Sustainable Packaging 101

101: Responsible Forest Products Sourcing

June 20, 2018

“In the long term, the economy and the environment are the same thing. If it’s un-environmental it is un-economical. That is the rule of nature.”

Mollie H. Beattie, former Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service


A responsible sourcing strategy for forest products means that an organization is committed to using wood for its products and packaging that is sourced from certified or verified responsibly managed forests or recycled content. Depending on the product type and sourcing region, each policy may have special considerations, but are usually shaped by a number of important goals. In general, the best policies include requiring 100% certified, recycled, or verified content.

Source Certified and Verified Fiber to Support Forests

Forests provide an astonishing number of environmental, social, and economic benefits. More than we probably realize and many that are taken for granted. Forests provide clean air and water, a home to the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity, and one of our best hopes for reversing the damage of climate change. Forests products are also integral to the global economy by providing jobs, food, and products we rely on every day.

Supporting thriving forests and a thriving forest products industry through intelligent and informed sourcing strategies is, and should be, a priority for every business. As Ms. Beattie, an accomplished and influential forester and conservationist explained so well, the economy and the environment are not two separate things. Supporting forests through responsible sourcing has the potential to support healthy ecosystems in-kind.

The challenge is finding ways to reduce the impacts of using this resource.  Corporate commitments to sourcing from places that don’t contribute to deforestation, and sourcing from forests that are certified or verified as being responsibly managed under one of the certification programs are some approaches that enable both reduced impact and enhancement of benefits.


These strategies all start with the requirement of knowing where your wood fiber is coming from. From there, leading organizations apply time-bound goals and measurable requirements for sustainability performance indicators such as deforestation-free, legality, high conservation value, high carbon stock, chain of custody, forest conversion, supplier codes of conduct, and community and indigenous peoples. Less often cited — but equally important — are goals and requirements that address sourcing locally, family forest owners, and landscape assessments.

Understanding the role of forests and the forest products industry has come a long way. When sourced responsibly, and with strong markets, forest products can have positive conservation impact, economic impact, and social impact. However, forest degradation, deforestation, and increased pressure worldwide are but a few of the threats to the world’s forests that need to be addressed. We are far from adhering to Ms. Beattie’s “rule of nature”, but constantly evolving and adapting responsible sourcing and procurement policies are a step in the right direction.

Source Recycled Fiber for best-use applications

Sourcing recycled fiber is another sourcing option available that compliments fiber from sustainably managed forests. Recycling leads to environmental benefits like less material going to the landfill, and enabling a secondary use of the same fiber material. When companies use recycled content in their products, it helps to create a ‘demand pull’ that supports the recycling system. This end market demand is key to improve the system and continuously push to recover more.

The feasibility of incorporating recycled content into various packaging applications depends on the performance and aesthetic needs. Recycled fibers are often less strong that virgin fibers due to processing, and so are oftentimes better suited to lightweight packaging applications, like corrugated sheets for shipping lighter packages, and paperboard for light products. Virgin fibers contrastly are more suitable to more demanding applications like heavy duty packages and those that require internal structural strength. If you use recycled fiber for these kinds of packages, you may actually sometimes need more of it to get to the same tear strength performance, which can have larger overall environmental impact. Companies should also consider the local fiber available to them and how far recycled fiber must be transported compared to responsibly-sourced virgin.

Companies that wish to use high levels of recycled fiber should consider if their strength and aesthetic specifications allow for that or if they need to be adjusted. This requires internal flexibility inside of companies to adjust and test their product specifications as well as strong support from the top. It also requires high levels of supply chain collaboration and willingness to work closely with mills and printers to test and experiment.

Collaboration and innovative thinking is constantly needed to realize the full potential of sourcing from well-managed forests and using recycled content. It is important for any company, whether new to sustainability or a thought leader, to  engage stakeholders across the supply chain including ENGOs, manufacturers, brands, and other experts. GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, along with partners from the American Forest Foundation, USDA Forest Service and Esri, are actively working on a tool to provide landscape-based risk assessments for forests that are not certified, such as family owned forests in the United States.  

What can companies do?

  • Every business is in the forest products business: Understand that your purchasing decisions have an impact on forests and the benefits they provide including wildlife, clean air and water, and reversing the effects of climate change;
  • Take charge: Map your supply chain, understand your material impacts, set ambitious goals, and then develop an action plan around sourcing responsibly;
  • Follow the leader: When setting goals and creating an action plan, refer to other great examples of responsible procurement policies like Mars, McDonald’s, and Target;
  • Expand your horizons: Pursue standards and programs that can help you source responsibly and create markets that support responsible forest management and recycled fiber
  • Support Family Forests: The majority of forests are not certified – including family-owned forests in the United States – pursue other tools and verification methods to procure responsibly when certification or recycled fiber is not available;
  • Talk it out: Have conversations with your paper and packaging suppliers about their own unique programs around responsible forest management and recycled fiber