Are buying decisions now being influenced by a product’s carbon footprint? Guardian News and Media (GNM) is a Two Tomorrows client – we provide ethical assurance to them on a range of issues. Their recent decision to choose a paper supplier on the grounds of its relative carbon footprint has prompted a lively debate on their website.
For many years buying patterns for newsprint have been as you would expect for a typical commodity. Price is determined by supply and demand – once agreed upon, contracts are established for a set period. Of course there are other factors – product quality, security of supply, location, transportation, to name but a few, but these would normally be secondary to the price discussion.
I think the recent debate on the Guardian website changes this. Jo Confino (Executive Editor of the Guardian and Head of Sustainable Development for Guardian News and Media) explained that a Norwegian paper mill was chosen ahead of one (of three) UK recycled newsprint mills as part of an overall effort to reduce GNM’s carbon footprint. The UK mill had a higher carbon emissions figure due mainly to the UK power grid being more carbon intensive than the Norwegian’s grid, which is based predominantly on hydroelectricity. This may well be a first for the newsprint sector.
Suppliers are now looking more closely at emissions data and actively including them in buying decisions – surely this is a changing point in the paper industry? The lively debate which followed Jo’s article shows just how controversial this decision has been – but surely this is exactly the sort of debate that should be encouraged as we try to find our way in the changing economy.
The Norwegian mill obviously involves a higher transportation distance to the print sites and it also uses a mix of recycled and virgin fibre (56% and 44% respectively) compared to the 100% recycled fibre used at the UK mill. How should we balance these factors? Paper companies and the relevant industry bodies have worked hard to agree on a common methodology to communicate carbon emission figures. Compared to some other industries, they have already done an excellent job. Now we are seeing how buyers are reacting to the information they have been provided with – is it leading to the right outcomes?
If you look at the vast majority of major paper manufacturers, most have committed to a particular level of carbon reduction over a set time-frame. Some paper buyers have done something similar, as have GNM in this case. For the paper manufacturers, this means focusing investment where the reduction can be achieved most effectively – for example in power plant or process efficiency improvements. For multinational companies this will produce some winners and losers, with the overall group emissions in mind. I’m not saying the particular UK mill discussed in the article ‘lost out’ – they have some good environmental credentials and their recent investments should be excellent in terms of sustainability.
However for the paper buyer the real point is that they must consider the underlying carbon intensity of their suppliers, if they are to meet any reduction targets of their own (along with simply reducing paper use, but that’s a different debate!)
Through our assurance work, Two Tomorrows helped GNM understand the carbon intensity of their supply chain. This debate shows that, even armed with such information, the buying decisions remain complex. Buyers have to be pragmatic and the point comes where you have to take the data you have and make the most informed decision possible.
What does this tell us more widely about sustainability? Well, the buyer’s decision will rarely be straightforward, the issues are often complex and multiple factors must be considered. Those who make these choices in an open and transparent way and then allow for an open debate explaining those choices should be applauded.