6 Lessons Learned Over a Century of Advancing a Circular Economy
International Paper is 121 years old. If we want to be relevant for the next century, we must bring others along on our trajectory toward circularity. Whether you’re just starting out or are further down the path to circularity, take comfort in knowing you are not in this alone.
The paper industry was circular before circularity was cool. With our news feeds replete with reporting on the problems of single-use plastics in our oceans and microplastics in our bodies, some may think of circularity as a recent concept. Yet in reality, the fiber-based packaging and paper industry has been putting circularity to practice for over a century.
From the use of renewable raw materials to the recyclability of the products we create, the paper industry — and the ancient craft of papermaking itself — is naturally circular. As one of the oldest and largest producers of renewable fiber-based packaging, pulp and paper in the world, we at International Paper have learned a thing or two over the past 121 years.
We’re excited to see a growing recognition of the consequences of the take-make-waste model of production and use; and an increased desire for products that are responsible, recyclable and made from renewable resources. Moving from linear to circular thinking isn’t easy, and no solution is one-size-fits-all.
Companies may understand that this is a journey they must embark upon but don’t know where to begin. Here are six lessons we have learned about taking circularity from concept to craft, which can be applied to any industry.
1. Waste not, want not.
Making better use of what we already have is a lesson many of us learned from our parents and grandparents, who may have lived through tough times, such as the Great Depression. Resources are scarce in any industry, and driving efficiencies through circular innovation is one of the best ways to glean a competitive edge.
In the fiber-based packaging and paper industry, for example, we follow this principle by making the most of every tree and its byproducts to create value by eliminating waste. Indeed, trees are a primary resource for us: We generate around 75 percent of our mill energy from bark and biomass residuals, rather than fossil fuels; and the water we use in our manufacturing process is reused up to 10 times before being returned to the watershed. The products we create are, in themselves, recyclable and reusable, passing on the benefit to consumers.
The takeaway: To infuse some circularity into your business, rethink what you might typically consider waste and see if you can innovate to turn it into a valuable resource.
2. Be a good steward.
Iconic public service campaigns such as Smokey Bear and the Keep America Beautiful PSAs of past decades taught a generation of Americans to be responsible stewards of our environment. Over the years, we have seen stewardship grow beyond a point of individual responsibility, with more and more corporations recognizing the importance of stewardship. Identifying the impacts and dependencies our businesses have — and seeking solutions — speaks loud and clear to stakeholders.
At International Paper, we recognize our duty to regenerate natural resources — not just because our business depends on the sustainability of forests, but because the benefits forests provide are critical to life on Earth. That’s why we have sourcing policies in place to sustain forests; and why we’re on the forefront of managing, conserving and restoring forestland around the world by working within our value chain and collaborating with NGOs for greater impact.
The takeaway: Look across your entire value chain to identify where outcomes for people and the planet may be compromised by non-circular business practices, and take concrete action within your value chain to do the right thing.
3. Collaboration is critical.
The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” packages the power of collaboration so well. Advancing the circular economy isn’t something that any one industry, government or NGO can take on alone — it will take the entire proverbial village to nurture circularity into adulthood.
Likewise, the challenges of bringing about circular solutions in the forest products industry are greater than any single company can take on alone. That’s why our team works across the industry, with NGOs, governments and private landowners to expand our reach and to learn from others. For example, our work with World Wildlife Fund is creating science-based targets for forests and scaling forest restoration in Brazil; while our involvement with The Recycling Partnership supports improved curbside recycling across the US to capture and keep as many quality recyclable materials, including paper, out of the landfill and back into the recycling stream to make new products.
The takeaway: To improve circularity within your own value chain, look to partner with others outside of it who are working toward the same goal.
4. Connect to something greater than yourself.
In 2015, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity; the SDGs have become the standard by which corporations and governments alike ensure they are focused on the right things.
We have mapped our global citizenship strategy to nine of the SDGs that are relevant to our work at International Paper. Further, we participate in the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Forest Solutions Group, comprised of representatives from across the global forest sector who recognize that our industry is uniquely positioned to drive the transition to a circular future rooted in renewable, natural resources. Together, we developed the Forest Sector SDG Roadmap, a set of guidelines for forest-sector businesses that will help them contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.
The takeaway: Align your organization’s circularity strategy to global initiatives that provide a shared game plan for progress, and find ways to bring others on board.
5. Embrace innovation.
The race to provide circular solutions is accelerating, with customer demand and the need for climate action driving innovation. These innovations are across the board — from how a product is manufactured to how it’s disposed of. In fact, the first principle of a circular economy is to design out waste and pollution, and this requires creativity and a desire to innovate.
At International Paper, our scientists are tasked with designing innovative products that are recyclable, reusable and minimize waste during production. In our industry, engineers oversee improvements throughout the manufacturing process, and we embrace new technologies that reduce emissions and use less energy.
The takeaway: Embrace innovation by listening to what your customers need and helping them find a solution.
6. There’s always room for improvement.
Some artists say a work of art is never complete; in our pursuit of a circular economy, we must be like unsatisfied artists who never settle for “good enough.” There will always be room for improvement.
While the fiber-based packaging, pulp and paper industry can claim to be “the original” in circularity, that doesn’t mean the industry is perfect. At International Paper, we have challenged ourselves with doing more, in terms of the innovation of our products and the sustainability of our operations. As we look to our next-generation sustainability goals, we’re defining ambitious targets that will push our capabilities as we strive to build a better future and advance a circular economy.
International Paper is 121 years old. Like all companies, if we want to be relevant for the next century, we must continue our trajectory toward circularity and we must bring others along with us. For those of you just starting out, as well as those further down the path to circularity, take comfort in knowing you are not in this alone.