Sustainable Stationery

Despite all the hype as we approached the millennium about us moving to paperless offices - the sales of paper continue to be strong be it for A4 refill pads, notebooks or diaries.

Our significant use of paper and products to file it in means that we should take a responsible approach about where we are sourcing the raw materials and how we process them to ensure that, wherever possible, they are sustainable and therefore available for years to come.

Back in the 1990’s most stationery products developed to support the environment used recycled paper which was usually very grey looking and often had such an open texture that if you used a roller ball or fountain pen your writing just feathered; it was synonymous with poor quality product. A lot of effort was put into the technology around its recovery and processing to make it much closer in colour, quality and writing experience to a paper made with virgin pulp; this processing was costly and the bleaching of the recycled material was not environmentally friendly either. Those producing the recycled paper were clear that they could not charge much of a premium if any despite the additional costs of production and the paper was expected to perform well too. I was working at W H Smith at the time and every paper range from writing paper to A4 refill pads had to have a recycled paper product in the range and there was sufficient consumer demand to justify making it too.

Roll forward almost 30 years and what has changed? Recycled paper products are still available but they have not become a significant part of the UK market and are still quite niche with retailers offering a product option in key areas like copier paper. However, this doesn’t mean the environment has been abandoned but rather that the focus has changed with FSC and PEFC papers having taken the place of recycled materials in many areas. FSC and PEFC certification both ensure the paper is from a sustainable and legal forest source the difference between the two schemes is how they go about doing this.

In 1995, there was a major push to get purchasers of paper across the world to commit to purchasing credibly-certified wood and wood materials and in 1998 the first FSC toilet tissue in the world was offered in the UK by Sainsburys!

The FSC have run strong marketing campaigns but the real recognition of FSC and the logo came when supermarkets started to insist on it being used for sandwich packaging. Now as consumers we see it everywhere and while we may not know exactly what it stands for it gives us the reassurance that the paper or board is sourced responsibly.

In many categories like greetings cards it is now the norm for a product to be made using FSC paper and even where the chain of custody is not complete so the FS logo cannot be used on the product, a manufacturer may still state in words that it is made with FSC paper or board.

Toby Robins Chief Executive of Office Club and Strategic Council member of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment is very knowledgeable on this subject and offers the following views.

‘The Body Shop arrived on our High Streets and became a massive success because so very many people wanted the opportunity to buy cosmetics that had not been tested on animals.  Today, thanks to the EU, it is illegal to sell any cosmetics where, if you’ll forgive me, animals have been used as guinea pigs.  This is a cycle familiar to many industries, including our own, where regulation follows voluntary initiatives and standards.  The EU Timber Regulations, and Lacey Act in the US, have raised the bar on sustainable timber procurement following on from the work done by the FSC and PEFC, however there is still a need for voluntary standards as regulation sets a baseline rather than best practice.'

Every business must make a strategic decision as to whether they position themselves as merely legally compliant, as having a credible defence if questioned, or as a sustainable leader who is able to use the position as part of the company’s USP - a differentiator in the marketplace.  The choice of where you pitch it will reflect several factors, including your personal values.  One of the most critical factors will be whether you think it matters to your customer base; thinking about who your customer is today and, who they will be tomorrow.  There are numerous surveys showing the increasing sustainability awareness among the younger generations and medals and awards for sustainability leadership are hard fought over in every sector of the economy.

Whether you look at the US, the UK or the rest of the EU, I believe that people will default to doing the right thing if you give them the understanding and the opportunity to do so.  Here in the UK, for instance, the dealer group Office Club launched its Cool Earth copier paper just over a year ago to replace its previous own brand which was showing an 8% decline in line with the market.  After twelve months, the paper is in 29% growth; doesn’t that say it all? ‘

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But of course, it is not just paper. Plastics, so popular for notebook and filing products, have come a long way too with recycled and recyclable options although the latter is only possible if the elements can be successfully separated so they are not contaminants; there are also advances being made in the development of plant based plastics and additives that can be added to plastics which enable them to biodegrade in composting facilities.

Stewart Superior was founded over 20 years ago and with its reputation for innovation has developed a range called Seco which has strong environmental credentials. Geoffrey Betts, Managing Director, feels that most of the impacts of human behaviour on the environment are obvious: be it pouring effluents into our rivers, chopping down rain forests or pumping carbon monoxide from our vehicles into the atmosphere. We can easily relate to the ‘no smoking’ ban because it has impacted on every single one of us whether we smoked or not. But he feels that most of us need government pressure to start changing the way we do things - for example the massive increase in recycling - and it is encouraging that in the most part today's younger generation seems to be adopting greener practices by habit.

He comments that, ‘The problem occurs when profits are squeezed and budgets are tightened as there is a tendency for companies to change more for green products and hence the likelihood is that the cheapest item will win the day. Our Seco range of Oxo biodegradable filing and vending cups have done extremely well as they degrade once disposed of and exposed to the elements unlike normal plastics. We could clean our beaches up; the technology exists and it doesn’t mean banning plastic it just means possibly paying fractions more for it.’ 

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Plastics are also used for pens and Pilot Begreen was the first full range of recycled pens to be offered at the same price as its normal range. Five years on Stuart Barker of Pilot comments that ‘Begreen is still a key purchasing criteria in the B2B channel but less so in the retail environment as traditionally for most everyday writing instruments under £10 they are considered as disposable items and recycled materials used in the manufacture do not seem to be a key decision making criteria, whereas commercial buyers wanting to adhere to environmental accreditations, it is still important to them.‘

While sustainable stationery has a place in the stationery market today, the view from manufacturers as confirmed by Stuart is that generally it is more acceptable in the commercial sector where the purchasing companies have environmental policies that they must be seen to be supporting with the supplies they buy for their companies.

Many retailers have tried and given up with refillable products; it seems that many consumers are motivated by brand, product appearance and performance, and that being refillable is a secondary benefit. 

Interestingly retailers have never been big fans of refills for pens (other than ink cartridges) as the return on space is generally poor, but as consumers look to save money and buy refillable pens there is a growing demand to stock them even if it is only to offer refills as an online option. One area where sales of refills are growing at a phenomenal rate in the retail and B2B channel is with Pilot’s FriXion erasable pens, and retailers are seeing listing refills for these as a great opportunity.  When compared to non-erasable gel and liquid ink rollerballs, thermo-sensitive erasable ink pens such as FriXion have a shorter writing distance so consumers actively search out refills for these pens and as a result retailers are giving fixture space to FriXion refills.

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But there is one recycled product that could easily catch the consumers imagination and that is Treewise pencils. Relatively new to the UK, made from 100% recycled newspaper, no wood or plastic is used in these pencils; they have an extra dark graphite lead that sharpens well and writes smoothly.

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However, given that environmental matters continue to dominate modern life I am sure that consumers will become more savvy over issues such as product miles, country of origin and packaging. If in the future we can reduce any price premium, I am sure that will help products with environmental benefits grow in popularity with the consumer market and put pressure on retailers to stock them.