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Today marks a pinnacle moment in Dogwood’s campaign to protect Southern forests from the impacts of industrial forestry for paper production. Since our humble beginnings in 1996, Dogwood Alliance has been openly critical of the paper industry’s impact on Southern forests. After all, the South is the world’s largest paper-producing region. And at the forefront of all of our campaigns over the past twelve years has been International Paper (IP). As the largest paper producer in the world’s largest paper-producing region, IP has had a significant footprint in our forests. And we’ve known for many years now that if we wanted to halt the conversion of natural forests to industrial pine plantations and the loss of unique forested ecosystems we would need to need to win over the Southern forest industry’s most influential player.

To take on IP seemed like a monumental task over a decade ago. But, we had a long-term vision, and we believed we could achieve it. We were going to convince IP’s biggest customers to join us in our fight to protect Southern forests. And once we had some big customers on our side, we were going to convince IP’s competitors to respond to those customers who were asking the right questions. We believed that this would create a new context where paper companies would have to compete for business not just on the price and quality of paper, but also on their commitments to forest conservation. Our strategy was perhaps part theory and part dream. Some doubted that it would work, but we didn’t let it stop us.

Over the years, one by one we convinced major customers of IP including Staples, Office Depot, OfficeMax, FedEx Office, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Universal Music Group and McDonald’s to embrace new environmental standards for their paper suppliers. That paved the way for three of the South’s largest paper producers, Domtar, Georgia-Pacific and Resolute Forest Products to begin working with Dogwood Alliance to improve forestry practices by embracing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification and/or committing not to purchase any wood from endangered forests or from plantations established at the expense of natural forests.

And then, about a year ago, in the midst of a campaign targeting another one of IP’s customers, Yum! Brands/KFC, I got a call from IP’s new VP of Sustainability, Teri Shanahan. Fast forward to today and IP has developed the most comprehensive approach to addressing long-standing concerns about the impacts of industrial logging in the US South. Not only are they working to aggressively expand the acreage of FSC certified forests across the South (by 2014 they expect to be one of the world’s largest users of FSC certified fibre in the world), but they have also committed to invest $7.5 million to help conserve forests in the ecoregions that have been the focus of our campaigns. Beyond that, they have agreed to work with Dogwood Alliance to map endangered and other high conservation value forests and to discourage the future conversion of natural hardwood forests to pine plantations.

This is a big shift from business as usual in the Southern forest industry, and IP deserves credit for embracing new approaches and beginning to create a new paradigm for their industry. They also deserve a lot of credit for seeking out Dogwood Alliance, one of their biggest critics, as a partner on their path of continuous improvement. That takes courage and a bit of a leap of faith.

We still have a long way to go to ensure our forests have the protection they so deserve. And there is still need for even greater improvement in the paper industry. But, today is a day to celebrate and to feel hopeful about what’s possible in the future. This has been a long road. It has been hard work involving the time, energy and support of many people over the years. Together we dreamed a big dream and it came true…at least in part… giving rise to an even greater confidence in our ability to manifest even bigger dreams for Southern forests in the future.

Read more about this game-changer in the paper industry and how it will protect Southern forests

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