Do you love paper too?

I feel that as a designer, I have to have a symbiotic relationship with the medium I use.

However, some designers see the term “green” as direct opposition to their craft. The truth is, print designers have more options than ever, and access to these options is only increasing.

I must confess: I love paper.

I think there are two big issues when it comes to using paper responsibly. Sorry designers, you are the biggest issue (I’ll discuss the second in another post.) Fortunately, you are the easiest obstacle to overcome. I can’t say how much change a little education can create. Let’s dispel some of the more common myths:

Myth: There just aren’t that many papers available. If I don’t have a variety, why bother?

Truth: I am looking at a sample book supplied by Mohawk called “loop.” In this book there are a variety of papers, I think I can say about a thousand. There are a variety of colors, textures, thicknesses and each has a unique environmental profile. There are more options than you could possibly imagine.

Myth: All paper uses trees, so it’s all the same.

Truth: A single sheet of white paper may be made from virgin fiber (freshly cut) shipped from overseas (what powers that boat?) is bleached (if you won’t drink it, it can’t be good for the environment) and then shipped out. So even if the paper you’re using is 30% Post Consumer Waste (it uses paper that has already served one life and is being reused) you’re taking 30% of that bleached, shipped, tree killing paper out of the equation. And supporting the people who make recycled paper.

Myth: My print run is small and it won’t make an impact; I’ll worry on a bigger job.

Truth: This argument always makes me angry. Every bit counts. It would be as if liberators said, “I won’t free a slave unless I can free them all.” Yes. I’m extremely strong in my belief that no matter how small, a positive action is still positive. A lot of small positive actions is called a movement. Be part of that movement.

Myth: It costs more.

Truth: I’m sorry to say, many environmentally friendly alternatives are available at competitive prices. It only takes a bit of research to see what exactly is available. Looking at Mohawk paper prices, the difference is negligible on larger print jobs. Again, even 30% PCW (which is a cheaper than 100% PCW) is better than 100% virgin fiber.

Myth: My printer doesn’t carry environmentally friendly papers.

Truth: I find it hard to believe that your printer doesn’t carry a house stock of paper that doesn’t have at least 30% PCW. Even my online printer (which I use for small print jobs) offers a wide variety of green(er) options. This is the perfect opportunity to build a relationship with your printer. Call them and ask to come in (or do it on the phone) and let them know, “Okay, I’m ready to try some environmentally friendly options…where do I begin?”

I’m sure there are more. I’m curious what are other issues really deter you from using environmentally friendly papers? I’m sure there will come times when you have your environmentally friendly options removed, so I’m curious to hear what those situations might be as well.

9 thoughts on “Do you love paper too?

  1. steve

    Actually, using 30% post consumer recycled paper does not take 30% of the energy, waste, or trees out of the equation. You have to factor in all the energy it takes to collect, prepare, and fabricate that recycled paper into a usable sheet. Certainly, we should all use as much recycled paper as possible, but saying that it has no environmental impact is false. It simply mitigates *some* of the waste. In certain cases, it might even be worse for the environment if your paper otherwise comes from more renewable sources, like bamboo or even cotton.

    What I find to be the biggest problem is determining actual specs and prices on paper quickly. I have hundreds of swatch books, none of which tell me where the paper falls in the spectrum of sustainability or price. I’m lucky that the printers I work with are knowledgeable enough to guide me, but I think that the current way we describe and categorize paper is impossible terrain to navigate. Most of us have been exposed to Neenah’s recycled paper, but I’d be shocked if a quarter of designers have clients who can actually afford Neenah paper. Seriously, whoever would want to put out a yearly publication on papers for print designers would be my hero. I certainly could have used that my first year out of school when I realized my education didn’t teach me anything practical.

  2. Jeremy


    I agree, the 1:1 ratio doesn’t really line up. But it’s the easiest way to explain it to fledglings. However, I think you bring up a great (and probably just as important to know) is what is defining renewable these days. What are the blights of trend products? Bamboo is the one I see the most (though cotton is a close second.) It’s awesome, it’s renewable, and yet it has to be shipped from China and that’s a lot of effort to call something “green.”

    I also think simply promoting recycled goods is a good practice. The more we invest into it, the more it’ll be a demand and then less of a burden on virgin fibers. I feel once the wheel really gets moving we’ll be discussing efficiency more (as you’re doing now! great job btw) and look less at things like cost and availability.

    As for the rating system and listing. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Hop on that, it could be the next big thing in green graphic design (and could you make it into an app? I’d pay 9.99 for that!)


  3. Laurel Black

    Hi Jeremy –

    As a fellow lover of paper, I was thrilled to see your post debunking some of the myths still floating around about the perceived problems caused by using paper. You made a great point in bringing up the hidden environmental load in production and transportation processes. This highlights the fact that any use of any resource will have its costs, and the real issue is not whether the resource is used, but how it is used.

    I have noticed an undercurrent of self-congratulation when designers assert that they are going as paperless as possible to “save the environment.” It’s an easy way to feel virtuous, but it shows a lack of understanding about how trees are grown, harvested and replanted. (An excellent source for good information on this is available at the Finch Paper blog, Finch in the Forest:

    I think the real problem for the design community (and really, everyone on the planet) is to make the effort to gain a clear understanding of where our stuff comes from. To me, that is the central question we should all be asking, instead of settling for easy “fixes” that do nothing but allow us to stay in a cocoon of ignorance. How many of us have written posts about saving trees on devices that were built with blood metals? How many of us use Macs that were built in China under horrible working conditions?

    Sustainability is far too important an issue to fall victim to simplistic and superficial ideas. I applaud your work in bringing more clarity to an over-hyped, poorly understood subject. I would love to see you write about how designers can lead the way in understanding and managing ALL resource usage. We’re supposed to be communicators, after all.

  4. Smoochagator

    My favorite design professor (who was already a legend in my mind before he passed away; he’s now pretty much TEH GODD OF DEZIGNE) said to our class once, in an offhanded sort of way, “If any of you are treehuggers, you’re in the wrong business. We turn trees into trash. Hopefully there’s a consumer in the middle of the equation, but sometimes there isn’t. I trashed a whole boxcar of magazines one time because of a typo on the cover.” I hyperventilated a little – but it’s true. And every little bit we do to minimize our impact DOES count.

    And yes, I love paper. I love love love it. There’s something about a ream of paper, just opened and totally naked, that thrills me inside.

    1. Jeremy

      I always detest and feel worrisome about attitudes of designers who say a little bit doesn’t make a difference. A whole lot of “littles” make a lot. But I’m glad to see that you realize the difference it can make. Even that awareness is light years ahead of what some designers think.

      Keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Jess Sand

    Good stuff, Jeremy. Designers always amaze me: we want to tackle creative problems, come up with original new solutions to the same old same old, yet we’re spinning our wheels every time we spec paper to print. Wasn’t it Einstein that said something to the effect of “you can’t solve a problem using the same thinking that created it?”

    Laurel makes a good point above: know your materials. But it goes beyond that. If you’re a really good, curious designer, you’ll ask questions beyond the page in front of you. Where did it come from? What’s in it? Who made it? What ingredients were added along the way? What did the land look like before the tree farm was planted? All of that good questioning stuff that reveals things you never knew before.

    And then there’s the biggest, most important question of all: what’s the money trail look like?

    Because just like the political slapfights between dems and repubs threaten to destroy our democratic infrastructure, there’s a slapfight going on in the paper industry. Designers might think they’re just spectators enjoying the show, but there are a lot of companies out there who will do and say anything to pocket your dollar.

    So yeah, ask questions. If somebody has a financial stake in you believing something, ask even tougher questions. That’s what designers are supposed to do.

  6. Pete Wilson

    I too love paper …the touch the feel..and agree that the designer has the most important position in the chain of command in specifying “green” paper.
    The quality of paper is impacted by the % of post consumer waste..100% pcw paper often has a wimpy feel and takes ink less well.(“ink laydown”) If maximum quality is required then 10% pcw is the best choice. So sacrifices do sometimes have to be made.
    The bleaching process for recycling paper is not wonderful for the ecology … it almost makes it not worth salvaging the fibres..but you can specify “chlorine free” paper and that will help.
    I love a Neenah line called “environment” there are 80% and a 100% pcw versions and even a 50% alternative fibre (suger cane or bamboo) 50%pcw fibre choice that is bright and prints well. Trees are a renewable resource, or can be if care is taken in replanting ..Some of the alternative fibres purpose planted are even a better thing
    for the ecology. Hemp fibre makes good paper (not that kind of hemp) There is even a paper made in Africa from elephant poop…I am not promoting this as a serious choice. Can you image the person that has to collect the raw materials.
    I am concerned with the power sources driving paper mills. Coal and petroleum are not renewable resources and have air quality impacts… some of the mills are buying wind power credits to make that look better. (there is a little wind-power logo) ..which is only a politically correct window dressing… they are still running their mills on old fashion energy sources..but it is better than nothing since maybe the money will fuel increasingly better technology.
    Thanks for your blog.
    Pete Wilson

  7. kimi mischke

    Great post and comments. The “going paperless” because it’s more environmentally friendly is particularly maddening to me. This philosophy completely discounts the energy it takes to power the servers and the computers that make those e-newsletters possible, not to mention the ewaste, which is the fastest growing waste stream worldwide.

  8. Laurel Black

    @ Kimi – You are exactly right about the waste stream of electronics and the energy we consume to power our devices. I too find the “going paperless” hype maddening.

    @ Pete – Re your concern about how paper mills are powered: I live on the Olympic Peninsula (WA State) and there are two paper mills in the area. They get a lot of their power from using the parts of trees, such as branches and twigs, not usable for finished products. This material is processed into what is called hog fuel and burned to create steam for power. It is relatively clean because the resulting particulate is reburned and scrubbed. Unlike coal, it is a renewable material. It is also an example of how economics and the environment are not always at odds. The mill doesn’t have to pay for the hog fuel (comes with the trees), whereas coal would be a huge expense, partly because it would have to be shipped in. The rest of the power they use is mostly our regional hydropower. BTW, air quality is tightly regulated and the Olympic Peninsula is known for its clean air.

    Wind power is not the answer either, because it kills birds by the thousands and takes thousands of acres of farm land out of production. Paper made from hemp, cotton and other agricultural sources also takes land out of food production. When ethanol became all the rage for biofuels, it spiked up the cost of corn and exacerbated world hunger. Plus cotton is a notorious depleter of soils.

    As you can see, there are no easy answers. It is hard work to stay informed and current about all the issues. As communicators we need to try as best we can to separate the hype from the reality.

    @ Jeremy – Actually, knowing our materials wasn’t my point (although that is important). My point was that we need to know where ALL our stuff comes from and not fall into the hypocrisy of cherry-picking what we label as problems. Hence my point about blood metals.

    You make a very good point about the money trail, and it should be applied across the board. Certainly paper manufacturers are in business to make money. (As am I.) But this question should be applied to all who have an interest in the issue of sustainability. How much do environmental lawyers make and where does it come from? What do environmental groups do with the millions they collect annually in donations and memberships? We should not make assumptions about anyone, and all should be questioned equally. As you said, designers are supposed to ask questions.