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Supply and Demands

Protesters try to get another big-box store to think green

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Last week’s rally at Staples in Missoula was part of a nationwide effort to focus attention on the world’s largest office supply retailer and its reliance on environmentally destructive sources, particularly suppliers of paper. The event, coinciding with National Recycling Day, called into question the big-box store’s lack of inventory of paper made with a higher percentage of recycled material, office wares molded from non-recyclable plastic, and desks made of wood from the Great Bear Forest in British Columbia.

The Staples campaign follows other well-coordinated and successful protests against other national chains. Home Depot and Home Base have both agreed to supply lumber certified from sustainable forest sources, after receiving pressure from the public; the office supply chain seems the next logical leap for grassroots environmental groups.

Paper production consumes more forest land than lumber production in the U.S., with pulp mills accounting for some 12,000 square miles of forest cut each year, according to the Native Forest Network’s Matthew Koehler. “The purpose of the rallies taking place across the country is to end Staples’ irresponsible behavior,” says Koehler.

Erich Degner of Treecycle, a locally-owned paper supply company that distributes recycled and alternative-fiber paper throughout Montana, concurs with Koehler. “If Staples wants to do their part to help save the world’s forests, selling paper with a high recycled content is the simplest step they can take. As we have learned first-hand, selling recycled paper is not only good for business, but it is also good for the forest.”

For its part, Staples indicates that it will begin asking some of its suppliers where they get their raw materials. At the retailer’s corporate headquarters in Farmington, Mass., Staples vice-president in charge of public relations Tom Nutile recounts the events of a busy week. “We met with some of the bigger groups involved in the campaign, and I’m happy to report there is some common ground,” he says. “We’ve examined where we get our paper, asking suppliers to provide a statement indicating whether or not their pulp comes from rainforests. Our biggest suppliers, accounting for more than 50 percent of our paper, issued us statements saying that they do not.”

Nutile adds that agreements had been reached some issues, but they still had a long way to go on others. He declined to specify areas of disagreement, but one sticking point may well be the broader definition of sustainable business practice.

Nutile admits that Staples doesn’t track the effect his company has on independent retailers in smaller markets like Missoula. But many local activists have argued that the explosive growth of super-stores and strip malls along Reserve Street over the past decade has subjected the city to a host of post-modern urban ills. Suburban sprawl, car-centric gridlock, an exodus from the historic and pedestrian-friendly downtown, and stagnating wages accompanying a flood of minimum-wage work have all been cited as side effects of the building boom.

For downtown Missoula merchants, a narrowly green view may seem somewhat beside the point. The number of “going out of business” and “space available” notices in empty downtown buildings remains a prominent feature of the cityscape. For the businesses in Missoula’s city center, the definition of sustainability could be broadened to include having survived the onslaught of big-box retailers.

Wes Wiley, vice-president of Office City in downtown Missoula, makes no claim to be strong proponent of environmentally friendly commerce. The difference, according to Wiley, is in the nature of locally owned businesses that can’t afford to ignore the desires of their customers, a characteristic that often works in Wiley’s favor.

“Don’t get me wrong, it hurt when they came here,” says Wiley of his big-box competitor. “But what we’ve found is that people who need service from someone with some experience and knowledge are coming to us rather than Staples. You could make the comparison that I wouldn’t be of much help to anyone in an operating room because I’m not familiar with the procedure.”

In Wiley’s view, the belief that there might be more to sound business practice than just the sheer volume of transactions helps maintain an ecology of commerce that is more in accordance with the will of the community. “In a city like Missoula, there’s definitely a demand for that kind of thing. We stock recycled paper products because people buy them. Some of our office furniture is also made from recycled material,” Wiley says.

As far as buying exclusively from suppliers with an environmental conscience, Wiley says Office City is middle-of the-road. “We don’t do things that don’t seem right to us,” he notes. “We had a chance recently to buy some skids of paper that had been manufactured in Indonesia, but without knowing anything about the manufacturer, we didn’t want to take the chance of getting stuck with something customers didn’t want, even though the price was right for us.”

Wiley is ambivalent about Office City’s survival in a downtown that has seen its share of hard times. At the least, the belief that local businesses may cater to customer-mandated needs more readily than corporations makes it unlikely that anyone will be picketing Office City anytime soon. “As long as there’s a quality motive for our customers, we’ll be here,” Wiley says.

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