Applauding the growing call for more transparency in US commodity checkoff programs

Tyson Miller, Forests Campaign Director, Stand.earth
Anne Pernick, Reducing Consumption Coordinator, Environmental Paper Network
Beth Porter, Climate Campaigns Director, Green America

The U.S. Paper and Packaging Board (P+PB), like the National Pork Board and the American Egg Board, is one of the federal commodity checkoff programs. Companies from the industry producing at least 100,000 short tons/year in the United States are required to pay into the program to support marketing and research, and the funds are collected by the Department of Agriculture. Despite being public programs engaged in what the courts have declared government speech, the commodity checkoffs offer little opportunity for public involvement or oversight. The lack of sunlight has fostered several scandals involving anticompetitive behavior and unethical use of funds, as well as use of funds for lobbying which is not a legal activity for the checkoffs.

All this has inspired the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act, bipartisan legislation in both the US House and Senate to require greater transparency from the checkoff programs, including sharing their budgets publicly and undergoing audits. These bills would also prohibit the checkoffs from engaging in conflicts of interest or unfair or anticompetitive practices, and reaffirm that checkoff funds can’t be used for lobbying directly or through partner groups.

While the Paper and Packaging Board has not been named in past checkoff scandals, the experience of citizen groups’ attempts to engage with the check-off program and the Paper and Packaging Board, and conduct public oversight and monitoring, shows the need for increased transparency and accountability. Here are two important reasons why:

  • The meetings of the governing board of the P+PB are supposed to be public but in practice they are not. The P+PB board has repeatedly met publicly for about an hour or less and then shifted to hours of executive session that are closed to the public. In the past, conservation groups have been required to submit Freedom of Information Act requests to the USDA to obtain the records from these supposedly public meetings. The requests took months to process and the records were heavily redacted.
  • The public should be able to know the relationship between the P+PB and other organizations. These relationships include the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) and the Coalition for Paper Options, both of which lobby, and Two Sides, which doesn’t lobby, but, according to this industry marketing blog, supports the work of Coalition for Paper Options, “a pro-print advocacy project created by AF&PA and the Envelope Manufacturers Association.” There are many cozy relationships between these organizations. Here are two key examples we know about: Mary Anne Hansan has been the President of the P+PB since 2014 and has been on the board of directors of Two Sides for at least 2015, 2016, and 2017 (the Two Sides website does not list board members, but they are listed on past 990s on Guidestar. Michael Doss is a board member of the AF&PA and chairs the governing board of the P+PB. Because some of the scandals in other checkoffs have been about funds being funneled through partner groups and then used for lobbying, which is not allowed under the program, the financial and other close relationships between the P+PB and these other organizations need to be transparent to the public.

While the legislation would address these problems, there is also a critical need for transparency in P+PB’s messaging about the impacts of paper production and use.

The Paper and Packaging Board’s marketing strategy presents all paper production and use as equally sustainable with misleading oversimplifications about renewable trees and recyclable paper. The truth is that paper is a high-impact material, particularly when the paper is made with virgin fiber that is not certified, and too much of it is made without recycled content and is not or can not be recycled after it is used. Paper that is responsibly-sourced and made with recycled content has much lower impacts on climate, forests, forest communities, wildlife, and more. Fortunately, sustainability matters to many customers. Unfortunately, the P+PB’s marketing tells them all paper is the same in terms of sustainability. Additionally, the checkoff program is supposed to benefit all of its members. The sustainability leaders in the industry are required to pay into the P+PB, but the Board undermines the business edge these sustainability leaders have earned through their investments in genuine sustainability progress.

Another key place for sunlight is the P+PB’s almost absurd messaging about paper, recycling, and waste in its How Life Unfolds marketing campaign.

In February, the P+PB wrote a blog that states that there is no need for “fretting” about disposable coffee cups because they are now recyclable in a handful of cities, but ignored the 16 billion that will end up in landfills each year and which take 6.5 million trees to produce. This is out of touch with the growing use of reusables and important developments underway through the NextGen Cup Challenge, which is accelerating technological innovations to advance widespread universal cup recycling and also piloting reusable cup systems in large food retailers. Starbucks, after years of advocates calling for the company to green the way it serves drinks, is co-chairing this consortium that is driving this progress forward and they are continuing to take environmental leadership on this front seriously, setting new goals for reducing waste and advancing reusable systems and closed loop recycling. What’s needed is P+PB’s leadership to support recycling system improvements that will enable better recovery of cups and other paper-based items like cartons to increase the sustainability of these products and make sure that paper isn’t such a high proportion of our landfills. (For answers to questions about reusables during the COVID-19 pandemic, see this excellent blog from EPN member organization, Upstream.) 

In December, the P+PB put out a blog meant to promote paper receipts that reads like satire. An anonymous author writing in the first person collects receipts like gifts, shares them with family, and, ironically, only says no to a paper record of things they wish they didn’t buy, like gas for their “guzzler” SUV and fees for doggie daycare and boarding. The author sings the praises of paper receipts for tracking expenses, making sure a discount came through, and collecting coupons. The blog ignores that digital receipts let people do all those same things, while also being better for the planet (currently paper receipts in the US cost three million trees per year), preventing paper waste, and lowering customers’ and workers’ exposure to the BPA or BPS that coat most paper receipts.

It’s time for the Paper and Packaging Board to tell the whole story about how they work, who they’re working with, and the impacts of the different ways paper is made and used. Their paying members that are leaders in sustainability deserve it, as do the customers who are trying to buy responsibly and the taxpayers to whom this program is supposed to be accountable.

To learn more about work to make paper production and use more sustainable, please visit:
Environmental Paper Network’s website and also our Unwrap the Truth site
Green America’s Skip the Slip
Stand.earth’s Forest Conservation campaign