27 November 2008


It all started in 1982, at a time when collecting waste paper for recycling provided a valuable source of income for many voluntary organisations, churches and so on. But without a market for the end product, prices fluctuated wildly, and three environmental activists decided to do something about it. By selling and promoting recycled paper, they reasoned, they could help to stimulate demand and thus stabilise the market.

After a year of market research, business courses and market testing of recycled stationery products at a stall at Camden Lock Market, they were ready to go, and Paperback opened business on the third floor of a building in Hoxton formerly occupied by printing presses. This is now an extremely fashionable area of London, full of pavement cafes and art galleries, but in 1984 it was run down and rents were low. Paperback was also set up from the start as an employee owned company – a workers co-operative – which it remains to this day. As founder member Jan Kuiper puts it:

“having a real stake in the company’s fortunes makes for a greater commitment amongst the people working here”.

From small beginnings selling stationery by mail order and supplying community centres with duplicating paper, Paperback grew steadily, soon moving out of Hoxton into a purpose built warehouse in Bow, East London. A move made possible by a financial injection from around 100 sympathetic lenders. It also moved quickly from selling existing recycled papers to working with mills to develop new grades.

The range of papers available at the time was very limited, fine for the Paperback stationery packs that came in a range of attractive designs and colours, but not so good for business use, and few companies and organisations outside the network of small printing cooperatives and alternative bookshops were willing to try it. In 1985, assisted by a government grant and technical back up from PIRA (the Paper Industry Research Association), Paperback developed the first coated recycled paper, ‘Sylvan Coat’, in association with a UK paper mill. This was only the first of many collaborations which have helped transform the recycled paper market in the UK, not to mention the image of recycled paper itself. From selling to environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, Paperback’s owners found themselves supplying paper to COI, British Airport Authority, NatWest Bank, British Airways, Westminster Council, the Body Shop, Tesco’s and the BBC.

The market has of course changed completely since Paperback’s early days. Green waste bins are now a normal part of office furnishings and Local authorities collect last week’s Mails and Guardians, which were printed on largely recycled paper in the first place. Nearly 40% of paper is now collected for recycling in the UK (compared to 28% in 1984), although more than 50% of this is sent abroad (especially the Far East) for reprocessing, as our own paper industry contracts. Recycled paper has lost its homespun image; there is no longer any question of sacrificing high quality for the sake of environmental credibility and recycled paper is available not just from specialists like Paperback - conventional paper companies have also now seen the sense in selling these ranges.

Of course the entry of the big conglomerates into a previously niche market is a mixed blessing for small firms like Paperback. It means their ecological message is being taken more seriously, but it also makes it more difficult for them to compete for customers. This has been a recurrent pattern for the company since it was founded – a constant need to be a step ahead of the market. In the last ten years, for example, Paperback became the first FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified paper merchant in Europe. It followed this with the launch of a new range of natural looking papers under the Cairn brand name which have proven popular with retail companies such as John Lewis, Top Shop, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and other customers such as EDF and the Royal Mail.

Trading conditions in the last two years have been particularly tough. The number of paper mill closures in the UK has been unprecedented. This development has been exacerbated by this year’s credit crunch. There is uncertainty in the market, reluctance to spend on advertising and promotion. Nevertheless the achievements of Paperback to date have been tangible: approximately 25,000 tonnes of recycled paper sold (equivalent to about 30,000 tonnes of waste paper diverted) representing something like 375,000 trees!!

Happy 25th Birthday Paperback!

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