It may seem like we are picking on National Geographic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Well, maybe not that far. Anyway, Green America and the Green Business Network have declared war of sorts on the venerable magazine, via a new “Practice What You Print” Campaign that chides National Geographic for not printing on recycled paper. Here at Going Green, we will be delving into these issues in more depth, but I do have a few initial thoughts on this—and why it might be counterproductive to encourage 100% recycled paper everywhere. First of all, recycled paper is as much of a limited resource as virgin paper. That is, unless you have “new” paper being produced and used, you can’t get more recycled paper. You physically can’t keep recycling the same paper over and over again; every generation degrades the fibers a bit more, until they are all but unusable. This is why 100% recycled fiber paper is hard (or expensive) to come by, because getting anything you can print on is difficult. A second, and perhaps more important issue for publishers, reminds me of an interview I conducted 11 or 12 years ago with the production manager for a high-end luxury travel magazine. This was the time when digital cameras were first becoming feasible for graphic arts use and computer-to-plate was still slouching toward ubiquity. I asked about the extent to which the magazine—Islands, by the way—was adopting these new technologies and he told me, and I’m paraphrasing, “Our only concern is the quality of the magazine. If we can use new technologies without compromising what our readers expect, then we’ll use them. If the quality suffers we won’t.” National Geographic is, at heart, a high-end photography magazine and while there is some fine-quality recycled paper out there, it may not be suitable for that kind of use. (It may also not be compatible with their printers’ presses; that’s a question for National Geographic—and I’m working on that....) Recycled paper is not (yet) suitable for every use, and forcing it into applications for which it is not suited may well doom the use of recycled paper. After all, if someone gets National Geographic printed on recycled paper, and finds that it looks, if not awful then starkly inferior to what they are used to, they may very well say, “Gosh, recycled paper sucks” and avoid it in the future. (This is not to say that there are not improvements and innovations in recycled paper; I recall using it for the first time in 1990 and it kept curling and jamming my laser printer and was all but unusable; now, 20 years later, recycled paper is all I use.) So we need to keep in mind that for some publications, quality needs to be the paramount concern. As an example: I subscribe to the print edition of HOW magazine, a great publication for graphic designers. In their July 2010 issue, they made some design changes to the magazine itself, including switching to a different paper stock. Shortly after the magazine went out, they sent an e-mail to subscribers apologizing for it:
If you've laid hands on the issue, you've noticed a not-so-welcome change: a lighter, thinner paper stock. A corporate decision to reduce manufacturing costs across the company's magazines meant that the quality of this issue isn't up to HOW standards. Immediately after the issue hit our desks, we began taking steps to restore the paper quality, so future issues will look and feel like the magazine you've known.
Publishers take great pride in their printed products, perhaps a quaint notion these days, but one that exists nonetheless and one we shouldn’t sneer at. And a decision to not use recycled paper does not necessarily represent a lack of concern about the environment; instead, I think it represents the need for greater innovation and improvement in recycled papers. It’s a safe bet that if production managers and publishers felt that they could “do the right thing” without sacrificing print quality, they would do it. A third point is perhaps a bit more abstract, and that is, even if it were physically possible to eliminate all virgin paper pulp and use only recycled pulp (a big, highly theoretical “if”), the result may very well be a case if “be careful what you wish for.” After all, well-run and responsible paper companies (you know, the ones who keep winning awards from environmental groups) do a terrific job of maintaining healthy forests. Cutting down trees to make paper (or any other forestry product) is not tantamount to genocide or species extinction; it’s the health of an overall ecosystem that is important, not the survival of the individual plants, trees, or animals within it. Naturally, you can go too far in either direction. Trees are these companies’ business resources, and while not all businesses and not all industries are good at conserving their resources (like, say, codfishing), some paper companies are. Some aren’t, of course, and that’s one of the raison d’êtres of blogs like Going Green, to help identify the “good guys.” But if demand for virgin paper ebbed to the point where these companies had no need to bother conserving these resources, they would probably sell them off—and the fate of a forest may very well be suburban subdivisions and strip malls. This is not to frame it as a “Buy this issue or this tree dies!” threat; but the goal should not be the complete elimination of virgin paper pulp, but rather an emphasis on supporting those paper companies that do manage their resources properly and sustainably. And to stop picking on National Geographic—or, if we don’t, to at least pressure them to use their pull and get their paper mill to clean up its act.