Think before you print

Designers could be Greener when it comes to specifying paper, says Dominic Murphy. More recycling and sustainable thinking – as well as using sustainable sources – are the best options for creatives who really want to save the planet

Go on, be honest. As a designer, how often do you use environmentally friendly paper? Probably not very often, according to Dorothy MacKenzie, chairwoman of Dragon Brands, the branding and design consultancy, who also chairs the Green Alliance think-thank. ‘Environmental criteria are not yet “top of mind” for many designers, unless this is specified very clearly in briefs from clients – and this happens rarely. So designers often fall back on papers they are very familiar with, as they are first of all thinking about how to achieve a particular type of end result.’

Don’t blame the suppliers. There is a real feeling, says MacKenzie, that many are getting their acts together and it is routine to find sustainably sourced papers carrying the logo of the Forest Stewardship Council. In October last year, for example, Arjowiggins announced that its ubiquitous Conqueror range was now FSC-compliant, and has promised that its fine papers will be similarly accredited by June this year. ‘The idea is to move to carbon neutral,’ says Arjowiggins marketing director David Cook, who says that this is more than a PR exercise, and that huge cultural changes are being made across the company. ‘I’m as cynical as the next person,’ he says. ‘You could be driving a Ferrari and offsetting it and saying you’re carbon neutral, but that is a weak argument.’

While such moves are to be applauded, there are those in the industry who think there is too much emphasis on sustainably sourced pulp. ‘One issue with FSC compliance,’ says Sophie Thomas, co-director of consultancy Thomas Matthews, ‘is that, even though the sources are accredited, the pulp could be from a forest in Brazil, so there is [still] a large carbon footprint. The argument should be [about] the choice between FSC-compliant and recycled paper.’

It is issues such as this that Thomas wants to highlight through Three Trees Don’t Make a Forest (, a not-for-profit enterprise she has set up with two like-minded creatives, Caroline Clark and Nat Hunter. Designers, says Thomas, could concentrate on using recycled stock, which would not only mean fewer trees being chopped down, but less paper ending up in landfill (according to Wrap, the Government-backed Waste and Resources Action Programme, nearly 40 per cent of paper used in the UK still ends up in the waste stream). ‘I don’t believe in using virgin paper at all,’ says Thomas; ‘I think that is ridiculous. It seems crazy that we take this finite resource and turn it into something that we generally don’t recycle.’

However, to be genuinely Green in paper usage requires more than an understanding of ‘recycled versus sustainably sourced’. There are some simple first steps, says Anne Chick, reader in sustainable design at Kingston University, such as asking whether you need to use it in the first place, as opposed to, say, electronic communication. Other easy approaches might include asking yourself it is necessary to bleed pictures or tints off the edge of the page, thus leaving hard-to-recycle scraps after trimming. And if you are designing a brochure or publication, try to specify standard sizes of paper for which printing presses are configured, so you reduce the amount of waste.

As well as paper itself, there are also the eco issues of inks, sealants and bleaching processes. It helps, too, if you have the telephone numbers of a few sympathetic printers. And let’s not forget that one person’s ‘recycled’ paper is not necessarily another’s. According to Friends of the Earth, only ‘post-consumer waste’ that has been used by the consumer can rightly be described as recycled. Mill waste, on the other hand, which occurs during the paper-making process and then is reused, should not be included in this definition, although it often happens in practice.

No one claims that getting to grips with the subject is straightforward, but, says Chick, the current situation could be improved if art schools were to raise their game. For many graphics courses, sustainability is ‘not a priority part of the curriculum’.

Perhaps, then, this goes some way to explain what Thomas, among others, calls myths about environmentally friendly paper – chief among them that they are cruder than the virgin equivalent. A decade ago, this might have been the case when the former had a rough-and-ready quality and was the butt of jokes involving sandals and muesli. Today, says Thomas, this is just not true. ‘You can go hairy jumper if you like, or you can go super white.’

Another myth, she says, is the idea that more energy is used in recycling paper than in making it from virgin pulp. According to a major Danish study comparing 100 per cent recycled to virgin stock, the manufacture of 1 tonne of the former can save 1.32 tonnes of carbon dioxide. As Thomas might put it, designers should talk less rubbish – and use more of it.

For more information on environmentally friendly papers and relevant contacts, see and

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