Reinventing the Role of Paper in the Digital World: An Interview With Domtar’s Lewis Fix

Posted on 03. Nov, 2011 by in Business & Policy, Interviews

Though many of us have a fondness bordering on addiction for our smartphones, tablets, and the constant stream of digital information they provide, there’s something about the tactile solidity of paper that still feels irreplaceable. As a writer, I know that when I put pen to paper something unique happens – the smoothness and thickness of the page, the color of the lines running across it, even the pen I’m writing with, all have a palpable effect on what I create.

But what about paper’s environmental footprint?

Last week I spoke with Lewis Fix of pulp & paper company Domtar about sustainability and how a paper giant is evolving to meet the needs of the market today. We talked about what motivates him to continue to lead sustainability initiatives in the paper industry. Lewis says, “I gotta make it really visible, and really simple. I know it can be complex. If you’re making it a little better every time, that’s what matters. We have the opportunity to attract young, engaged people who can make a difference.”

Domtar is Opportunity Green’s official paper partner, and has an exciting announcement that will be made at the conference on November 10-11. Lewis Fix is the Vice-President of Sustainable Business & Brand Management at Domtar. In this role, he directs the environmental business strategy for Domtar’s pulp and paper segment as a member of the company’s Sustainability Committee.

What follows are the highlights of my conversation with Lewis:

What products does Domtar make?

Traditional copy/printer paper is about half of what we produce in terms of paper. The other half is commercial printing, publishing, converting and specialty papers – paper for things like booklets, instructional manuals, annual growth reports, brochures, marketing materials, direct mail, envelopes, books, receipts.

We also make funky things like food wrap, medical paper, cotton swab and lollypop sticks, gum wrappers, and bandage paper. It’s paper that people interact with every day, often without realizing it.

Tell me something I would never know about Domtar paper.

The Steve Jobs biography that just came out is printed on Domtar paper, which is pretty cool.We love being able to make things like that with our customers and employees. It’s a very visible connection to the marketplace.

Also, we have a new joint venture in nanocrystalline cellulose. You take a tree fiber product and dissemble it and reassemble it into a substance that’s 10 times stronger than steel, and can be used to reflect and represent colors without the use of dyes. The plant will open in 2012, and will be the first of its kind. Strengthening materials with a natural, renewable source is really exciting.

Social entrepreneurship is on the rise right now. How do you see that fitting in to what you do?

We’re seeing an increased level of collaboration between corporates and NGOs. A perfect example is on our panel at OG, we’re going to have Tensie Whelan, the President of Rainforest Alliance. We started this collaboration over 10 years ago and really started seeing the benefit of working with many NGOs, including the more advocacy-based ones. We also help our customers navigate the waters of NGO engagement.

How are you evolving as a company?

Right now, we’re evolving to become a fiber-based technology company, not just a pulp and paper company. On a corporate level, we’re finding ourselves. We do really well with forestry and sustainability, and how we manage the forests we’re associated with and the fiber we buy. Also, we’re working on what we do at our mills from an energy and a water perspective. In terms of what we’re doing at Opportunity Green – we’ve had thisEarthChoice product line for a long time; we introduced it in 2005. That did a lot for the industry, we led that movement. Now we’re asking, what’s next? How can we go beyond FSC certification?

We’re looking at EarthChoice as an evolution, and as a principle we want to apply more broadly.

On the customer side, we have a very compelling advisory / consulting service. A lot of companies have a high “fiber spend.” For instance, a fast food company makes containers, napkins, and lots of other paper that you sometimes don’t see or think about. We are taking on a more advisory role to help increase their efficiency in the way they use paper.

Domtar was founded in 1848 and started making paper in 1961. Do any of your current paper offerings hark back to those days, or have the processes completely changed?

Domtar has been formed through acquiring fine paper mills, including mills from Georgia Pacific, Weyerhaueser, and others. The process of making pulp and paper is largely the same as it was over 100 years ago. The kraft process, a chemical pulping process, has been largely the same. But over time the technology has evolved, so it’s a highly technical process today. It’s always surprising to people to go into a world-class paper mill and see how it works from a chemical and mechanical perspective. They run 24/7. The process itself is an artisan process with a lot of technology integrated into it these days.

We had a paper machine called the Columbian because it was bought in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition. As of 6 years ago, it was still running. Our Rothschild Wisconsin paper mill is 100 years old. It’s a capital-intensive industry, so you build it and run it as long as you can.

Domtar uses renewable fuels like biomass. How does that work?

One of the benefits of the pulping process is that it creates this useful byproduct. A tree is almost 50% water, 25% is lignin. Lignin is kind of like a glue. It holds tree fiber together. When you cut it into chips and cook them, the lignin is extracted and used as a fuel. It’s burned to generate steam, and that powers the turbine. Several of our mills are completely self-powered that way, and we sell extra energy on the grid. It’s renewable energy that comes from the process itself. The newer the mill, the higher that percentage is. As the technologies have evolved, we’re able to extract more power.

As we increase digital communications and decrease paper clutter, do you think paper is being positioned as a rarer and thus more prized commodity?

If we could figure out a way to make paper as rare as diamonds, then we’ve won! (laughter). There’s a functional and an emotional connection with paper, which is one of the reasons why we launched ourPaperBecause campaign about a year ago. Paper’s supply chain is so visible, everyone knows it comes from trees and we all like trees. We want to reassure people that we’re going about the business the right way. There are some things that are better to do on paper. It’s better to send a thank you note than to send someone a text that says “thx.” Also, getting a deeper understanding of your financial situation is better on paper. I need to look at a paper statement, rather than getting just another email that I want to delete.

All of this information that is being pushed on us as humans… it has a positive side and a negative side. Digitization is great, you can cram a lot through a small piece of equipment. The way our brains react and absorb this information is changing, there’s a learning component. On the PaperBecause website we pull out a lot of preference studies. For example, students prefer paper textbooks to textbooks on tablets. When you have a book it’s a 3-dimensional interaction, you make notes in the margins, you remember where was a line was on the page, where a page was it in the thickness of the book.

We’re going to have to figure out a way to make paper and digital work together. We’re not advocating going back to using stone tablets, or having to pull out your checkbook and write a check for everything.But there are certain things where paper is better. We want to continue to advocate that it’s not just clutter.


Hear more from Domtar at Opportunity Green 2011, November 10-11 at Los Angeles Center Studios!

This post was written by guest blog contributor Gaia Dempsey, Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Demeter Interactive. Gaia loves doing interviews that connect to the heart of a person, uncover their core values, and reveal the power that drives them to do what they do. She has a background in writing, sustainability, marketing, and PR and lives in Los Angeles. You can find her on Quora and follow her on Twitter.

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