What happened to the “paperless office”? Despite being surrounded by smartphones and computers, the myth seems not to have become reality. The Economist reports that, since 1980, global paper consumption has increased by half, leading to many of the world’s vast ancient forests being chopped down. The World Resource Institute (WRI) has estimated that only one-fifth of the earth’s original forest remains untouched in relatively natural ecosystems, which WRI calls frontier forests. These forests are necessary to regulate the earth’s climate, storing over 430 billion metric tons of carbon. In addition, they are still large enough to sustain aboriginal ways of life and secure the survival of many plants and animal species. Its destruction alternates the atmosphere’s composition and viciously degrades ecosystems and valuable cornucopia of resources.
Logging companies are the ancient forests’ ultimate enemy. With no rewards being made available for this industry for investing in R&D of alternative products, and without incentives to shift sources to these areas, pressure on pristine forests will keep increasing. During the last three decades, almost half of the Earth’s original forests have been chopped down. But that isn’t to say that people are taking this lying down. Nicole Rycroft, today a social entrepreneur, started her career as a tree hugger in the literal meaning. She was a human barrier, the only thing stopping the logger’s saw from cutting down her moss bedazzled beauties. Nonetheless, she soon realised the limitations of her strategy and the amount of trees that could be saved. Ms Rycroft therefore decided to start Canopy, today a successful environmental non-for-profit organisation working with Canadian corporate purchasers to establish both market demand for environmentally friendly papers, construction materials and stimulate investment and production in such products.
In total, 600 publishers and brands in North America have changed their paper purchasing policies after working with Canopy. Nicole Rycroft has, for example, worked together with Canadian Geographic and their June 2008 copy was entirely printed on paper made in agricultural waste from wheat production. This showed that even such high quality paper as the one used in magazines, can be made from waste materials. Canopy’s major breakthrough occurred when the 5th and the 6th edition of Harry Potter were produced from recycled paper. After a successful collaboration between J.K Rowling and a publishing company the 6th edition became the greenest book in publishing history. Despite being a mere Muggle, I would say Rycroft’s achievement is nothing short of wizardry.
Shifting paper consumers to environmentally sound alternatives is a powerful strategy to save what is left of the world’s frontier forests. Ms Rycroft’s fight against forest destruction is not only a story of saving these ancient trees or one of successful social entrepreneurship. Canopy has changed how the entire industry works and at the same time, it is also a part of a bigger wave that is transforming the way non-for profits operates.
This is what Jesse Frink talks about during a lecture at Stanford, how we seem to be at a point where what is philanthropic in nature is merging with what is commercial in nature. It used to be that if you where interested in the environment, one had to forget about working in the for-profit world. Today, philanthropic organisations are hiring business school students, and companies like Google are increasingly collaborating with not-for-profits as well as trying to lessen its footprints. Nicole Rycroft’s organisation seems to fit right into this idea of the merging between NGOs and corporations, working closely with the business sector. Bill Gates also mentioned this change during the 2008 Word Economic Forum meeting in Davos, where he held a speech about the role of corporations in society. He starts by mentioning how technological breakthroughs can solve key problems, but only where there is economic demand for it, which is not the same as economic need. If we want to change the lives of all people, we need not only technological innovation but also system innovation. “The challenge here is to design a system where market incentives, including profits and recognition, drive those principles to do more for the poor.” He calls this idea “creative capitalism”, where governments, business and non-for-profits collaborate to “stretch to reach the market forces”. He mentions Microsoft as an example and how the company has donated over US $3 billion in software and cash; nevertheless, he argues that Microsoft’s greatest impact comes from showing how to use technology in order to solve problems. At the end of the speech, he concludes:
“We are living in a phenomenal age. If we can spend the early decades of the 21st century finding approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits and recognition for business, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce poverty in the world. The task is open-ended. It will never be finished. But a passionate effort to answer this challenge will help change the world.”
So how does this relate to Ms Rycroft and Canopy? I think not only is it possible to create market incentives to bring people out of poverty but also market incentives to save the world’s ancient forests. Thus, the bridging of NGOs and businesses can help save both the environment and make a better life for millions of people. Canopy is right in the heart of this process, although, with a founder who has a more close-ended dream than the one of Bill Gates. That is, our kids will be in awe when we tell them that paper used to be made from forests.