Some glossies cover the environment, but cover up their own practices, says Fortune's Marc Gunther.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The New Yorker won awards for its stories about climate change and Vanity Fair publishes a "green" issue, but just try to find parent company Conde Nast's environmental policy. You can't.
Newsweek ran a cover on "The Greening of America," but its owner, The Washington Post Co., won't identify the magazine's paper suppliers or say where its paper comes from. Maybe The Post's Bob Woodward should investigate.
As for Hearst, which publishes Oprah's magazine and Cosmopolitan, the privately held firm is developing an environmental policy to govern its paper buying. But the company won't provide details.
"The magazine industry's hypocrisy runs deep," asserts Todd Paglia, executive director of Forest Ethics, an environmental group that protects forests by holding companies accountable for their paper buying.
"Conde Nast," Paglia goes on, "is seemingly unaware of the strangeness of doing a high-profile series in The New Yorker on climate change, while exacerbating the problem by using environmentally irresponsible paper." Conde Nast did not return emails or calls seeking comment.
The reluctance of publishers to talk about their environmental impact suggests that they aren't paying attention - or that they want to avoid it. That makes a project undertaken by a group of paper users - including the Time Inc. division of Time Warner (Charts), the German publisher Axel Springer, Random House UK, which is a unit of Bertelsmann, and packaging firm Tetra Pak - all the more unusual.
Those companies are all big customers of Stora Enso (Charts), a Finnish-Swedish paper, packaging and forest products giant based in London. With Stora Enso, they formed a partnership to track their supply chain into the heart of Russia's forests to try to insure that it is harvested in a sustainable way.
Ordinarily, I try not to write about Time Inc., which publishes Fortune and CNNMoney.com. This story is an exception because the company's environmental practices deserve recognition.
Time Inc. joined with Nike (Charts), Staples (Charts), Hewlett Packard (Charts) and the nonprofit group Metafore in 2003 to form the Paper Working Group to promote environmentally preferable paper. It worked with environmental groups to measure its greenhouse gas emissions, and set reduction targets. It discloses its paper suppliers and bought about 70 percent of its paper from sources certified as sustainable during 2006, up from 25 percent four years earlier.
As the world's largest magazine publisher, Time Inc. acted partly to avoid becoming a target. (In 1994, Greenpeace activists protested the company's forestry practices by climbing the Time & Life Building in New York.) But its work also has been driven by the passion of David Refkin, a Bronx-born accountant who joined the company in 1982, took charge of its paper buying in the late 1980s and is now its director of sustainable development.
Cleaning up the supply chain
Refkin, 49, has tracked the company's paper to the woods of Maine, Wisconsin and Michigan, in an effort to promote sustainable forestry. "I once went to Iron Mountain, Mich., to have breakfast with 375 loggers," he says. "They wanted to have me for breakfast."
Over the years, he has become an environmentalist. He is the board president of a nonprofit called the National Recycling Coalition and even nudged a friend who operates a Vermont ski resort to buy electricity from wind. "If you're in a business that depends on the weather," he reasons, "you ought to buy green power."
Refkin turned his attention to Russia because Stora Enso, a Time Inc. supplier, imports wood from Russia. The partners in a project called "From Russia With Transparency" identified two logging companies in Russia, and worked with them to improve their environmental practices so that they can obtain certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent body. (One company, Russkiy Les, expects to be certified this year.) The group also tackled worker safety and corruption, both serious issues in Russia.
Americans, Germans, Brits, Finns, Swedes and Russians collaborated on the project. "How many wars have been fought between those countries?" Refkin mused. "The culture challenges were enormous." The American and European buyers had to be careful not to push around the Russian suppliers.
Two nonprofit groups, Transparency International and the Karelian Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, monitored the project. A detailed report on the project, as well as a video, can be found at www.tikhvinproject.ru/.
Why should publishers go to the trouble of cleaning up their supply chain? Florian Nehm, sustainability officer for Axel Springer, which publishes magazines and newspapers, said companies should be concerned not just about the visible quality of paper but its "invisible" quality as well - its environmental and social impact.
"There are 3,000 journalists working for Axel Springer," Nehm says. "They criticize everything and everyone, and they can only do that with credibility if the company that they work for has adequate standards of its own."
That should be a wake-up call to other publishers. Those who ignore environmental issues may be putting their reputations at risk.
Publishers will be happy to hear that Forest Ethics - which ran a successful campaign against the Victoria's Secret catalog and its parent company, Limited Brands (Charts), last year - says it will remain focused on catalogs, not magazines, for now. But Paglia says the group intends to look at magazines and their paper, perhaps as soon as next year.