Wednesday, 8 May 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

“Where’s Bill?” I ask. It’s 7:30 a.m., and we’re out here in the rolling hills of Sonoma County for a retreat with the Dogwood Alliance, our partner in the Paper Campaign. The Dogwood Alliance used to focus on legislative and regulatory campaigns to save southern forests; ForestEthics specialized in ancient forests and market campaigns. From the outside, we don’t exactly look like natural allies.

This is Bill.

But paper brought us together. Whether you’re talking about ancient trees in Canada, or endangered forests in the southern U.S., the paper industry is having an impact. In fact, it’s the largest industrial user of forests worldwide.

“Has anyone seen Bill?” I ask again. Everyone is bustling around, recovering from our late drive out here last night, downloading emails and getting ready for a full day of planning for the next phase of our campaign against office-products superstore Staples.

“He’s getting supplies,” says Kristi, our media director.

“Supplies,” I say. “What supplies do we need?” Just then the phone rings and after a few seconds of shuffling reports and notebooks, I find the receiver.

“Hello, this is Todd.”

“Hey, it’s Bill.”

“Where are you?”

Bill is the grassroots organizer for the Paper Campaign. Want to find an environmental activist in Grinnell, Iowa? How about Miami? Bill knows who you need to talk to, what their interests are, and how you can reach them. From his picture, Bill looks like Mr. Innocent.

Looks can be deceiving.

Bill goes undercover.

“I’m at Staples,” Bill says.

“What!? You’re getting supplies at Staples?!

“No, I’m on a scout.”

Yes, we actually do this sort of thing. Staples tells us it’s reforming its practices, but we can’t take their word for it. So every once in a while we go into a Staples store incognito and poke around — see what products are actually in the store, ask some questions, determine whether the employees have been given any training on recycled products and environmental issues.

This last element is key. We have scouted some Staples stores where the employees say there are no recycled products, only to find that there are a few (which we point out to them). Or they think most of the paper is recycled. It’s not. We point this out too. Bill likes doing the occasional scout. Maybe a little too much.

“What are you seeing?” I ask.

Bill checks out Staples stock.

“The usual, lots of signs heralding recycled content, but when you read the fine print, a lot of it is only 10 percent recycled, which means 90 percent virgin fiber. Thirty percent recycled is here too — but it’s the other 70 percent that’s the real problem. Not exactly a paradigm shift going on around here. At least the employees seem to know a little about the issues, but they’re definitely not lining up to tell the customers how their purchasing power can make a real difference for the environment.”

This is the sort of thing that gets a little frustrating. Here’s what Staples says: “Selling recycled products is a way of life at Staples and has been for years.” Yeah, right — just like telling the truth was a way of life at Enron. More and more, companies want to be able to claim that they are a friend of the environment without actually making any changes to reflect that mission.

It’s our job to hold their feet to the fire and demand accountability. We need to drive up the costs of greenwashing and do our best to hold companies responsible for what they do, what they say, and the gaping difference between the two.