American reams: why a paperless world still hasnt happened


The long read: In a world seduced by screens, the future of paper might seem uncertain. But many in the industry remain optimistic after all, you cant blow your nose on an email

Old Mohawk paper company lore has it that in 1946, a salesman named George Morrison handed his client inBoston a trial grade of paper solush and even, so uniform and pure, that the client could only reply: George, this is one super finesheetof paper. And thus MohawkSuperfine was born.

This premium paper has been a darling of the printing and design world ever since. Superfine is to paper what Tiffanys is to diamonds, Jessica Helfand, co-founder of Design Observer magazine once said. If that sounds elitist, then so be it. It is perfect in every way.

Mohawk tells the Superfine origin story every chance it gets: on their website, in press releases, in promotional videos and in their own lush magazine, Mohawk Maker Quarterly. And now Ted OConnor, Mohawks senior vice president andgeneral manager of envelope and converting, is telling it again. He sits on an ottoman in a hotel suite on the 24th floor of what a plaque outside declares is The Tallest Building in the World withan All-Concrete Structure. Its day one, hour zero of Paper2017 inChicago, the annual three-day event at which the industry, its suppliers and its clients come together to network and engage in timely sessions on emerging issues. Attendees arerolling inand registering, and theMohawk team is killingtime before wall-to-wall meetings.

The Superfine story is personal for Ted. George Morrison was his great uncle. His grandfather, George OConnor, started the company when he acquired an old paper mill at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers in upstate New York. Teds father, Tom Sr, took over in 1972. Now, his brother, Tom Jr, runs the fourth-going-on-fifth-generation paper company.

Once Ted finishes the story, we talk about the paper industry where its been and where its going. Years ago, when I used to go to these types of meetings with my father, there were probably 16 mills Strathmore, Hopper, Rising, Simpson, Mohawk, Beckett Wed talk about trends in the industry anddistributors and things like that, and, um Hestops toreflect. Theyre all gone.

He lets that sink in for himself.

Because they sat there and made just what they made for30 years, and it kind of gets obsolete.

Paper is Good. So reads the packaging on a ream of 8.5in by11in, 20lb, white (92 on Tappis T-452 brightness scale), acid-free, curl-controlled, ColorLok Technology, elemental chlorine-free, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Forest Stewardship Council certified, Sustainable Forestry Initiative Certified, Made in USA Domtar EarthChoice Office Paper. Great ideas are started on paper, the packaging reads. The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper. Important news is spread on paper.

Domtar is right: paper has played an essential role in the development of mankind. And yet, for decades, civilisation has been trying to develop beyond paper, promoting a paper-free world that will run seamlessly, immaterially on pixels andscreens alone. How did paper get here? Where does it gonext? For that matter, why is paper which does its job perfectly well compelled to keep innovating?

On 26 March, I step into The Tallest Building in the World with an All-Concrete Structure, ready to find out. Billed as THE annual networking event for the paper industry, Paper2017 consists of just three panels and presentations across its three-day agenda. The rest of the time is dedicated to what are called suites well-appointed hotel rooms that serve as basecamp, conference room and informal networking space all in one. Alas, because I am a journalist with zero interest in selling or being sold anything, Iscore only a few suite dates in my time at Paper2017. Instead, I spend a good amount of my time in a communal catch basin of sorts called the connections lounge (CL).

A paper mill in Minnesota. Photograph: Alamy

The CL is a great place to sip $5 cups of coffee and thumb through the latest issue of the Paper2017 Convention Daily, published in three separate editions for each day of the conference, and printed on obscenely large 16in by 11.75in glossy tabloid that serves as an oversized screw you to palm-sized devices. It is printed by OBrien Publications, which also publishes PaperAge magazine, the newspaper ofrecord for all things pulp and paper since 1884.

I stroll through the CL, drawn to an unmanned National Paper Trade Association table piled high with juicy-looking literature on papers many virtues. I take one of each and sitdown at a cocktail table to thumb through my haul of brochures announcing paper myths and paper facts. Above, the glass beads of a chandelier sway almost imperceptibly in the air conditioning.

A tall, thin man introduces himself to me as Neil. So, whatbrings you to Paper2017? he asks. I give my thumbnail sketch journalist, piece about paper, etc. And now its histurn: something something something cloud-based software, something something business intelligence analytics, something something manufacturing profitability improvements. Later I would see Neil approach at least three other tables, on the prowl for potential clients. He tells me he grew up in papers Silicon Valley: Wisconsin. His dad worked in the mill and he grew up in company homes. One day a Finnish corporation bought the mill and moved the whole process to Finland, leaving a shuttered plant behind. Neil tells me about his son, who is double-majoring in public policy andEnglish, but who didnt tell his dad about the English part. Dad seems displeased by this: He made it tougher onhimself. And then, perhaps remembering that he was speaking with a man of letters, he quickly adds: But, no, Ihave a lot of affinity for writers, people who write.

Tsai lun, a Chinese eunuch and privy councillor to Emperor Ho Ti, gets thecredit for inventing what today we recognise aspaper, in AD105. The basic formula remains unchanged. Some fibrous material rags or wood is mashed up, mixed with water to make pulp, then strained through ascreen. Matted, intertwined fibre remains, held together by the samehydrogen bonds that twist DNA into a helix. This is driedand cut into paper.

The technology spreads from Asia through the Arab world,eventually landing in Europe circa 950. All the glory goes toGutenberg for his printing press of 1440, but his metal movable type would have been nothing more than an oversized doorstop if there had been no paper for it to press upon. Paperhistorian Dard Hunter states thecase clearly: Ifman may now be considered as having reached a high state ofcivilisation, his gradual development is more directly duetothe inventions of paper and printing than to all other factors.

It is all the more shocking, then, how many times papers death knell has tolled through the halls of universities, corporations, governments, newsrooms and our own homes. Like fusion power, thepaperless world has been just a decade away for the past half century, approaching but never arriving.

In the mid-70s, Businessweek published an article by the head of Xeroxs research lab that is credited for first putting down (on paper) a vision of a paperless office of the future. It painted a not-incorrect picture of future workers going about their business accessing and analysing information onscreens. And yet paper continued its ascent: global consumption grew by 50% between 1980 and 2011.

On the factory floor at a paper mill in South Carolina. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty

Why? Abigail J Sellen and Richard HR Harper, respectively aprincipal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge and co-director of Lancaster Universitys Institute for Social Futures, have a few solid theories. First, they note that computers and the internet brought unprecedented access to information information that, while accessed digitally, was still best consumed on dead trees. Second, printing technology became so small, cheap and reliable that just about anybody with a computer could also afford their own on-demand press.

We have heard stories of paperless offices, but we havenever seen one, Sellen and Harper wrote in their bookThe Myth of the Paperless Office. More commonly, theintroduction of new technology does not get rid of paper; it increases itor shifts the ways in which it is used. The catch here is thatthe book was published in 2002, just before luminous smartphone screens took a hold of the same paleomammalian cortex that steered early Homo sapiens toward fires glow.

Since then, screen resolutions, load times and user interfaces have improved dramatically, striving toward a functional ideal that, ironically, looks and feels a lot like paper. Just this year, a startup called reMarkable launched a tablet that offers the most paper-like digital writing experience ever. Technology is a snake that eats itself.

And yet! Still no paperless world.

By 9.54am on day two of Paper2017, the CL has reached peak capacity and peak caffeination. Old friends are reconnecting, deals are being done. Im sitting alone at the cocktail table, waiting for my next suite rendezvous. I see the strictly enforced lanyard-wearers-only policy being strictly enforced on a trio oflanyardless suits. My official lanyard notwithstanding, Ifeelguilty taking up increasingly rare deal-making space. Time to stretch the legs.

Out on the sidewalk, I turn around to peer up the length ofPaper2017s homebase, The Tallest Building in the World With an All-Concrete Structure. When the building was completed in 2009, the Chicago Tribunes architecture critic, Blair Kamin, wrote that it was not vulgar, respectable enough, but still short of Chicagos soaring architectural standards. Kamin was less kind when the building later unveiled afinishing touch: five serifed, all-caps letters, spanning nearlythe length of half a football field, spelling outthe developers name: T-R-U-M-P.

So bad was this sign slung low on the facade, where no other Chicago building had dared to brand before that the buildings architect reportedly emailed Kamin to say, Just for the record, I had nothing to do with this sign! Kamin called it as subtle as Godzilla, and a poke in the eye, and pretty much everybody in Chicago agreed. It really is a terrible sign.

Curiously, despite his name hanging hugely on the outside of the building not to mention printed on every napkin, coffee cup, water bottle, pen and pad of paper inside Trump is mentioned to me only twice during Paper2017. Once is in terms that remind me of the weeks of pained post-election analysis about how urban elites had failed to heed the struggles of the working class: When you get out in the rural part of our country, and you see whats happened regardless of what your political affiliation is, I can tell you, Donald Trump tapped into something, says Mike Grimm, CEO of American Eagle Paper Mills in Tyrone, Pennsylvania (population 5,301).

Grimm talks about the role the mill had played in the towns history. His own great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, worked in the machine room. Grimm remembers the paper mills whistle directing not just the shifts of the millworkers, but also the lives of the towns residents.

And yet, in 2001, the mill shut down, as its large corporate owner consolidated. It was a blow to the region, but two years later a group of former mill managers pooled their resources and reopened it as American Eagle. Especially today, when you lose that type of income out of a small town, it just cant be replaced, Grimm says.

A non-professional can only take so much discussion of sustainable wood procurement, the neuroscience of touch, connected packaging solutions and the potential for using paper sludge and fly ash to offset oil-based polypropylene in plastic composites. Halfway through the conference, I ache fornews beyond Paper2017, and start thumbing through the headlines on CNN, Fox News and the New York Times. Regret sinks in immediately. I retreat back to the appropriately mobile-unfriendly and bathe in the insular warmth of headlines such as Pratt Industries Officially OpensNew Corrugated Box Factory in Beloit, Wisconsin, Sonoco-Alcore to Increase Prices for Tubes & Cores in Europe, and Mohawks Tom OConnor Jr and Ted OConnor Earn AIPMMS 2017 Peyton Shaner Award. That last article, really just a reprint of a Mohawk press release, contains this lovely remark from a paper industry colleague: [Tom and Ted] are lions in our industry that represent the first family in paper with old-fashioned values and exciting new products and services that make this crazy business fresh and fun. When the OConnor family succeeds, we all succeed.

On the third and final day of Paper2017, the industrys sobering choices are laid bare before us in two sessions featuring analysts from RISI, a market-research firm that considers itself the best-positioned and most authoritative global source of forest products information and data.

In the first session, we learn that the global demand for printing and writing (P&W) paper has been in steady decline since 2008. These are the papers most of us think of when wethink of paper: the uncoated mechanicals, the uncoated freesheets and woodfree, the coated mechanicals and coatedwoodfree, the coated freesheets ie, what composes directories, paperback books, newspaper inserts, low-end magazines and catalogues, direct (junk) mail, envelopes, brochures, photo printing, menus, posters, stationery, legal forms, and the iconic 8.5in by 11in office copy paper. They are suffering the combined assault of social media, email, tablets, e-billing, e-readers, laptops, smartphones, online forms, banner ads etc. Worldwide demand for P&W paper fell by 2.6%in 2015, according to RISI. Preliminary data suggests it fell by 2.2% in 2016, and RISI forecasts it will continue to fallby another 1.1% in 2017 and 2018.

But theres more to paper than printing and writing. Markettrends session No 2 focused on global paper-based packaging and recovered fibre, where the outlook is much brighter. There is talk of an Amazon effect, paired with aslide showing several boxes within boxes and paper paddingused to ship one tiny bottle of vitamins. Big Paper islearning to sustain itself by encasing e-commerce gold. Theinternet taketh away, and the internet giveth.

Youre seeing more paper in food and drink packaging, too. RISI chalks this up to increasingly negative public attitudes toward plastic packaging. Plastic-bag bans and taxes are popping up all over the place. RISI illustrates the trend with aphoto of a sea turtle ensnared underwater in plastic wrap.

And then theres tissue. It may not be the first thing we think of when we think of paper, but Big Paper is indeed very much in the business of selling toilet paper, facial tissue, paper towels and feminine products and business is good. You cant blow your nose into an email. In the end, we are material. We have inputs and outputs. We require physical receptacles. And more of us are on the way. RISI foresees a 3%annual rise in global tissue demand through 2018, and a1.4% rise in global paper demand overall.

Even Mohawk, which is firmly planted in the printing and writing segment, is optimistic. We tend not to listen to all this, says Ted, back in the Mohawk suite, holding up the Paper2017 program. Trends and this and that. He shakes his head dismissively. According to Ted and Tom, Mohawk has been growing by around 3% or 4% a year.

It seems Mohawk might understand something that others in the industry do not. While many larger paper companies were reacting to the prods of market wonks and consultants by reinventing themselves as manufacturers of toilet tubes or Amazon packaging, Mohawk had been doubling down on its original value proposition: making really great paper. Amid the chaos of beeping, buzzing and blinking, Mohawk now stands out as a quiet, focused manufacturer of the worlds simplest publishing platform one that actually gives its userspleasant haptic associations.

Its not that Mohawk ignores the digital revolution; rather, they have made a choice to sell the ethos of paper to the digitally fatigued. Melissa Stevens, Mohawks senior VP of sales, hands me Mohawks Declaration of Craft, an absolutely gorgeous piece of printed material chock-full of new-agey thingness. Its thesis: In an era of impermanence, an extraordinary movement has emerged. A movement of makers where craftsmanship and permanence matter now more than ever.

Mohawks communication strategy is built around this maker movement, which is illustrated with hipsters throwing clay in their basements, forging wrought iron and side-hustling in saxophone design. Its impossible to tell if thisis brilliant marketing or sheer impudence, or both.

The staff of paper company Dunder Mifflin in US sitcom The Office. Photograph: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Universal, Inc.

My mind keeps returning to one particular episode of the The Office, the great sitcom that followed (in its US version) the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a small paper sales company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Pam Beesly, the receptionist, is having a bad day. The handful of friends and co-workers who haveshown up for her art show mostly just yawn at her still lifes and exurban landscapes. One character dismisses it asmotel art. But just as Pam is about to leave, her boss, Michael Scott, shows up. He has had a rough day, too he hasbeen made a fool of by his own subordinates, and by business-school students smugly assured of papers doom.

Pams art mesmerises Michael. My God, these could be tracings, he says, pure of heart. He insists on buying her painting of the office. Pams eyes grow wet. So do Michaels. That is our building, he says, and we sell paper.

It is the best scene in the series. I watch it, and I feel the victory of earnestness over a world of naysayers. We cut to Michael back at Dunder Mifflin, hanging the painting of the office in the office on The Office. It is a message, he says. Its an inspiration. Its a source of beauty. And without paper, it could not have happened

He pauses to consider this. Unless you had a camera.

Imagine that, instead of paper, the computer and all its accoutrements came first. In a flash of divine perception, aChinese castrate under Ho Tis reign conceives of binary systems, electronic circuits, vacuum tubes, capacitors, Boolean logic, transistors, integrated circuits, microprocessors, keyboards, floppy disks, CD-ROMs, zip drives, HTML, CSS, Javascript, modems, routers, email, wifi, AoL, Google, Friendster, Napster, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter,gifs all atonce. And so, for nearly twomillennia, the human race livesin apaperless, digital world.

Then, sometime in the middle of the 20th century, scientists at MIT, Stanford and the US Department of Defense begin to search for a better way to store and share their ideas. They experiment with mashing upold rags and wood to mix with water, draining the mixture through a screen and drying the matted fibres into sheets. The breakthrough makes its way into civilian life, and by the turn of the millennium most people in the developed world carry a pad of paper in their pocket.

Perhaps, in this version of events, we would regard paper as the superior technology, and notjust because of novelty. After all, paper loadsinstantly. It requires no software, no battery, no power source. It is remarkably lightweight, thin and made from abundant, recyclable materials. Its design is minimalist, understated, calm.

Throughout Paper2017, people try to convince me (and perhaps themselves) that the Office-inspired stereotype of paper as aloof and backwards is wrong. Paper isnt boring, they tell me; in fact, its an exciting time for the industry. They coopt the technophiles word cloud innovative, disruptive, smart.

And yet, at the very same time that it tries to showcase its innovative credentials, paper is also promoting a nostalgic counter-narrative, filled with references to family, American values and smalltown workers. Not unlike that of coal mines or auto plants, this story imagines paper mills as monuments to the fading promise of American industry.

Paper will survive in some form (packaging, toilet paper etc) and so, Id wager, will both of these narratives. Meanwhile, aswriters like me fret about the battle between digital and paper, the industry is shifting, like so many others, from a steady stable of family-run mills to a business model that breeds perpetual uncertainty, interpreted by consultants and navigated by anomalous corporate marketing entities. Behind all the optimistic talk of restructuring opportunities and rebranding initiatives, traditional careers in American paper are vanishing: according to the New York Times, Wisconsin alonehas lost 20,000 paper factory jobs since 2000.

There arent many representatives at the conference of workers like Neils dad, who had actually manned those mills for generations; there are, however, plenty of consultants likeNeil, who speak the language of metrics and markets effortlessly. I used to believe, probably like most people, thatpaper was just a simple canvas for my ideas. By the end ofPaper2017, I want to believe that making paper could be everything: an artisanal craft and a family-run business and adeveloping-world growth opportunity and a packaging revolution. Yet I cant help noticing how familiar are the marketing creeds I hear over and over at the conference: a 21st-century blend of techno-speak, nostalgia and nonsense.

The other time someone at Paper2017 mentions to me the man whose name hangs on the side of The Tallest Building inthe World with an All-Concrete Structure is on the conferences final morning. A friendly man from Belgium witha South Asian accent plops down in the armchair across from me, just outside the CL. I had met him briefly on the first day of the conference, and when I idly remark that there seems to be a lot of excitement in the paper industry these days, he quickly replies: Excitement? Or fear?

The man has some cursory relation to paper he is in theimport/export business but it is a bit foggy to me. Whenwe get on to the topic of technology, disruption and automation, he paints a much bleaker picture than I heard inany of my other conversations at Paper2017. Robots will oneday replace truck drivers, and then chefs, and then even your primary-care physician, he says, absently spinning his smartphone between his left thumb and forefinger. In that case, I ask, what do you tell your children about their future career prospects?

Be a salesperson, he says. If there is artificial intelligence, then they will be selling the robots. He winks and smiles, andflips his smartphone again. This is how it will be.

I must look uneasy about all this, because he then tries toreassure me. He points to Europe as an example of a place where governments are getting ahead of this trend, requiring that employers pay extra into social security if they replace a human worker with a machine. He says he knows less about the situation in the US, but feels things would be OK.

You have a nice president who is a businessman, he says. Hes not a politician. There is profit or loss in business, so youeither win or lose. Some people dont like that, but Ithinkit will be good.

A longer version of this article first appeared in The Point magazine

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