The need to ensure transparency and oversight for government sponsored commodity marketing programs: The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act is a start.

By Environmental Paper Network – North America (EPN-NA)

Cue the snappy catch phrases and animated characters designed to convince you that you need and love a product. You may not know what a “checkoff program” is, but chances are it’s influenced your purchasing. The checkoff marketing programs – think “Got milk?” and “Beef…it’s what’s for dinner” – are government-managed corporate marketing campaigns that levy a collective “tax” on a product’s producers and then use those dollars for advertising for that commodity. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the agency tasked with providing oversight for these programs, including ensuring that funds are spent appropriately and not on lobbying, and that program operations follow rules and are transparent. 

Unfortunately, despite being public programs engaged in what the courts have declared government speech, the commodity checkoffs offer little opportunity for public involvement or oversight. Over the years, the programs have consistently engaged in scandalous behaviors and the unethical use of funds, operated in secrecy, and used funds for lobbying and electioneering which are not legal activities for the checkoffs. 

While the group in charge of the paper and packaging checkoff program – the “Paper and Packaging Board” – has not been named in past public checkoff scandals, EPN-North America’s experience in attempting to engage with the program for the past seven years, and conduct public oversight and monitoring for citizens and our members, has been met with the stonewalling of communication or cooperation, thus exemplifying the need for increased transparency and accountability for these government-managed programs. Here is evidence and important reasons why:

  • The meetings of the board of the Paper and Packaging checkoff program are supposed to be open to the public but are not. The “public” meetings have been open to the public for approximately 10 minutes, for introductions and roll call, and then visitors are asked to leave, and the entire meeting is shifted to several hours of “executive session” that are closed to the public. Conservation groups have been forced to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the USDA to obtain records from the meetings, but the FOIA requests take close to a year or more to process, and even then, the records are heavily redacted. Attempts to discuss this with USDA managers have been met with indifference, even though prior to the start of the paper program USDA staff indicated that checkoff meetings would be entirely public and executive sessions reserved only for any sensitive human resource topics. Shutting citizens and NGOs out of the meetings began immediately at the onset of the program in 2013, even when our representatives traveled to Washington, D.C. and other places in the country specifically to attend meetings in person. This secretive meeting pattern continued when the meetings moved to teleconference during the pandemic.
  • The public should be able to know about the cozy relationship between the Paper and Packaging Board 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 an 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 several secret relationships between these organizations. For example, Mary Anne Hansan has been the President of the Paper and Packaging Board since 2014 and has been on the board of directors of Two Sides for at least 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 (the Two Sides website does not list board members, but they are listed on previous 990s on Guidestar.) 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 Paper and Packaging Board members and other organizations need to be much more transparent to the public.

We also believe that the goals of the checkoff programs to increase consumption, whether or not it is sustainable or healthy, should be reconsidered. The Paper and Packaging program’s marketing of all paper as sustainable undermines real sustainability and progress made by leaders in the industry. The program’s chosen approach has led to careless messaging about disposable products, in spite of rapidly increasing waste challenges faced by municipalities and the planet, and growing awareness about the impacts of overconsumption and single-use products as our world faces simultaneous and interconnected warming and biodiversity crises. 

The Paper and Packaging Board recently made a bold decision to spend all $20 million of its annual marketing dollars on promoting the unabated and guilt-free consumption of paper products as positive for the environment. Unfortunately, a recent preview of this marketing indicates that the ads will be primarily focused on putting the onus on the consumer to recycle, instead of measurable actions that the industry is or could be taking to reduce its impacts, or to support products that are actually made from recycled materials. This is a missed opportunity to create more jobs, capture a market with growth potential, and achieve true social and environmental benefits that also improve consumers’ perceptions of paper products.

This risky business has inspired bipartisan legislation in both the US House of Representatives (reintroduced in June 2021) and the Senate to require greater transparency from the checkoff programs. The bills are known as the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act and would require sharing the budgets of commodity checkoffs publicly and undergoing audits. They would also prohibit the checkoffs from engaging in conflicts of interest or unfair or anti-competitive practices, and reaffirm that checkoff funds can’t be used for lobbying directly or through partner groups. We believe that the bills should also establish greater transparency by ensuring that the public is able to attend the full program of checkoff meetings and more closely monitor their plans and activities.

We know the job of the Paper and Packaging Board is to convince people to buy more paper,  but it’s time for them to tell the whole story about how they work, who they’re working with, and the impacts of the different ways paper and packaging is made and used. Their paying paper industry members who are leaders in sustainability and the public who are trying to buy responsibly deserve it. We hope this year brings it.

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The Environmental Paper Network is an alliance of over 150 organizations working together toward a Global Paper Vision of a forest, pulp and paper industry that contributes to a healthy, just and sustainable future for all life on earth.

To learn more about our work to make paper production and use more sustainable, please visit Environmental Paper Network and our new SolvingPackaging.org website.