Sunday, November 15

Green Paper

I like beautiful paper. As an artist, and particularly as a photographer, paper is important to me. When used in a photographic print, a wide variety of attributes contribute to the quality of the paper. Things like texture, brightness, colorfastness, and galvanization: all make a major impact on the finished print. Paper becomes even more important when it's used in artwork that is intended to be handled, like invitations, particularly wedding and birth announcements.

Paper isn't necessarily green, and does have a spotted history. I grew up in a rural area where the rivers would run different colors, depending upon the dye of the day. But things have changed dramatically in many parts of the paper industry, and not just in the manufacturing standards, but in the ways that the pulp is acquired as well.

We typically associate paper with two types of fiber: cotton and wood. Both can be used in a sustainable way. Fine papers made in medium quantities tend to be a mix of virgin hard and softwood, with some fillers mixed in. Fine papers made in small quantities are often hand-laid and expensive, and often 100% cotton. These latter papers are often used for fine art and photography. The former, wood-fiber papers, tend to be used for fine stationery and invitations. Of course, you'll find plenty of 100% cotton sheets used for fine invitations too, but the price often increases significantly.

Nevertheless, we tend to be interested in just a few things universally, particularly when it comes to invitations, and other fine products that will be printed and handled. Here's a short list:

  • "Hand-feel" - This is how the paper feels in your hands. Is it soft? Hard? Do your hands dry out when you handle it? Does it feel luxurious... or industrial? All of these things are quantified subconsciously, the second we touch the paper.
  • Texture - This is simply the texture of the paper. Is it smooth? Rough? Does it have a pattern like a linen or does it show the machine chains from the manufacturing process?
  • Formation - This is a little bit harder to quantify for the lay-person, but it is roughly the description of how even the distribution of fibers and consistent the appearance of the paper. It's usually easiest to see formation by holding your paper up to the sun. Does the paper appear splotchy like oatmeal? Bad formation. Does the paper appear uniform like a thin skin of milk? Good formation.
  • Stiffness - This is pretty straight forward! However, I personally feel that a stiff paper is not a good paper by default. Stiff paper with poor hand-feel can look and feel like a manila work folder... not what you want in fine paper!
  • Color - Sometimes it's hard to remember, but paper has a color, and often it is quite distinct. Usually when we look at a photograph, or even a blank sheet of paper, we ignore whether the paper is slightly blue or slightly yellow; this is what we tend to call "cold" and "warm." A colder paper tends to be more blue in sunlight, a warmer paper tends to be more yellow in sunlight. There are color papers as well, like cream, ecru, chocolate, and these are much more overstated than the delicate hues between "cold" and "warm."
  • Coating - This is quite a tricky characteristic, as coated papers and uncoated papers can be manipulated in a wide variety of ways, often blending the line between the two, but a relatively easy way to tell the difference is to look at a magazine and look at a piece of watercolor paper. Magazines tend to be made with coated paper, watercolor paper is uncoated. Both can be very beautiful.
Considering all of these attributes, you can look at the difference between "green" papers and "not-so-green" papers. In the past, green papers were often thought to be recycled papers, with a lot of post-consumer waste. The quality of the paper was sometimes ignored, and the result was an ugly, limp, poorly formed paper. But things have seriously changed!

Now, not only have forestry standards changed dramatically (improving the sustainability of the wood pulp paper industry) but there are a variety of ways of mixing in PCW (post-consumer waste) and even using entirely different materials from wood and virgin cotton (such as hemp, or reclaimed cotton from recycled clothing). The balance is tricky, some of the recyclable processes take significantly more energy than the virgin processes, and in order to offset this, some paper manufacturers are purchasing their power from renewable sources, or even investing in their own power generation.

So you may be saying, "How in the world can I make sense of all this?" Well, there are a few things to look for:

  • Look for FSC certification. Once you find a paper you like, or if you're shopping for invitations, announcements, or stationery, see if it is is FSC certified. Retailers are beginning to make this information available to their customers, and often times the packaging will have the FSC logo printed right on it.
  • Research the brand. There's a big difference between marketing fluff and a genuine commitment to green initiatives. Green companies, particularly in the paper industry, make it their mission to be green. If you just see a few "Save the Earth" stickers laying around, and the company information looks otherwise "business as usual", then chances are that they aren't too green.
  • Just ask! You can get a good feel for how green-friendly a company is just by talking to a customer service person, or sending an email. Just as above, a green company is a company that makes it a core part of their business, not a marketing talking point.

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