Step-by-step to carbon footprint unity

It’s time to take carbon footprint seriously, says Södra Cell’s Bengt Wiberg, not least because the tissue industry stands to benefit.

Bengt Wiberg, Business Development Manager alla Södra Cell

When does information become “too much” information? Well, anybody who thinks that the quantity of information printed on an average box of facial tissues has already crossed this threshold must prepare themselves for things to get worse. The tissue box in front of me says where it was made, the dimensions of each tissue, the dimensions of all the tissues in the box put together, the number of plies in each tissue, the recycling category and the certification status of the forests from which the wood fibre is sourced. It also provides an ingredients list, because this product is treated with lotion (dermatologically tested of course – that’s another symbol), plus a gentle reminder to put the product in the bin when I have finished with it (I assume they mean the tissues; the box I shall of course recycle).

Yet all the above-mentioned nuggets of information are going to have to squeeze up and make room for one more – carbon footprint – and this is one vital statistic which is likely to trump all others. Carbon footprint, to all intents and purposes, assesses the impact of the product in your hand on the world about you. It could render much other environmental information redundant in the eyes of the consumer.

Carbon footprint is likely to be seen by the buying public as a simple, single piece of information through which they can evaluate the environmental acceptability of what they are buying.

So while carbon footprint might seem just another wave in the unstoppable tide of information which deluges us daily, this is one label we really need to take seriously, both as producers of tissue and as suppliers to the tissue business.


LOW? WHO SAYS? There are carbon footprint labels out there already. The shape of a foot with the words “Low Carbon Footprint” could well have adorned one of your recent purchases. But what does “Low Carbon Footprint” mean? “Low” according to whom? “Low” in comparison to what? Such labelling can be little more than a holding operation – the hijacking of terminology before it gains any true meaning. All the other symbols used on products can be quantified or qualified. Tissue dimensions are measurable, and raw material sources verifiable. Carbon footprint is also measurable and verifiable, but without widely recognised standards of measurement, a carbon footprint symbol is little more than a subjective statement, which can only be called misleading if it can be disproved. And how can you disprove something when you don’t have the means to prove it in the first place?

Enough of the philosophical debate: before long, consumers will wise up to the vagueness of carbon footprint labelling, and environmental groups will rightly seek clarification and official endorsement of any carbon footprint claims.

Many minds at Södra have been occupied in establishing the size of the company’s carbon footprint, or more significantly for the future, the correct means to measure it. The more we have studied the question, the more we understand how tricky it is to answer. The carbon footprint of a product may be seen as a balance sheet of greenhouse gas emissions and removals (transfers to and from the atmosphere). But as with many things, there are different ways of calculating a carbon footprint to suit your own purposes. For the calculation to have any meaning, however, it has to have universal application. Everybody needs to be measuring with the same ruler.


LET’S GET TOGETHER. Several different tools exist which analyse and put a figure on the carbon contribution of various products and services including product profiles, life cycle assessments and so called carbon-footprints. But in the absence of a pan-European standardised approach, and in response to the growing number of requests by paper buyers for a clear statement about the carbon footprint of each product, CEPI (Confederation of European Paper Industries) has developed its framework for paper and board products based on ten key elements, which are the “ten toes” of the Carbon Footprint. Under this framework, companies and sectors will be able to address their individual needs and help the industry to contribute to the policy debate by providing a transparent and coherent information base for decision-making, across regions and countries. Our intention at Södra is to adopt CEPI’s method, and we hope this will become the industry standard.

At Södra we are confident that the forest industry has a very good case, because forests consume carbon, so we have a realistic chance of being carbon neutral. Of course it has to be proven. More and more customers are asking for our carbon footprint, not least because they are trying to calculate their own footprint.

The attraction of carbon footprint is also the source of its complexity. It is a virtual catch-all environmental impact assessment, but the multiplicity of elements which contribute to carbon footprint make it an incredibly detailed and complicated thing to calculate.

Carbon footprint should be good news for the tissue industry because it has a good story to tell. The main raw material source for tissue is pulp, whether it is the primary raw material, or the original source of recycled paper. We at Södra generate all our own energy, and in fact have recently moved into energy surplus. Our use of fossil fuels is negligible and diminishing: our main energy source is biomass. This is great news for tissue producers.

Biomass energy generation is good for the conscience and environment, but carbon footprint, as with quality, only has any meaning in the market if you can measure it. So this is exactly what we are doing, and we suggest that all tissue businesses do the same. It will probably reveal where improvements can be made, and could well generate efficiencies.

But it should also produce good news for your business.


Mind whose footprint you tread in


The footprint image is a very appropriate one when it comes to explaining one of the main complications involved in the measurement of carbon footprint. Just as one footprint placed in another leaves no trace, so it is very easy to make the mistake of double accounting when it comes to measuring carbon footprint. Think of a product’s total environmental impact in terms of a relay race across a beach, with each step leaving a footprint. Each contributor to the product’s eventual arrival in the market has undertaken part of the course across the beach – the pulp supplier hands the baton to the tissue maker, the tissue maker to the converter, the converter to the retailer and so on. The trick is to know where the baton is handed on and not attribute any steps to more than one runner. It is also important that the stopwatches are all sychronised, in other words that everybody is measuring using the same criteria.

As an industry we suffer from invisibility. We might see tissue as a product with considerable added-value opportunities, but the media-reading public regard tissue as a buy and forget product: you can’t do without it, but then you’re not really interested in reading about it. We become visible for the wrong reasons, usually associated with people’s emotive attachment to trees and lack of understanding about the long term benefits which accrue when timber is used as an economic resource.

Sweden uses its forest resources to the full to make all sorts of products, yet year after year, it ends up with more standing timber in December than it started with in January – that’s not something which is regularly reported, but it certainly makes a difference when it comes to calculating carbon footprint.

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