Zerofootprint: Offsets - A Different Way to Hug a Tree

Recently, I visited one of the most primitive cultures I have seen and I came back humbled. In Pentacost, a tiny island in the South Pacific, when you cut down a Kava plant, the culture requires you to plant four more. They are about as far from recycling as can be. Yet I learned a great lesson in sustainable living.

Why, might you ask, do we think that the only path to green heaven is to use recycled paper when we print books, newspapers, magazines? Why not simply follow ancient folklore and plant a tree? Buy a Sunday Times and plant a tree?

When you sit down and think of it, it makes infinite sense. In the small, interconnected world we live in today, if we give back to the earth what we use (and more), and everybody did so, then we would not be in this environmental pickle that we find ourselves in. How simple can you get?What if we had built into every object the cost of replenishing the earth of all the damage done in creating it? Is this easy? Hard? Expensive? Does it cost more than recycling? Is it better? Worse? Let's narrow things down and consider books, magazines, newspapers and catalogues. After all, how many times have you opened the New York Sunday Times and felt guilty about the tree destroyed for your benefit.

You might be surprised to know that printing a book on recycled paper is about 10 times more expensive than replanting the trees, creating the watersheds and buying the energy used to create it. Arguably, it is much better for the world to do the latter. Our tribal friends would agree. With some goods such as Aluminum cans, the picture is different. But with trees there is no doubt. If you had a choice to buy trees in a sustainably-managed forest, restore a supply of water previously made unusable and offset the energy used, wouldn't you rather do this than simply buy partially recycled paper? After all, it is better for the world, cheaper and comes closer to solving the problem than recycling.

To bring this point home, a typical book might cost $2 in raw materials and $4 if printed on recycled paper. It is no wonder Victoria Secret doesn't agree to print its 1,000,000 catalogues a day on recycled stock. It might add almost $1 billion to their cost base! On the other hand, a typical book might cost only 20 cents to zero footprint using the highest standards of sustainable tree reforestation.

Before my green friends decide to hang me for treason, let me avow my commitment to recycling. But, lets not be silly, there are better ways to save the world when it comes to printed materials. With all the effort environmental groups have made in getting publishers to recycle, less than 0.5% of the billion books published in the US use some recycling content. At one-tenth the price, cleverly designed offsetting will win the day.

[Ron Dembo, Founder and CEO, Zerofootprint]