A Canadian compromise

How Harry Potter and Victoria’s Secret helped to save a lot of trees

Published on The Economist, May 25, 2010.

MAY 2010 is looking like a good month for forests. In a couple of days, on the 27th, the Oslo Forest Climate Conference is expected to mark another step on the road to a comprehensive deal on tropical deforestation. And last week, on the 18th, an unlikely-seeming collection of forest-products companies and environmental organisations announced the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which should drastically change the way in which huge areas of Canadian forest are managed … //

…In 2007, at the urging of Canopy, another of the environmental groups involved, Scholastic, a publisher, printed all 12m American copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” on eco-friendly paper. The decision meant little more than feel-good greening to Scholastic, but at 15,000 tonnes it was one of the largest single paper orders in history, with a value Nicole Rycroft, Canopy’s director, estimates to be about $20m. Victoria’s Secret, a lingerie brand that sends out around 400m catalogues each year, switched to alternative paper for its catalogues and took a public stance on caribou conservation. “If you want to talk to the logging company they will laugh you out of the room in two minutes,” says Mr Paglia, “but if you bring Victoria’s Secret, Office Depot, or Staples, everything changes.”

At the height of the boycott campaigns, Avrim Lazar, the head of the Forest Products Association of Canada, a trade group, began to make private overtures to some of the foundations and advocacy groups which eventually became party to the agreement. “There was a general feeling”, he recalls, “that our differences in reality were smaller than the differences we presented in the public debates. We had fallen into cultural role-playing that wasn’t getting either side the outcomes we were looking for.”

How much of this agreement can be replicated elsewhere is hard to say: Canada combines a big forest-products sector with green sensibilities, and the environmental groups involved, for all their sometimes rowdy tactics, are mature and disciplined negotiators. Mr Lazar notes that in the United States timber companies and environmental groups are usually busy suing one another.

Nonetheless, there do seem to be some clear lessons. One is that calling on government to approve the deal only after the fact, rather than having it involved throughout, made the process more palatable to both industry and environmentalists. In the past, mediation by governments constrained by political considerations had left nobody satisfied. This approach requires that environmentalists work on the basis of a smart analysis of the economy of influence, finding companies that can make decisions that matter, but for which the issue is not of primary importance. But it also required an industry clear-eyed enough to understand when the game had changed. (full text).

Links:

Oslo Forest Climate Conference;

Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.

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