As we were reminded incessantly, April 22nd was Earth Day. Wikipedia defines it as “an annual day on which events are held worldwide to increase awareness and appreciation of the earth's natural environment.”
The official recognition of Earth Day started in 1970 which coincided with the beginning of concern for the environment as a political force in the United States. The 70’s saw the publication of books like The Population Bomb by Paul Erlich and scholarly reports like The Limits to Growth by The Club of Rome. The main argument was that overpopulation coupled with pollution and depletion of natural resources were putting us on a disastrous path which was supposed to play out in the later years of the 20th century. The EPA was formed later in the decade during the Nixon administration. The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and other pieces of legislation that comprise the foundation for current policy were also passed in the 1970’s.
Well, we’re still here in 2012 and doing pretty well environmentally speaking. By just about every measure, the air and water in general are cleaner than 40 years ago and there are plenty of natural spaces in which to stretch out. We haven’t yet “Paved paradise and put up a parking lot” as the great Joni Mitchell song goes. Some of this has come about due to increased public concern about environmental matters resulting in legislation. Two marked achievements in that regard are the dramatic reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants and the switch to unleaded gas through mandating the catalytic converter in all new vehicles.
There is a dark side, however, to environmental activism. This manifests itself in a lack of concern or even hostility to economic growth and widespread material progress in general. With regard to printing and envelopes, there’s a reflexive opposition to cutting down trees in order to produce paper. The idea is that by not printing something on paper, you’re “saving a tree.” The fact that the more paper is consumed, the more trees are required doesn’t seem to factor into the equation.
Businesspeople are generally risk-averse. We’re always looking for more customers so taking a potentially controversial stand which might alienate a segment of our market is seen as a negative. The environmental movement’s success in presenting its objectives in mother and apple-pie terms has led many companies to start “green” initiatives in an effort to sell themselves to those who are sympathetic to these concerns.
Government agencies have also sought to accelerate this trend. The US Commerce Department in its Earth Day 2012 blog bragged about how they’ve “saved 3,489 trees” (I assume they had someone go to a forest and count) as well as money by eliminating the numbers of pages they print by 27%. Now we can all waste less in our daily lives and this is certainly a good thing. But it’s an ominous sign for any industry’s future prospects to have its normal activities portrayed as a necessary evil at best or a vice at worst. Financial service companies trumpet the fact that they are “going green” by eliminating printed statements. We have included this message on the envelopes they still use. Talk about printing your own obituary!
Printers and envelope companies have been promoting their green credentials for some time now. Recycling paper makes sense both from the standpoint of economics and ethics. And of course we should dispose of our chemicals in an environmentally-friendly way. We all drink the same water. Programs like FSC and SFI promote “sustainable forestry”. Elite Envelope is FSC certified and I’ve found the people involved to be committed and the program well-run. However, the underlying message is that without environmentalist oversight, the forests that produce pulp for paper are going to be managed in a less than responsible manner. Seems to me the incentives are all in the other direction. If you’re a paper company looking for the greatest return on your investment, aren’t you going to manage the forest to produce as much as possible? Things don’t grow unless they’re well cared-for. Anyone with a backyard garden can vouch for that!
Are we better off trying to appease those who do not have our best interests in mind? I say no. By taking that approach, we are to some extent agreeing with them by accepting their premises. Envelope printers and printers in general should speak about the value of what we do and not indirectly apologize for it. There’s nothing wrong with producing printed materials on paper. It’s an honest business with a venerable tradition and completely consistent with a reasonable and common-sense concern for the environment. Say it loud: “We print and we’re proud”!