Georgia Pacific, Southern Forests, and How NRDC Worked with One Corporation

Last week, leading timber buyer Georgia Pacific announced it will embrace expanded sustainable forestry practices that could help transform the entire paper industry. The company has agreed not to purchase trees from Endangered Forests and Special Areas or from new pine plantations that were created at the expense of natural hardwood forests.

This commitment will have sweeping benefits on the ground, and that is why NRDC and our partners spent several years negotiating with Georgia Pacific to secure it. 

Many Americans may not realize it, but forests in the South produce more wood and paper than any other place in the world—almost 25 percent of global supply. Clear cutting and converting vibrant hardwood forests into sterile plantations have devastated much of the region’s once abundant wild landscapes.

But those that remain are treasure troves of biodiversity. Home to grey wolves, bobcats, rare orchids, and songbirds, these forests nurture more plant and animal species that anywhere else in North America. They also help protect the drinking water for millions of people in the region.

Georgia Pacific’s new practices—along with a similar agreement NRDC reached a few years ago with Bowater—will help preserve some of these ecological riches. In its first phase alone, Georgia Pacific has identified 600,000 acres to preserve in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal region, and 90 million acres of natural hardwood forests in the Southern region. That is the size of state of Montana. (You can see a map of the forests here.)

When you tally the acres involved, you realize the influence one corporation can have over America’s natural resources.

NRDC views that influence as a potential opportunity. Plenty of companies have despoiled our environment without hesitation, but some can be persuaded to adopt more sustainable practices—practices that have the power to preserve entire forests, remove pollution from rivers, and replace toxic chemicals from everyday products.

NRDC is known for holding the polluting companies accountable. But we also engage the ones interested in sustainability.

From the time we opened our doors in 1970, NRDC’s identity has been centered on our ability to fight to protect the environment. Explicit in that image is that we are not afraid of anyone. We have sued the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, GE, the five biggest utilities in the country, and scores of other corporate giants. And we win.

Litigation is not our only tool. We also use advocacy, science, and the media to advance environmental protections. But if there is a problem that politics won’t fix, that cooperation and negotiation won’t solve, then we go to court and fight.

But NRDC is committed to being effective. And to be effective, environmental groups can’t always use the stick of litigation. We also have to use the carrot of market advantage.

This is especially true in the 21st century. At a time when mega corporations span the globe and most manufacturing occurs abroad, transforming markets can often yield faster, more far-reaching reforms than litigation or political action.

NRDC engages with corporations only when the environmental benefits of the work are far-reaching. We are not interested in simply greening one company: we want to transform entire markets—like the Southeastern forestry business. We don’t take money, and we don’t do it for the public relations. We do it to get better environmental results.

And it our complex global economy that sometimes means deploying two tools at once. A few years ago, NRDC was planning an event with our sister organization Environmental Entrepreneurs, and someone suggested inviting executives from DuPont to speak about the company’s new sustainability initiative. At the same time, NRDC was suing DuPont for polluting a river in Virginia.

If we invited DuPont to an NRDC event, does that mean we were absolving them of their bad acts?  Of course not. These are big companies, and we can work with them to improve some aspects of their operations even as we challenge other aspects. Or, as my colleague leading the litigation said, “DuPont can speak to the group, but that doesn’t mean we will let up on the lawsuit for one minute.”

For us and our million-plus members, the only question is how can we make progress in safeguarding the Earth, its people, plants, and animals, and the systems which sustain us all.

And so we try to balance our tough stance toward polluters with our work urging giant corporations to reduce their environmental impacts. And in the process, we hammer out commitments—like the one Georgia Pacific made this week—that will push entire industries closer to sustainability.