Perception is Reality

In June Two Sides North America, a “nonprofit organization created to promote the responsible production, use and sustainability of print and paper”, released the results of a survey it had commissioned to better understand consumer attitudes about the sustainability of print and paper. This report, that looked largely at consumer attitudes about the claims and efforts by companies to “go paperless”, revealed attitudes about working forests that forest landowners and the broader forestry community need to consider.

In many instances, the report revealed ideas and attitudes that those in the sector would have to consider positive. 88% of respondents agreed that “when forests are responsibly managed it is environmentally acceptable to use trees to produce products such as wood for construction and paper for printing. 94% of those surveyed agreed “that print and paper can be a sustainable way to communicate”. This, the report notes, is up from 72% of respondents to the same question in 2013.

Still, the report did uncover some attitudes that suggest the broader forest products industry, including the pulp and paper segment have still got some work to do educating consumers, particularly younger consumers. Not long after the vast majority of respondents (88%) reported that they believe the use of “responsibly managed forests” to manufacture paper is acceptable 78% go on to say that they are concerned about the impact of paper production on forests. When considering those two questions together, one can only assume that consumers aren’t clear about the realities of sustainable forestry practiced in this country and certainly questions asked later in the survey reveal that to be the case.

More than half of those surveyed perceive that forests in the U.S. are shrinking. The authors of the report were careful to note that when just looking at respondents aged 18-24 the number that believed U.S. forest inventories were shrinking was 62%. This age group shows up throughout the report as an age class that, for now, the messages and realities of sustainable forestry just aren’t resonating with. Just 66% of 18-24 year olds believe paper is based on a renewable resource, a full ten points lower than the survey average.

While the report’s focus wasn’t limited to consumer attitudes about working forests, it did yield some things for those connected to the forest products supply chain to consider. There is clearly a foundation of positive ideas about paper and other wood products to build upon, which is great. Still, the public’s understanding of the facts lags the reality on the ground. Opinions differ on the importance of this, but some of the brightest thinkers in public relations will tell you that facts do little to move the emotional notions people have about issues, and these are the notions that move people to action.

Finally, those discrepancies in the 18-24 year-old age category should get everyone’s attention. It is critical, if the industry is to maintain its social license to operate and do business that future thought leaders not only understand the realities of sustainable forestry in this country, but also believe that working forests can be deployed to solve some of the biggest environmental challenges facing us today.