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Victoria's Dirty Little Secret

The racy lingerie company mails out 395 million catalogs annually, most printed on virgin paper. But one group is working to change that.
 
 
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As pedestrians clutching umbrellas hurried past San Francisco Victoria's Secret store on a recent Tuesday, a street theater skit unfolded under the gaze of bikini-clad mannequins. The protesters unfurled a pink banner, a "maid" dressed in a revealing black dress and thigh-high stockings danced with a broom, and activists passed out leaflets blasting the company for supporting forest clear cuts.

The short protest didn't attract a huge crowd -- passersby seemed more worried about keeping dry than pausing to take in the rain-soaked parody -- but multiply that number by over 200 other cities where similar protests took place on April 11, and the public awareness factor quickly adds up.

The coordinated protests were planned by the nonprofit forest advocacy group ForestEthics, which is pressuring Victoria's Secret to use more recycled paper and less virgin timber in its catalogs. Since the group's 18-month-old "catalog campaign" began in December 2004, over 600 protests have been staged in front of Victoria's Secret stores.

San Francisco-based ForestEthics' first move against Victoria's Secret was a protest in New York that caused the postponement of the Victoria's Secret "Angels in America" tour debut. Next was a full-page "Victoria's Dirty Secret" ad (PDF) in the New York Times featuring a lingerie-clad model grasping a chainsaw.

A relative youngster among environmental groups, ForestEthics has grabbed the attention of dozens of major U.S. corporations that send out catalogs, with an in-your-face market campaign calling attention to logging in endangered, old-growth forests -- particularly Canada's Boreal Forest, a 1.4 billion-acre swath of trees that helps regulate carbon in the global climate.

boreal forest
A clear-cut road through Canada's Boreal Forest. Photo courtesy of ForestEthics.

When it comes to protecting trees, pictures of pristine forests -- or the alternative, pictures of clear-cut stumps -- don't get quite the same public reaction as sexy underwear. Although Victoria's Secret is not the only company that prints catalogs on virgin timber -- ForestEthics has named dozens of offending companies -- lingerie serves as a good hook for its market campaign. And so far, it appears to be working.

The campaign begins

Twelve years ago, ForestEthics executive director Todd Paglia realized something had to change.

In 1994, Paglia was part of a group fighting to save the timber surrounding Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, from loggers. Environmental organizations and native groups staged some of the largest civil disobedience actions in British Columbia at the time, but as Paglia explained in a recent interview, "We were not able to stop the logging by putting bodies on the line; we needed another way.

"We decided we needed to find out who's buying this wood," Paglia recalled. "Do the customers of the logging companies know this is happening? That was the birth of what we call market campaigns."

Market campaigns have not been used much in forest activism -- bigger environmental organizations, like the National Wildlife Foundation and the Sierra Club, haven't tried them. But Paglia, who worked for Ralph Nader -- perhaps the biggest corporate activist of all time -- felt it was time to push back.

While the average logging company doesn't care how many protesters show up with signs, major corporations in the United States do -- very much. Concerned about their brand, commercial corporations have no interest in being attached to what ForestEthics dubs "forest destruction."

"We feel that at some point, it's time to stop being polite," Paglia said. "One problem big groups have with targeting corporations is that it gets personal; but it's people's health, our children, our wildlife."

17 billion catalogs

The decision to make Victoria's Secret the lead target in their catalog campaign wasn't by chance. Market campaigns depend on the same thing corporations do: buzz. But it's not just racy underwear that made Victoria's Secret the target of ForestEthics' ire.

Victoria's Secret, owned by parent company The Limited, mails out 395 million catalogs annually, most printed on virgin paper. They're not alone. ForestEthics estimates that the catalog industry sends out 17 billion catalogs, or 59 catalogs per person living in the United States , per year. Most of those catalogs contain little to no recycled content. ForestEthics wants Victoria's Secret to stop purchasing paper made from endangered forests and increase its use of recycled fiber to 50 percent over the next five years.

A quarter of Victoria's Secret catalog paper is harvested from the Canadian boreal forest, which covers 1.4 billion acres -- an area that would fit 13 states the size of California. The forest is all but ignored, except by a small population of native people, and the logging companies have a free run at most of it. Sixty percent of the trees logged in the boreal go to produce paper pulp for office paper and catalogs for U.S. consumption.

Negotiations

Before any demonstrations, ForestEthics sent letters requesting information about paper sources to the top 100 catalogers on the Direct Marketing Association list, which tracks advertising mail. A handful of companies replied, including Victoria's Secret. But while one Victoria's Secret department was talking with ForestEthics, another signed a two-year contract with International Paper, which logs in the boreal. ForestEthics ran the New York Times ad, and one day later two Victoria's Secret executives flew to San Francisco to talk.

Paper campaign director Dan Howell said there are four basic questions to discuss: How much recycled paper do they use; how much Forest Stewardship Council-approved fiber is in use; what are its paper reduction goals; and is any paper they sell from endangered forests?

The last question is perhaps the most important, and the most difficult, to answer. Once a tree is pulped, there is no way to tell where it came from. Paglia says the lack of transparency in the way paper pulp is accounted for is a "major problem."

ForestEthics also works with companies to set up tiered, multiyear progression plans guiding the company on how to introduce more recycled content into its paper products, starting off with "a benchmark that we think they can meet," Howells said.

Howells characterized ongoing negotiations with Victoria's Secret as constructive. "They push back on the issues and ask lots of questions, and then we push back, but there's no fisticuffs. They are really good talks," he said.

Victoria's Secret spokesman Anthony Hebron said the company had been upfront with ForestEthics.

"From our standpoint, the conversation went really well. We use recycled paper in our annual report. We are very upfront about what we are doing. From our standpoint, the conversation went really well. Next thing we knew, we were named a target of [FE's] campaign," Hebron said.

Hebron said Victoria's Secret added 20 percent post-consumer waste paper to its monthly clearance catalog, and then brought the catalog's total recycled content up to 80 percent, where it is today. The clearance catalog accounts for 12 percent of all its catalogs, Hebron said. This is the only Victoria's Secret catalog that currently contains recycled content.

"We took one (the clearance catalog) that goes out every month. Then we told them that after we perfected it, we would migrate that practice to our other catalogs," said Hebron.

Within the next year, Hebron says that Victoria's Secret plans to expand the amount of recycled content in its catalogs. "We've been very open and transparent. We've provided them with the data they've asked for, we have nothing to hide, we're making good strides. We think the average consumer sees this," he said.

Victoria's Secret has made some changes, but it hasn't gone far enough for the campaign to stop, according to ForestEthics.

"I think they're experimenting on their catalog, testing with what they can get away with," Howells said. "I see that as very positive first step. I'm happy they're looking at it, but they still need to address the 357 million catalogs that don't have Forest Steward Council fiber."

There is a critical date approaching that could break the relative impasse. Victoria's Secret's contract with its supplier International Paper is due to expire in June. At that point, Victoria's Secret could negotiate terms that require different paper sources for its catalogs -- something ForestEthics is heartily encouraging.

Other companies have embraced the changes. Dell Computer sends tens of millions of catalogs every year. Working with ForestEthics, Dell established a Forest Products Stewardship Model documenting its paper-usage practices, and established paper sourcing and recycling goals before the campaign began.

"We certainly were awakened to the opportunities of forest stewardship by ForestEthics in 2003," said Tod Arbogast, who runs Dell's Sustainable Business division. Cost was a factor in decisions about switching to more recycled content in Dell's catalogs, computer boxes and manuals. "At heart, they were very clear business and pragmatic decisions," Arbogast said.

Dell measures goals within its product lines, office use and catalogs. Using the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive paper calculator, Dell estimates its 2005 goals resulted in over 100,000 trees saved.

Three years later, Dell's move to more environmental paper use has not cost the company money. "What we learned is that if we balance paper procurement effectively, we can be cost neutral," Arbogast said.

Raising industry awareness

ForestEthics may be just another nonprofit to the public, but the paper industry knows exactly who they are. At a paper conference in Montreal a few years ago, Gerard Gleason said a timber industry executive exclaimed, "ForestEthics is here!" after he spotted a ForestEthics brochure on a table.

"They're not huge, but they're making the forest industry quake," said Gleason, associate director of Conservatree, a former paper distribution company that now consults with business and government on how to convert to using environmental paper. "Their name recognition in the paper industry, I think, is very high."

There is still a long way to go. Even with ForestEthics' campaigns, less than five percent of printing (catalogs and magazines) and writing (office printer paper) has recycled fiber in it, according to Gleason.

Gleason said there isn't enough pressure on paper companies right now to produce recycled-content paper, so it doesn't happen. Paper companies have been so good at finding cheap virgin sources of wood in recent years that the percentage of recycling content of paper has actually dropped in half.

But ForestEthics is pushing in the right direction. Its paper campaign, which went after office supply stories beginning in 2000, has influenced a recent uptick in paper pulp production. RISI, which tracks the North American pulp market, reported that pulp mills are operating at a record 90 percent capacity. RISI economist David Clapp said the rise was directly attributable to increased demand from big national office stores such as Staples and Office Depot, which are now requiring paper made with up to 30 percent recycled content from postconsumer recovered paper.

After ForestEthics pushed Staples to shift its paper-buying policy, the recycled content in a ream of copy paper went from 3 percent to 20 percent.

George Hoberg, head of the Department of Forest Resources Management at the University of British Columbia, said the ForestEthics market campaigns have marked a revolution in environmental strategy because they influence the corporate bottom line.

"That's the most important thing in influencing the forest companies' behavior," Hoberg said. "That's why ForestEthics has been so successful."

Hoberg questioned, however, whether the attention given to market campaigns was sapping energy and support for grassroots initiatives that help to pass legislation and forest policy.

"Companies are motivated by markets, governments by votes," Hoberg said, noting that government rules were binding, whereas companies could abandon agreements anytime they felt like it.

In addition to paper and catalogs, ForestEthics has campaigns focused on British Columbia's Inland Rainforest and its dwindling mountain caribou, as well as Chile's wood products industry, which is rapidly increasing tree plantations that could threaten native species and wildlife.

Later this year, lingerie will be joined by a carpenter's tool belt: ForestEthics is planning a campaign on the homebuilding industry. The line will go like this: "What's the price of our home? And what's being destroyed to build it?"

Paglia hopes the companies targeted by ForestEthics will one day become allies in leveraging better environmental stewardship from governments and forest products companies. He points to Office Depot and Staples, trying to one-up each other on the amount of recycled content in their paper, and envisions a day when companies compete for customers by being more "green."

"We don't think companies are so evil -- they do a lot bad things, but [often] people don't know the consequences of their decisions," Paglia said. "I always thought, how could you do it any other way? If a company respects your ethical standards, and your brand has something worthwhile about it, you become more worthwhile as a partner."

Jeff Nachtigal is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, Calif.