The Sustainability of Paper

Like me, you’ve probably received email with a “Think of the forests before you print this.” appeal in the footer. We’re encouraged to go paperless with our bank statements and credit card bills. We’re told that if we save a sheet of paper we’ll save a tree. We’re told that we need to be green (or cool, or both) so do the right thing and don’t print anything. Negative statements about print and paper usage abound, and being “paperless” has become a moral madate for many.

There’s a false assumption being made here: Forests are disappearing because we use paper. We use paper for good reason. Paper makes things real; it’s not a virtual medium. If something’s on paper, we are more likely to read it and to hold onto it. We consider the information on it more important than what’s conveyed in pixels. Even with books and publications going digital, paper has not disappeared as a communication medium. In fact, its rate of use is stable.

The truth is this: Printing promotes well-managed forests. Trees are a renewable resource – a crop harvested from managed forests that are replanted and tended to produce healthy crops. The process of sustainable management  produces the paper we use in printing. Sustainable forestry preserves the health and diversity of our timberlands and is increasing rather than depleting our overall tree population. The fact is that there are more forests in the United States today than there were 50 years ago, and forest growth has exceeded harvest since the 1940s. This debunks the “Save paper/Save a tree” mantra. The majority of America’s forests are privately-owned and supply the US forest products industry – the largest producer of renewable biomass energy in the country.

Old growth forests store more carbon than younger ones. New growth utilizes carbon during the growth process, producing a small carbon footprint. Products made from wood retain their carbon until they decompose or are burned, and therefore don’t release carbon into the environment as in the manner of electronic devices.

Sustainable forests not only provide paper goods, they provide food and shelter for for a diverse population of wildlife, ongoing livelihoods for the people who work in the industry, recreational opportunities and scenic beauty. Forests clean the air and provide the raw material for a myriad of products, including musical instruments, furniture, building materials, packaging, paper, and designer coffee cups.Negative messages about paper and printing abound, but are not supportable. Many are, in fact, urban legend. Demand for paper is beneficial in a variety of ways and good for the environment. So go ahead – print without guilt. Bask in the joy of the feel of paper.

For further reading:

Sustainable Forestry Initiative 

Sappi eQ

World Business Council for a Sustainable World


Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.