The printing industry has been haunted for years by the specter of the environmental question. The crux of the problem is simple: People who want to safeguard the environment have had hesitation about working with paper due to the fact that it comes from trees. That said, the link between deforestation and paper use is looser than it may first appear, and trade groups have made progress to counteract the classic message of nature on one side and paper products on the other.

Claims retracted
A recent effort by paper industry nonprofit Two Sides has borne fruit in getting companies to retract claims that going paperless is a direct way to save trees. The group explained that when forests used to produce paper are sustainably managed, there is no link to deforestation. Whether through natural tree growth or dedicated planting by the companies harvesting trees, there are ways to keep forests thriving after they're used to provide the raw materials for paper.

Making direct claims that going paperless will be better for the environment doesn't cover the nuances of how forestry works today. This is why Two Sides launched its campaign to remove green claims from corporate websites. The project has been hugely successful – over 65 large companies in North America have agreed not to use claims saying that paper is bad for forests. This kind of retraction could help the printing business as a whole strengthen its reputation, a vital consideration in an increasingly digital age.

The nonprofit noted that, not only are green claims regarding paper use harmful to the print sector, consumers aren't even responding to them. The source noted that Toluna asked about these messages in a study and found 85 percent of individuals think organizations urging the end of paper interactions are actually interested in saving money for themselves, rather than actually helping the planet. Firms in a rush to ditch paper may actually be going against their clients' wishes.

"Our experience to date is that many companies are so focused on saving money that they have ignored the environmental and social impacts of switching from paper to e-media – and these impacts are far from negligible," Two Sides' Phil Riebel stated.

So, can paper be sustainable? Those in the industry say so, and consumers have come to agree. In the aforementioned Toluna survey, more than 9 in every 10 respondents stated that, when managed responsibly and recycled regularly, paper can be a sustainable resource.

Where print service providers go from here is up to the individual companies, but it's clear that public opinion is turning in favor of the industry. Salespeople no longer have to skirt around the environmental issues, as it's become clearer what effects positive management of forests can have for paper as a medium.

Staying on course
Of course, to be worthy of the environmentally friendly label, print companies need to stay aware of sourcing best practices and work with materials that have a minimal impact on nature. As Printing Impressions contributor Catherine Stewart recently pointed out, not all deforestation is equal. While the actual number of trees in countries such as Canada is declining extremely slowly, forests are being degraded and damaged in ways that go beyond the raw amount of forests in place.

Stewart urged companies to work with materials that have high amounts of recycled content and ensure that there are plans to replace any natural forests cut down to make the paper. There are environmentally friendly and sustainable ways to deal with printing, but they aren't universally in place, so it's up to printers to live up to the high standards customers will have for them. Promising that paper is a sustainable resource is a great way to get consumers on a printer's side, but it's a promise that businesses must uphold.

A complex impact
The sustainability and impact of the print industry is a complex question. However, as the above-mentioned surveys have proven, individuals today believe companies are up to the task of being responsible and minimizing their impact. Provided leaders make the right material and production choices, they can become part of a strong ecosystem that isn't directly responsible for deforestation. This, in turn, can alter the way the industry markets its products. The long-term effects can be long-lasting and positive.