The inner workings of our research studio

November 20, 2010 | Yvette Perullo & Jess Sand  |  Share

Re-nourish has just updated our Paper Finder tool, giving you the most up-to-date access to over 300 of the most environmentally responsible papers currently available on the North American market.

As graphic designers we swoon over paper like Homer Simpson over donuts, Angelina Jolie over babies, or Tiger Woods get the idea. Every print designer relies on paper – and together, we use a lot of it. The paper industry currently logs an estimated 5 million acres of forests each year in the U.S. alone (source: EPN). Although many of us would like to make better choices when specifying paper, it can be tough to know where to start.

With so many papers on the market now claiming to be “green,” choosing the right one for your project can be akin to a newcomer navigating the streets of downtown Boston – it’s just too easy to get lost among the twists and turns. How much recycled content is enough? Is the paper company using responsibly produced wood pulp? What else do I need to consider? When you’re facing a tight deadline, the truth is there simply isn’t time to do endless research or get lost wandering through the landscape of responsible paper options.

We specifically created the Re-nourish Paper Finder to solve this problem. It allows you to select an environmentally responsible paper without fuss or a huge time investment, bringing sustainable graphic design within the reach of every freelance, agency or in-house designer. Every single one of the 300+ papers in the Paper Finder has been independently evaluated to ensure only truly responsible lines make the cut.

This selection process happens on an individual basis, with each paper reviewed and weighted against Re-nourish’s inclusion criteria. When adding papers to the database, we look at the following:

  • Amount of recycled content
  • Type of fiber used
  • Bleaching process
  • Energy used during production
  • Third-party certifications

Recycled Content

Re-nourish currently excludes any wood fiber paper with 30% or less post-consumer fiber. This is, admittedly, considered a high bar by many (including some of our colleagues in the Environmental Paper Network).

When I began designing the Paper Finder tool for Rethink Design, my graduate thesis project, I discovered a large amount of 30% PCW papers on the market – and wondered why so many manufacturers stopped there. The reason is most likely due to a 1998 White House Executive Order that required that any paper purchased by federal agencies had to contain at least 30% post-consumer content.

An ambitious goal back when there were few options on the market containing any PCW content at all, the 30% level was a strong incentive for paper mills to increase production. But that order, while necessary to drive the market, has since become the de facto ceiling among most paper mills. Now that the paper recovery infrastructure is improving in North America, perhaps it’s time to raise the bar once again.

By creating a demand for an even higher content post-consumer waste recycled paper, manufacturers would have good reason to step up to the plate. When it comes to wood fiber paper, therefore, the Re-nourish Paper Finder includes only papers with more than 30% post-consumer content.

Type of Fiber

The second step of the selection process reviews all paper lines with agricultural fiber content. Agricultural fiber comes from dedicated crops like flax, hemp, kenaf, or in the form of agricultural residue, which is the leftover plant material from the harvesting of food crops. Ag residue is usually dumped or burned in fields, so replacing wood fiber with this “waste” product would have enormous environmental benefits. Not only would we be able to offset resource-intensive monocultural tree plantations, we could prevent the CO2 emissions and other pollution caused by on-field burning.

To encourage the use of alternative fibers, Re-nourish includes any paper made with either dedicated crop or ag residue fiber, provided it meets our other criteria as well. It’s important to remember that dedicated crop fibers like kenaf or bamboo, however, need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine their environmental advantage.

Cotton is one of the few dedicated crops we exclude from the database. Conventional cotton farming is one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural practices — polluting air, water, and soil, and jeopardizing human health from excessive use of pesticides and herbicides. Re-nourish makes one exception: Ecosource’s Eco-21 line is made with a mix of 40% hemp, 40% flax, and 20% cotton. In this case, the high agrifiber content has been given greater weight.

Bleaching Process

While fiber content gets primary consideration in the Paper Finder selection process, bleaching is another potential source of environmental contamination during paper production. Re-nourish includes only processed chlorine-free (PCF) and totally chlorine-free (TCF) papers. These processes avoid the use of chlorine gas to whiten paper. Chlorine bleaching releases dioxins, extremely toxic compounds that can compromise the health of both humans and wildlife. (See the glossary for more details on bleaching).

Energy Used During Production

The papermaking process is extremely energy-intensive, so paper made with renewable energy or offset credits is favored as well. Among the top five energy consuming industries in the U.S., the pulp and paper industry uses approximately 9% of the total energy used in manufacturing (source: US Census Bureau). A paper is not admitted on this criteria alone, though. Renewable energy use must be accompanied by 31% or more PCW or agrifiber content to be accepted into the database.

Third-party Certification

Independent environmental certifications such as FSC, Green Seal, or Ancient Forest Friendly are also taken into consideration when looking at a manufacturer and paper line as a whole. However, because smaller mills producing greener papers may not have the resources to afford the often costly and time-intensive certification process, lack of such certification doesn’t immediately disqualify a paper.

Doing the Research So You Don’t Have To

Designers have enough on their plate juggling deadlines, budgets, and other client needs. Making better paper choices shouldn’t have to be a chore, or require endless hours of research and expense. That’s why we’ve taken the time to do the legwork for you.

There are over 300 papers listed in the Re-nourish Paper Finder. Each one of them is included based on our own independent research, according to the criteria described above. To ensure accuracy and independence, we rely on multiple third-party sources, including environmental nonprofits, government agencies, and the paper companies themselves. It’s also worth noting that we don’t accept funding or advertising from the companies represented in the database, either directly or indirectly.

Designers may swoon over the hundreds of papers found in the Paper Finder safe in the knowledge that each one truly represents a more responsible alternative to conventionally produced papers. With this free tool, the search is over and the choice is yours.

Check out the Paper Finder tool.

Do you know of a paper that should appear in the Paper Finder database? Shoot us an email!

A special thank you to Bryan Weber for the database update and to Amy Parker for research support.

Subscribe to the RSS feed

About the Blog
The Re-nourish Blog is a showcase of our work and research, and serves as a place to explore what's going on in the world of sustainable design. Here, you'll see what we're working on in our studio, and learn about what other sustainable designers are doing.


.eco Supporter