BRUSSELS, Feb. 22, 2012 (RISI) -While times are tough for most industries, the European paper and pulp industry faces a number of complex and particularly profound challenges, including the growing impact of online and digital media, increasing competition from China, stagnant demand and increasing regulatory demands.
But the real challenge can be summed up by the frequently-seen exhortation "Do not print this email". In five words, the industry's challenge is captured. A digital world, infinitely more efficient and sustainable than a paper one - isn't it?
Sustainable or not
The pulp and paper sector has made significant advances in terms of environmental sustainability over recent decades. The development of FSC certification (much copied in other industries), increases in sustainable forest management and carbon sequestration, massive increases in recycling rates and clean technology-driven sulphur reductions. The sector is also the biggest industrial producer of bio-energy in Europe, and has a legitimate claim to being one of the world's most sustainable industries.
Yet, despite this reality, most people still have little or no knowledge of its contribution to sustainability. The worrying and grossly unfair belief that the industry is somehow an ‘evil deforester' and ‘major climate change contributor' persists - a fact confirmed by recent research released by IPSOS.
Their survey of 4,500 European consumers found that the paper and pulp sector is still viewed as the single most damaging industry for forests, and is seen to be as harmful as construction and even worse than fossil fuels. A whopping 76% of consumers believe there is a connection between paper manufacture and the loss of tropical rainforests; and 80% believe that forests in Europe have remained the same or decreased in size over the past 50 years - where the reality is that they have actually increased by 30%. It also found that consumers' understanding of the extent of, and industry role in, paper recycling was very limited.
These mistaken perceptions have allowed, and perhaps encouraged, lawmakers to impose ever-more-stringent legislation and regulations on the industry, both at EU and national level; placing a disproportionate burden on paper and pulp manufacturers in the years to come. Overturning these perceptions and positioning the industry as a key player in terms of Europe's response to climate change and sustainable manufacturing is absolutely essential if the industry is to maximize its influence over the rapidly evolving regulatory and legislative framework.
The industry believes, but it is the consumer that counts(image courtesy of Sappi)
This is not, however, a cost free approach because as the industry's relevance and future is increasingly cast in terms of environmental sustainability, so awareness will build that there is also the "right type of paper" in environmental terms. The pressure on companies "lagging behind" in terms of their own environmental performance will dramatically increase. They will have to quite literally put up or shut down.
It's a digital future - or is it?
But even more dangerous is the erroneous linkage of this ‘unsustainable' industry with disruptive digital technologies which, happily say paper's enemies, make it irrelevant to the future. Certainly, at first glance, the rise of digital communication represents an absolutely fundamental challenge to the paper and pulp and industry; one that, according to some, threatens its very existence.
However, everybody within the industry understands that the reality is very different. And so do many consumers when asked. The industry knows that it makes no sense to push back history, and engage in an "either-or" battle against digital communication. But it does have to be more self-confident in presenting the reality: that the rise of digital tools and content in no way undermines the unique and complementary role paper has to play in meeting modern communication needs. Paper versus digital is not a zero-sum game.
Encouragingly, recent surveys confirm that there remains a very strong emotional attachment to paper even amongst the "digital natives" - those aged 18-24 years - with 83% preferring to read from paper rather than off a screen. The industry must harness the considerable emotional bond all of us have with paper and build a clearer understanding, and contrast, between the sustainability benefits of paper on the one hand, and people's digital footprints on the other.
Creating a more positive and long-term narrative
Far too many people still think that the pulp and paper industry in Europe is old-fashioned and low-tech, of marginal economic importance and environmentally damaging. This is not the basis upon which the industry can maximize its influence on the political and regulatory process, respond to the challenges of the digital age, or shore up and increase its growth prospects.
Psychologically, it is always more difficult to be positive in times of difficulty, but that is exactly what the industry must do. The industry - united - needs to develop and embrace a more positive narrative and this needs to be communicated with real belief and vigour.
This narrative must emphasise the positive contributions it is already making in terms of driving sustainability - in its broadest sense, explain the ongoing importance and value of paper in a digitalized world, and reposition the industry as dynamic and innovation driven. Crucially, it must also provide a long-term vision for the industry: one that positions it as relevant and vital to our future.
The industry also needs to rethink the ways in which it communicates this narrative externally. In part, it is about greater industry wide coordination, greater creativity and embracing new media. Crucially, it is also about every company galvanizing its own people; turning them into genuine ambassadors for the industry. This means making everybody, whether they work in accounts or on the shop floor, and not just customer facing personnel, genuinely proud of the industry and equipping them with the tools - often very simple - to allow them to make the case for the industry.
It's the consumers, stupid!
All too often B2B industries still think of consumers as falling ‘outside their mandate'; this is something for B2C companies to deal with. For the paper and pulp industry the stakes are just too high to delegate this responsibility. Fortunately, many within the industry recognise this reality and significant progress has already been made in taking the industry's message direct to consumers.
The Two Sides project is a notable example of how the industry is taking its message directly to the man in the street. Its objective and messaging is clear: whilst consumers are still showing strong preferences for paper, the industry can do more to teach them about its role as ‘forest guardian', its great environmental record and its positive contribution to the growth of Europe's forests.
At a minimum the industry must counter the guilt that many consumers have about using paper. The industry should however set its ambition levels much higher and aim to convince consumers that by using paper they are actually making a positive contribution to environmental sustainability through reforestation and carbon sequestration.
A campaign approach
Educating consumers and other stakeholders so that they have compelling long-term reasons to value and support the industry is not an easy task. It takes time, and requires a campaign mentality and approach, characterized by frequent communications through multiple channels and towards a very clear common objective.
The most effective campaigns are built around coalitions. The wider the interests represented, and the more credible they are, the greater their impact. Again, the industry has certainly made significant strides in this direction, but much still needs to be done. In particular, it should make a more concerted and coordinated effort to engage with the environmental NGOs. This will not be straightforward, but the more the industry is aligned with, and endorsed by these NGOs the more powerful its sustainability message will become.
The pulp and paper industry has the raw materials required to reshape its reputation and significantly increase its standing. It can help create a more favourable growth environment, shift perceptions amongst key audiences and increase its influence on political and policy developments. But to do so, it needs to be more self-confident. It must create a more compelling industry wide narrative, engage more directly with us all, and find the strength to say: ‘Hey, print that mail! It's OK!"
Aspect Consulting is a European corporate and political communications consultancy based in Brussels, Belgium