified fiber. Finally, in the solid wood sector, the research found that homebuilders generally have a low commitment to sustainable wood sourcing and focus largely on improving energy efficiency of the homes they build, while household durable (or furniture) companies have more of an emphasis on wood procurement and particularly avoiding illegally harvested wood.

In general across the three sectors, environmental initiatives were more focused on efforts to recycle and reduce consumption of resources, likely because these efforts are less dependent on supply chains, and less focused on sustainable procurement.

On the supply side, the students identified various challenges along the supply chain that hinder the widespread availability of sustainable managed forest products. When considering forest certification in particular, forestland in the US is largely uncertified likely because certification may not be cost-effective for private landowners since certified products do not yield large price premiums as market incentives are currently structured. The report provides specific recommendations for engaging with industry leaders to increase the overall market share of sustainable forest products, including the need for standardized reporting in each sector with specific forestry metrics and performance indicators. The report also highlights the need for more cross-industry collaboration to increase awareness of and commitment to procurement of sustainable managed forest products, something which GreenBlue is working towards through our new Forest Products Working Group.

We are thrilled to have worked with such an impressive group of students and so grateful for their sophisticated insights on this project. The full report is entitled "Corporate Strategies to Increase Market Share of Sustainably Managed Forest Products."

[IThe full report from the Columbia University's master's program in Sustainability Management can be downloaded by clicking on the PDF link.]

This article originally appeared in GreenBlue's blog, In the Loop, www.greenblue.org. GreenBlue is a nonprofit organization that equips business with science and resources to make products more sustainable. Ashley Holmes is a development and communications associate.

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