Today is the bi-monthly meeting of the Paper and Packaging Board, or Paper Check-off. It’s a new initiative by the U.S. pulp and paper industry to encourage Americans and others to buy more paper and counter declining domestic consumption and its impact on sales. The Environmental Paper Network is the only civil society organisation monitoring this public/private partnership, and our project – “Checking Up on the Paper Check-off” – will be present today on behalf of citizens and our member organisations.

Quick Background: Last year, the U.S. pulp and paper industry voted in a referendum to take advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Commodity Check-off Program. This program allows an industry to collaborate and pool their marketing dollars without violating anti-trust laws in order to promote an agricultural product, generically. From the USDA website, “commodity ‘check-off’ programs are designed to strengthen the position of each respective commodity in the marketplace by increasing domestic demand and consumption and by expanding foreign markets for these commodities.” Have you heard the phrase, “Got Milk?” The ubiquitous slogan was developed by the dairy industry using the same program. All the money comes from the industry itself, however all meetings and documents are open the public as the program is authorized by federal legislation and administered by the USDA.

Not every paper company in the U.S. voted to implement the program. A few companies that have worked hard to establish genuine environmental leadership in recycled paper products and whose efforts could be damaged by generic industry claims about sustainability voted against its creation. But the referendum was successful and an assessment of $0.35 per ton of product manufactured went into effect early this year, and is anticipated to generate a war chest of $25 million dollars per year, for the next seven years, for the marketing effort.

Here’s a few key updates:

1. The Paper Check-off hired Executive Director Mary Anne Hansan in May. Ms. Hansan has served as Vice President for the National Fisheries Institute since 2007 where she implemented a $20 million dollar marketing campaign on behalf of the major U.S. canned tuna brands. According to the first edition of the Paper Check-off newsletter, “Hansan’s goal is to increase consumer appreciation for paper and paper-board packaging, reduce guilt about using these products and deepen their understanding of the industry’s environmentally-friendly practices.” It’s not exactly what I had in mind, considering the environmental controversies that have followed the canned tuna industry, but perhaps they took my advice to hire outside the paper industry.

2. This Paper Check-off newsletter indicates the launch of a “Defensive public relations campaign” in June of 2014, however, the details of that remain opaque.

3. A glimpse of the “defensive campaign” was gained in a webinar held by the Paper Check-off in July, which the EPN attended. Ms. Hansan narrated a PowerPoint presentation which previewed the forthcoming strategy to “Embark on a PR effort to counter attacks on the industry” and more specifically to “sever relationships between activists and the media.” The webinar was recorded and promises were made that the PowerPoint would be shared following the call. However, after EPN spoke with USDA regarding questions and concerns about the content of the webinar, our attempts to obtain a copy of the PowerPoint were denied by the Paper Check-off program staff. An explanation was provided that after talking to the USDA, Paper Check-off staff realized there was some outdated information in the PowerPoint that needed to be corrected. So, in order to get access to this public webinar’s PowerPoint and recording, the EPN was required to file a Freedom of Information Act request. The request is pending.

We look forward to attending the meeting today, via conference call, and continuing to keep the public and our members updated on the activities and integrity of the Paper Check-off Program. Keep up with the latest at our project webpage, and please remember – don’t just ask “Got Paper?” ask “What’s In Your Paper?”