I was cruising across South Carolina, Georgia and Florida at 70 miles per hour recently with my family in tow. We were on our way to see my 99 year-old grandmother, who everyone calls “Bart.” My four passengers were absorbed in a combination of digital and paper-based entertainment.

We’d been passing massive clearcuts behind thin beauty strips, breaking up the landscape of mostly rows and rows of pine in vast plantations. It was not hard to see that some cuts were at the expense of the natural, remarkably diverse, mixed hardwood forests of the southeastern United States and soon the trees would stand in neat rows there as well.

I knew we were approaching the giant mill before we saw it. Predictably I said to my four year old son, “we’re going to pass where they make trees into paper!” He smelled it too, wrinkling his nose he simply said, “pew!,” and returned to the expanses of his vivid imagination and to carefully turning the pages of his Superman book.

I had been chewing on thoughts for this article in my head as I drove the long, straight highway. I smiled and made a mental note for a potential title, “Can Selling ALL Paper as Good for the Earth Pass the Sniff Test?”

You see, a new US Department of Agriculture program called the “Paper Check-off” has begun. Its newly appointed board is meeting Tuesday, March 25th in New York City at the Palace Hotel to proceed with planning how to spend an estimated $25 million/year to promote paper and paper-based packaging, generically.

Its a good time to ask: Are U.S. papermakers and the paper value chain sufficiently ready for their moment of truth?

There’s reason for concern. The program’s materials tout the assessment that ”when misperceptions about products’ environmental performance are corrected, perceptions improve, and consumers indicate their purchasing decisions will change.” That statement would be troubling to me in at least two ways if I was a company kicking in significant cash.

​First, industry self-assessment of environmental credentials are rarely accepted on face value alone by the general public or informed procurement managers.

Second, most experts agree the decline in paper sales in North America is due more to the economic crisis of 2008 and it hasn’t returned because of permanently shifting patterns of consumption and behavior in personal communications, financial transactions and newsmedia.

But unfortunately, according to documents, the industry hopes that correcting a public perception will be the key to “slowing the decline.” The Environmental Paper Network believes that what’s actually in your paper ultimately matters more to the industry than what’s in people’s perspective.

So, what would I do with a $25 million marketing warchest if I was on the 11 person board?

First, I’d advocate changing the way we define the goal and measure success of the program beyond the bottom line. Rather than boiling it down to a dollars and cents return for investors each quarter, I’d look longer and more broadly. Is it really retaining and creating jobs for American workers to be reinvested in rural communities? Is it increasing availability of capital for energy efficiency upgrades that will increase global competitiveness and contribute to a legacy of continuous environmental improvement.

Second, I’d hire a creative and strong Executive Director from outside the industry. The humanity, loyalty and pride of people that work in the paper industry is remarkable and has my genuine admiration. However, often these same qualities can handicap innovation. The industry needs someone who is an ally but can be honest with it. Someone who doesn’t operate from emotion and defensiveness.

Third, I’d showcase high value products where paper performs better than alternatives. I’d focus on where people show preference for it, or emerging markets where people never realized it could work so well, or where it’s greatly beneficial to global human health.

Fourth, I’d practice radical transparency with the public and the marketplace. I’d increase data sharing to be honest about where improvement is needed and to earn recognition where genuine progress is being made. I’d use the platform establish a reputation and new relationship with the public as an industry committed to continuous environmental improvement, and then prove it by following through.

Fifth, I’d promote not just paper recycling and recovery, but specifically the opportunities to buy high recycled content paper products. To not do so is a huge missed opportunity to create more jobs, capture a market with growth potential, and achieve true social and environmental benefits that improve consumers perceptions of paper products.

At the Environmental Paper Network we hope the industry’s leadership seizes this opportunity to be creative and visionary and truthful. We encourage the board to focus on performance as a platform to promote a high value, lower volume paper industry that can compete, create jobs and continuously improve.

We’ll be Checking up on the Paper Check-off as it develops and participating in the conversation, and we hope that you will too.

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