Transforming Markets and Supply Chains
A Profile of Nicole Rycroft
The Forbidden Forest that surrounds Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter series is filled with fantastic creatures: stargazing centaurs, giant spiders, and pearly-white unicorns with healing properties. But Canada's incredible expanse of forests holds magic of its own. The country's boreal forests host flying squirrels and lichens that resemble modern art, while thousand-year-old cedar trees and grizzlies can be found in Canada's temperate rainforests. And these forests provide even more than homes for ancient and unique species. According a 1997 Nature study, world temperate and boreal forest ecosystems contribute approximately $894 billion (US) each year in ecosystem goods and services, especially in the areas of regulating climate, producing food, and treating waste. By this reckoning, Canada's 310 million hectares of boreal forest chip in $93.6 billion (US) to the environment's account.
Nicole Rycroft has been channeling some of this forest magic with Markets Initiative, a Canadian campaign to reduce the use of old growth and endangered forest products. The Australian-born founder of Markets Initiative thinks of herself as a bit of a late bloomer with a circuitous path to forest protection. Yet her winding path--including a childhood exploring the Australian bush, a career as an elite rower, and a volunteer stint in Southeast Asia--has given her the resources to create a market-based environmental campaign that's transformed everything from company office supplies to the publishing of Harry Potter.
Rycroft, now 38, says, "I feel like I've been a little slow on the draw to a lot of things in life." Once she decided to transform her years of exploration into market-based environmental activism, however, she's been a fast-moving force for change. Since Markets Initiative's jumpstart in 1999, Canadian publishers have had just six years to transform their paper-intensive industry to a more sustainable model. "It's been a steep learning curve," she says, "but a challenging and fascinating one at that."
Her success speaks for itself: close to 80 Canadian publishers have committed to eliminating the use of papers with endangered or ancient forest fibers. These publishers represent about 75% of the paper volume for Canadian literary presses. "In a few short years, the Canadian industry has really changed the way it publishes books," says Michelle Benjamin, publisher of Vancouver-based Raincoast Books--one of four initial supporters of Markets Initiative.
Global experience in market problems
Rycroft's meandering route to markets-based activism began in Sydney, where the bush surrounding her aunt's home called her to explore. "The eucalypt forest that I grew up with will always hold a special place in my heart," she says.
She studied physiotherapy at university and then began to row in her early twenties, quickly becoming an elite competitor. At the same time, she began to volunteer with an Australian-based environmental organization, the Wilderness Society.
Then at 27, she pulled up her oars to move to Southeast Asia, working at an environmental education organization in Katmandu and monitoring companies that received Australian government grants in Burma.
Here she spoke with teenagers who'd been conscripted into the Burmese army. They told her chilling tales of destroyed villages, human mine-shields and shackled workers who cleared the way for gas pipelines; all vivid examples of the connection between human rights violations and environmental destruction. "It's a supply and demand world," Rycroft says, "and the impact that market demand has on the quality of life of people around the world became crystal clear."
When Rycroft moved to Canada in 1996, she began to volunteer several days a week for environmental groups while working as a physiotherapist. Living part-time on Vancouver Island, she developed an intense connection with Clayoquot Sound, a 350,000 hectare expanse of ocean and land on the island's west coast. Here one can find temperate rainforests, considered one of the most endangered forest ecosystems in the world; globally, more than 55% of these forests have been logged.
Clayoquot Sound carries special significance for environmentalists. In the summer of 1993, 12,000 demonstrators from around the world converged to protest the provincial government's land use decision, which gave protection to a third of the area – an amount environmentalists thought inadequate to protect old growth.
Rycroft, too, worked to protect the temperate rainforest once she arrived in Canada. In 1998, standing on the blockade at a Clayoquot Sound protest, Rycroft kept thinking about the relationship between market demand and environmental destruction, the same connection that she'd seen many years before in her work on the other side of the Pacific. "We'd been out there for six weeks off and on, and so I had the opportunity to become quite attached to the area," she says.
Rycroft realized that she wanted her professional life to focus on addressing forest issues on a more systemic level--specifically, to transform the destructive markets that she'd seen into positive environmental forces. And Canada was the perfect place to start. "Living in North America, I was living in the belly of the beast when it came to human consumption," Rycroft says. "So what an incredible opportunity to actually try and make some change."
Just months later, Markets Initiative emerged as a coalition of three environmental groups: Friends of Clayoquot Sound, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. Rycroft first targeted companies that had environmentally and socially progressive track records, including Mountain Equipment Co-op, Body Shop Canada, and Citizens Bank–companies that, by virtue of their size, consumed vast quantities of paper.
Since those first meetings, Mountain Equipment Co-op has worked with their suppliers to source ancient-forest-friendly papers; starting with the Fall/Winter 2003 edition, their catalogue has been printed on old-growth-free, chlorine-free paper made from 35% post-consumer waste. And, as of September, Citizens Bank has switched from 30% to 100% post-consumer waste for all its office paper.
Rycroft drew on the momentum built by these receptive companies to approach the publishing world in 2000. At that time, publishing and printing papers had less than five percent recycled content--for most papers, the content was primarily virgin fiber. "The vast majority of that in a North American context means that they're coming from endangered forests," she says.
Initially, publishers raised concerns about the price, availability and quality of paper. And rightly so, Rycroft says. "When we first started working with the book publishing industry, there were no ancient forest friendly papers that were available."
But Markets Initiative and the first four publishers that signed on--Raincoast Books, New Society Publishers, McClelland & Stewart, and UBC Press--started requesting better paper from printers, working down the supply chain to widen their options to include environmentally-friendly choices.
"They recognized the role of influence that they had on the supply chain, and they were very willing to step forward as leaders, and ultimately, as advocates for environmental change," Rycroft says of the publishers.
Once paper was found, the publishers had to suck up the added cost. In 2000, Raincoast Books paid up to 15% premiums for ancient forest friendly paper, says Raincoast's Benjamin. Publishers worked to juggle costs--a constant in the publishing industry, especially in Canada, where books are down-priced to meet the demands of a competitive U.S. market--and as more publishers signed on, prices started to fall with rising demand. These days, it's tough to find a major printer in Canada that doesn't offer eco-friendly paper options, Benjamin says.
Some publishers, Rycroft says, are now able to use papers at the same cost as conventional paper; others, like Raincoast, still pay up to six percent premiums for 100% post-consumer waste paper.
But this extra cost may be more than balanced by the ecosystem services these forests provide. When endangered forests are slashed, the forests themselves aren't the only things that vanish. A study this spring by the David Suzuki Foundation suggested that 46% of the logging in the Great Bear Rainforest takes place in the area's most productive salmon watersheds. Logging can slash salmon populations when fallen logs block access to runs and spawning grounds, and tree removal can cause erosion that occludes streams.
Many Canadian publishers have recognized where the extra costs are going. "It's a small premium to pay for the value you get, even if it's not always in dollars," Benjamin says.
Publishers now bear the brunt of additional costs associated with ancient forest friendly publishing. But from surveys done by Markets Initiative and by U.S. counterpart Green Press Initiative, readers might be willing to ante up for more eco-friendly choices. Polls of 1800 readers conducted by these two groups indicate that 78 percent of readers would pay more for books made from sustainable sources.
Authors, too, have become strong supporters. Alice Munro, Canada's renowned short story writer, called her publisher, McClelland & Stewart, just days before her book was scheduled to go to press; her 2001 book, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, hit bookstores on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. "You know, when someone like Alice Munro picks up the phone and says that something's really important to them, then it tends to happen," Rycroft says.
Harry Potter Goes Eco-Friendly: the world follows?
The coup de grace--or at least, the goblet of fire--came when Raincoast Books printed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on 100% post-consumer recycled paper, saving an estimated 39,320 trees that would have been used to make virgin-fiber paper in its reported 900,000-plus first print run in 2003.
In J.K. Rowling's introduction to the Canadian edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, she writes, "Because the Canadian editions are printed on ancient-forest friendly paper, the Harry Potter books are helping to save magnificent forests in the muggle world, forests that are home of magical animals such as orangutans, wolves and bears. It's a good idea to respect ancient trees, especially if they have a temper like the whomping willow."
In July, Raincoast continued its effort with the latest installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Some U.S. environmentalists encouraged American Potter fans to get their fix across the border.
Harry Potter's green appeal has spread to publishers in such far-flung places as Israel and Germany, where ancient-forest-free copies of the sixth Harry Potter now line the shelves.
While major strides in green publishing may make Rycroft's work seem as easy as flicking a wand, she's had her share of difficulties. Several logging companies' strong resistance to Markets Initiative's first push surprised Rycroft. In addition, she's not had the response she's expected from the Canadian government in protecting remaining tracts of ancient forests; her work with high-profile publishers and writers, she thinks, may help in the future. Throughout the process, her diverse background has served her well, including a drive similar to what got her up for those predawn rowing training sessions. "The tenacity--or some would say, obsessiveness, I guess--that is necessary to take a project to a certain level of success" can be a part of both worlds, she says.
Those characteristics help beyond the book world, as Markets Initiative has signed up 53 magazines and wants to start in on the newspaper industry as well. Rycroft has also been working with researchers who are developing agricultural waste as a source for book and magazine-quality paper. Next year, she wants to have a national magazine produce on a paper made completely from agricultural waste and recycled fiber.
With paper consumption expected to increase by 77% by 2020, Rycroft and Canadian publishers have taken on the challenge of transforming an ever-increasing market into an ever more sustainable one. "I think what Canadian publishers have stepped forward and taken on has really inspired publishers around the world, as well as other industries," Rycroft says. "[They've] provided a model of what's possible."
With Rycroft's own intensive push to spread eco-friendly paper throughout the industry, she's certainly shown what's possible, too: when market forces and environmental activists work together, the muggle world, it seems, can stir up some magic of its own.
Cameron Walker is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Her work also appears in National Geographic News, Skiing, and Outside.
First published: October 13, 2005