Persuading a Fortune 500 company to backtrack from any of its consumer messaging is a formidable feat. Getting more than 30 of them to do it may be the stuff of public relations legend—but it’s all part of the routine for Two Sides North America.
This not-for-profit organization exists to battle myths about the harmful impacts of paper and printing upon the environment—misinformation that damages the reputation of print by obscuring its sustainability and social value. The first step in busting the myths, says Phil Riebel, president of Two Sides, is to find out where the negative communication is coming from.
As the group understood when it launched in the U.S. in 2012, anti-print messaging can originate anywhere there is a vested interest in nudging people away from the use of paper. Two Sides initially identified the top 30 companies in banking, telecommunications, and other sectors known to be encouraging consumers to embrace paperless electronic billing. The group then began to monitor the mailings, web sites, and other marketing channels of about 45 of these companies to see how the messaging was being framed.
Much of it needed to be challenged. The offending content, says Riebel, misled recipients in two ways. First, it perpetuated canards about forest destruction, paper waste, and carbon generation because of print—misconceptions corrected by the factual information resources that Two Sides shares with its members and the general public. Second, it ignored the high environmental cost of “going green” by switching everything from paper to power-devouring computers, servers, and networks.
It’s called “greenwashing”: making claims about environmental rectitude that don’t square with the facts. Two Sides’ anti-greenwashing watch list is now up to about 60 companies, and more are being added. Marketing and sustainability executives on it can expect to be contacted in writing by the group if their go-paperless messaging has crossed the line. To date, says Riebel, 33 of America’s biggest companies have agreed to remove questionable claims about paper and print from their marketing communications.
Two Sides doesn’t always get what it wants. Riebel says, “I have a few letters from lawyers in my files” containing flat rejections of the group’s requests. Last year, a U.S. Senator didn’t respond to complaints about paper-unfriendly remarks he made in an Earth Day statement. A real obstacle, says Riebel, is the fact that the Federal Trade Commission doesn’t want to get involved—it doesn’t see defending paper and print against misrepresentation as a priority.
But, fighting the good fight always means fighting hard, and Two Sides has been going toe to toe with the foe in this way ever since the organization was started in England in 2008 by Martyn Eustace (now a member of the executive team for North America). It crossed the Atlantic after a fundraising effort by the National Paper Trade Association (NPTA), the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), and paper producer Domtar. Riebel, formerly the vice president of sustainability for paper producer UPM-Kymenne, facilitated the effort and was appointed to lead the group.
Globally, Two Sides has 1,000 members; there are about 150 members in the U.S. The North American branch is a 501(c)(6) not-for-profit corporation with a headquarters office in Chicago. Membership was opened to organizations in Canada last year. Later this year, says Riebel, discussions will take place in Mexico for the purpose of admitting friends of paper and print in that country.
Members of Two Sides North America are in either the general commercial category (mainly paper companies), the commercial printer segment, or the allied organizations group. The latter consists of print industry trade associations, educational institutions, consultants, and trade media (including WhatTheyThink). Members pay an annual fee of $25 per $1 million of revenue to belong, with a minimum assessment of $250 and dues capped at $25,000.
Paper merchants and producers are the largest segment of the member base. The chief benefit of membership for these companies, says Riebel, is the protection they get from being part of the only organization that makes opposing anti-paper publicity its sole focus. Sometimes these members join the fight by alerting Two Sides to potentially harmful messaging. Envelope manufacturers are good sources of this kind of intelligence, says Riebel. If they’re asked to produce envelopes bearing dubious “green” claims, they send him samples.
The group’s dues structure makes it possible for companies with revenues under $10 million to belong for $250 per year, a figure intended to attract printers. About two dozen printing companies are now on the roster, and Riebel hopes to enlist more of them. Most small printing companies, he notes, don’t have sustainability programs, but by joining Two Sides, they can find the raw materials to start one.
Two Sides isn’t a lobbying organization, but it does support the work of Consumers for Paper Options, a pro-print advocacy project created by AF&PA and the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA). Riebel says that Two Sides also is working closely with the Paper and Packaging Board (P+PB) in that group’s administration of the Paper Check-off, a federally authorized program that allows the paper and paper-based packaging industries to collect and spend money for market-building purposes. (As an outcome of the checkoff program, P+PB has just launched a $20 million consumer campaign called Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds ™.)
Avoiding overlap with the work of other industry organizations with similar goals can be a juggling act for a group like Two Sides. For instance, Printing Industries of America’s “Value of Print” initiative also has challenged corporate no-print campaigns, including the “Go Paperless in 2013” push by Google. Riebel says that Two Sides steers its own course by focusing exclusively on calling out greenwashing and evangelizing the sustainable and social benefits of printing. Its agenda doesn’t include, for example, promoting the ROI of print or addressing other business issues.
The point to emphasize, says Riebel, is that sustainable printing has “social value”: long-term appeal for consumers who often prefer it to the paperless alternatives now being urged upon them. Two Sides wants marketers to understand this affinity so that they can make informed decisions when buying paper and other media for their campaigns.
“Sustainable” isn’t necessarily the best word for industry-sponsored efforts to encourage the broader use of print. Some of them, like The Print Council, have proved impossible to sustain in operation for more than a handful of years (although one of the council’s projects, Print in the Mix, remains alive and well). Nevertheless, Riebel sees three advantages in favor of a long run for Two Sides.
The first is its unique approach to upholding the reputation of paper and printing. There’s also the fact that the group has a full-time, dedicated professional staff. Above all, there’s the expertise of those serving on its board of directors and working committees. (“If you’re going to talk about sustainability, you’re going to need to know what you’re talking about,” Riebel says.)
In fact, permanence is precisely what Two Sides is out to achieve for the medium it serves. It is chartered on the belief that “paperless” is not a self-fulfilling prophecy no matter how many times the buzzword is repeated. As Riebel observes, because it’s so highly renewable and recyclable, and because people are just so fond of it, “you can have paper forever.”