After some email tag, We were able to work out a time to have a conversation about the paper industry, and Sonoco’s role as a leading company in that industry.
In preparation, Mrs. Rowell sent me an informative sustainability pdf that details all of the things about the varied approaches Sonoco takes toward its environmental impact.
We talked specifically about the sections that I highlighted in the literature, some of the corporate coalitions in which Sonoco participates, specific methods that the company is utilizing to mitigate their impact on CO2 emissions, and products that they offer to clients that lessen impacts on landfill.
To begin with we discussed with we discussed how I came to know about Sonoco and my interest in the company’s practices and how they related to the Great Acceleration. I stated my concern, and my previous unawareness of the impact that the packaging industry had as a global contributor to The GA. Laura conceded that the paper industry as a whole had this type of contribution to CO2 emissions and directed me to the recent switch to a more closed loop system that the Sonoco is using to cut their emissions by 65% in the last five years at their Hartsville SC plant and exceeding their global goal of 15% to 24% of greenhouse gas emissions. They have accomplished this through refitting their energy production from two coal fired boilers to a highly energy efficient biomass cogeneration facility, that utilizes the waste (limbs and stumps) from their sustainable logging used to make their paper. Thereby not wasting a single bit of the trees they cut down. Laura pointed out that this was not without cost. The company spent $75 million dollars to do the re-fit. However, the savings to the company in 2014 in electricity cost amount to $8.5 million. If that number were to continue, the company will recoup its investment in the biomass facility in just short of nine years.
I asked about Sonoco’s sustainable logging operations. Since I have read in my research that some of these operations generate monoculture forests which exacerbate the biodiversity problem. She directed me to the literature which points out that the company follows the guidelines of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
The SFI pointed out two areas for improvement though:
Another area where Sonoco has made improvements is with water use in particular. As one might guess, the paper industry utilizes a large amount of water to make the pulp for the paper. Sonoco reduced its total water usage by 29% in 2014 and normalized water usage 40% since 2009.
The company also operates robust commercial municipal recycling programs in every market in which they have production facilities and these programs help to recover 60% of the product that Sonoco produces to be reused in more of their products. Since it is a commercial program it Sonoco gets paid to collect the material that they will recycle and ultimately make into new products.
They use onsite recovery equipment to collect and separate all of the disparate types of materials that they produce and send the metal materials to local metal recycling facilities to divert 95% of their waste away from landfills and leads to further savings in material.
So all of this information makes Sonoco sound like an industry leader in sustainability efforts. But I wanted to know if they were considering using mycelium as one of their options in their packaging products. Laura said flatly, “No. Since the weight of mycelium packaging is 3 times the weight of their cardboard packaging, the embodied costs in terms of transport and the corresponding GHG’s make mushrooms a nonstarter for us.”
I haven’t been able to find anything that contradicts this statement yet, but I am still looking so that may be what I have for now.
During my conversation with Laura Rowell, I felt myself outclassed much of the time since she is a Sustainability expert and has been working in this field for corporations for 20+ years. There was a fair amount of corporate “wording” in the literature that she sent me, which effectively compares Sonoco to itself rather than to the rest of the packaging industry or the metrics of what is good for the environment. While reading the literature I was reminded of the recent Ricky Gervais commercial for verizon in which he lampoons other company’s for “better coverage than ever claims” .Better than what? Oh, better than themselves a few years ago? Since the conversation was arranged by a family friend, I meant to keep the conversation light so I was always tempted to shy away from pressing these questions or making the conversation more adversarial. Maybe it was a missed opportunity. I am not sure.
It is an interesting dynamic, attempting to be an expert on a topic in such a short period and then trying to talk to a representative of an industry that is implicated as one of the causal factors of the Great Acceleration. All in all, I think it was a useful exercise in that I was able to find what an industry leader considers as solutions to their contribution to these causal factors. Big industry companies have an obligation to their shareholders to turn a profit, so sustainability is how they mitigate their potential damage to the environment. But it might be that sustainability is not sustainable.
“The various public discourses on sustainable life, or sustainable development, or sustainable profit are the cultural indicators that the long-standing institutional logic of Capital is being forced to take off its blinders.” – Ron Graziani
Granted Sonoco is a private institution as a corporation, but as members of the public we must ask the “right” questions. To question that institutional logic of sustainability, I am not sure I was able to do that in a half hour phone call with someone as adept as Mrs. Rowell or if she is the one to ask those questions of. Maybe I should have been asking the Sustainable Forestry Initiative about their metrics, which Sonoco abides by. I am not sure. But I will continue to research the propositions she made and the declarative statements in the literature that Sonoco promotes.