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USPS Cradle to Cradle The Greening of America’s Postal Supply Chain

An important story was overlooked when the US Postal Service (USPS) announced in June it had achieved Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification at the Silver level for much of its Priority and Express mail packaging (including their Tyvek envelopes).  Most publications (Treehugger, Green Options, LA Times and others) reported the story without offering much beyond the basics of the certification and the USPS press release.  The real story centers around the tremendous complexities faced by all parties involved in achieving a credible environmental certification.

With increasing consumer interest in sustainable products and packaging, companies and suppliers are eager to do anything to offer products or services that cater to this segment of the market.  The demand for such products and services and lack of any universal standards or guidelines inevitably leads to unverifiable claims from manufacturers, and even greenwashing.  This fosters the need for standards and certification processes to allow people to independently assess a product or service.  Obtaining a certification such as C2C can also become a core component in a company’s green marketing strategy.  The success of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification program for paper and wood products is a perfect example of this marketing tool in action.

Consulting firm MBDC offers Cradle to Cradle certification, arguably the most reputable environmental certification available today for products and materials.  C2C is a concept developed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart challenging manufacturers to change how they design products. The goal is to produce products truly environmentally compatible with the world around them.  C2C moves beyond making products that are “less bad” or are simply recyclable, demanding more than lower toxicity or a smaller carbon footprint.. The idea reconceptualizes a product and its manufacture, arguing products should be made from “biological” and “technical” nutrients.  Biological nutrients are safe and healthy materials that create food for natural systems across their life cycle.  Technical nutrients are materials or products that can be continuously and safely recycled into new materials or products according to McDonough and Braungart.

The goals of C2C go beyond simply asking whether a product’s packaging is recyclable.  Factors including what components were used in the making of the packaging are also taken into account, (ie paperboard, glues, inks etc) and how those components can be improved to produce an even better product that can continue the cycle.

Photo:  © ebay Chatter

MBDC’s job isn’t an easy one, our research confirmed.  Conducting the assessments necessary across existing production chains is a challenge.  In the case of their work with USPS, MBDC must obtain information not only from the Postal Service but also the hundreds of individual suppliers the agency contracts for products and services. Many companies work with the USPS under contract to produce packaging or components used in the production of packaging.  These companies are often hesitant to share their production methods or materials with outsiders, as they consider this information proprietary and directly related to the success of their business.  When you’re talking about supplying the USPS, you’re talking about large amounts of money: in some cases contracts in excess of $100 million.

Obtaining information on the C2C process from the USPS wasn’t easy either.  Their PR people didn’t have much beyond the prepared press materials, and when questioned on fairly basic follow up information also cited the “proprietary” nature of the information.

South Dakota-based Bell Incorporated, who produces paperboard mailing envelopes for the Postal Service, and whose web site prominently displays a picture of the USPS packaging, did not respond to repeated attempts for information.

Few would talk, and those who did wouldn’t say much.  Fortunately a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and some informative chats with MBDC project manager, Steve Bolton, started to paint a picture explaining why the process was so complex and seemingly secret.

Bolton, who recently published an article well worth reading in the October issue of Flexo, “Cradle-to-Cradle Design: Essential First Steps to Sustainability,” said the process of certifying the USPS Priority & Express mail packaging and supplies was rewarding, and will make a big difference.  The USPS is taking a leadership role in its environmental production practices compared to other major shipping companies operating in the US, and their continued relationship with MBDC indicates their commitment to this cause.

The positive results of the process aside, certification and assessment were a challenge.  Initially companies involved in making components used in USPS packaging were reluctant to participate. Bolton said his agency had to enter non-disclosure agreements with component manufacturers before they were even willing to provide information for assessment.

Bolton’s account of his team’s work assessing over 200 individual suppliers involved in postal service packaging and mailing supplies was remarkably similar to the experiences of another Cradle to Cradle certified company, Herman Miller.  Herman Miller had to enter non-disclosure agreements with its own suppliers when it was assessing the materials used in making its chairs. The Journal of Industrial Ecology published a detailed account in “Design for the Next Generation, Incorporating Cradle-to-Cradle design into Herman Miller Products.”

Looking through the information obtained from the USPS through the FOIA process, money is clearly the reason for this reluctance.

In the category of USPS current contracts for “mailing supplies,” Auth Florence Mfg Company tops the list with a $145,557,219 contract; Bell Inc has well over $100 million in contracts; Postal Products Unlimited has over $100 million in contracts; Quality Park has over $25 million; General Bag Corp has nearly $10 million; Tension Envelope Corp has nearly $4 million.  Numerous other companies have contracts in the million dollar or less range for mailing supplies.

In the category of “corrugated and other boxes for distribution” Smurfit Stone tops the list with a $102,500,000 contract, International Paper has over $13 million in contracts, Rand Whitney Container LLC has over $3 million and Liberty Carton Company has over $2 million in contracts.

Each of these larger companies under contract may rely upon smaller companies for specific components of the final product, whether that final product is a shipping box or mailing label.  It’s not difficult to understand how complex a process assessing the environmental aspects of these operations can be.  Further challenges involve making suggestions on how to improve or streamline these operations.

You might think a company refusing to disclose manufacturing information should be excluded from future USPS contracts.  Well … its not that simple.  There aren’t a large number of manufacturers making these supplies, and long term contracts established in the past are still active; therefore, working with these suppliers is necessary, rather than being adversarial.

It is also important to note the C2C certification process is still relatively new, and a greater familiarity will develop as more companies go through this certification.

The end goal of the C2C process is to make a better all around product that in the end of its usable life is as pure as possible, so as not to contaminate recycling or other processes.

In fairness to the companies producing packaging and supplies for the USPS, it wasn’t easy to get information regarding the USPS’s relationship with MBDC.   Again, this underscores the complexities of this new era business of environmental certification and assessment. The copies of the contract between the USPS and MBDC we received looked more like something from the CIA than the US Postal Service.  A number of sections in the contract were blacked out, including performance benchmarks and timelines.

Postal Service Supply Management Infrastructure FOIA coordinator Debra M. Pierce wrote,

“… In addition, the Award Sheet containing supplier remittance information as well as pricing information are withheld in their entirety pursuant to sections of our regulations found at Title 39, Code of Federal Regulations specifically 265.6 (b) (2) (2006) which applies to trade secrets, or privileged or confidential commercial or financial information obtained by any person and 265.6(b)(3)(2006) which applies to information that is exempt from disclosure under another federal statue; and 39 U.S.C 410(c)(2), which applies to information of a commercial nature, including trade secrets, whether or not obtained from a person outside the Postal Service, which under good business practice would not be publicly disclosed.”

A $60,000 contract from August 2006 between the USPS and MBDC specifically covered the Cradle to Cradle certification process and related consulting services leading to certification of the desired mailing products at the Silver level.

Moving beyond the complexities, the question that remains is what does all this mean?  It means the C2C certification MBDC offers is legitimate, and in order to maintain the integrity of their certification process, this type of complex procedure is necessary. It also underscores the fact that certification processes done correctly can be tremendously positive for clients, as well as the firms conducting the certification.

This small glimpse into the USPS Cradle to Cradle process should serve as a valuable insight to people in the green community and business world that certification isn’t an easy process, and that the C2C certification is significant and quite meaningful.  That the US Postal Service is involved with MBDC speaks volumes to the direction the USPS is looking to take its operations in the future.  Whomever had the idea within the USPS to contract with MBDC for Cradle to Cradle has tremendous environmental foresight and should be commended.

In a recent phone interview, Bolton confirmed his organization continues to work with the USPS towards improving their operations further.  He said they are currently working with the USPS on moving towards being able to certify some of their products at the Gold level, and indicated an announcement of achieving that goal could be coming in the near future.

It should be noted that the Cradle to Cradle certification applies only to the final product itself, i.e. a USPS Priority Mail corrugated box or mailing envelope.  Individual manufacturers involved in the various stages of its production are not authorized to display the Cradle to Cradle logo, or reference the certification.

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