If a tree falls in the forest, who calculates the environmental and economic impact?
In 2010, resource experts at forest products company Weyerhaeuser were collaborating with 29 other companies under the leadership of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to create a Vision 2050 agenda. The goal was to create “pathways” for businesses to follow in order to enable the Earth’s nine billion people to live well—and within the planet’s resources—by midcentury.
At that time, Ray Risco was heading up Weyerhaeuser’s nascent international business and looking for alternative sources of revenue for the company, which controls 6 million acres of timberland, mostly in the U.S. “It was pretty apparent to me that many of the pathways had to do with natural resource management,” Risco says. “And if natural resource management was critical to survive, a lot of companies that traditionally didn’t deal with that would be exposed. My hypothesis was that our core know-how—110 years of experience managing large areas of land—would become very useful to those folks.”
In 2011, Weyerhaeuser Solutions was launched as a wholly-owned consulting subsidiary to offer the company’s sustainability expertise—reducing carbon footprints, sourcing bio-energy feedstocks, managing landscapes for water supply and quality—to energy, mining, manufacturing, and investment companies who might otherwise have to start from scratch.
The consulting unit can help companies develop, manage, and commercialize forest-based products. Its experts can guide businesses in designing raw material supply systems to capitalize on renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind, and geothermal energy procurement and supply. And, as a matter of course, Weyerhaeuser Solutions can guide clients through the complex processes of meeting compliance obligations, which vary by geography.
The main focus of the business is the physical management of assets, whether it’s a company’s third party supply chains or the actual management of a plantation or forest. But data and real-time analytics play an important role.
Weyerhaeuser Solutions has more than 45 clients, including Alcoa and Dow Corning. In the U.K., for example, Weyerhaeuser is working with energy companies that must comply with legislation to reduce emissions by either converting their coal-burning power plants to biomass or add biomass as a partial substitute fuel in their high-efficiency coal burners. Weyerhaeuser uses procurement systems data to determine where they can source biomass from sustainably managed forests and how to set up the supply chain at the greatest efficiency and lowest costs—currently in North and South America. “Most companies don’t have that kind of system or sensitivity to the subject matter to have that sort of data readily available,” says Risco.
In Brazil, Weyerhaeuser’s clients are mining companies who use charcoal from trees to extract impurities from metals because the mineral coal is not locally available. Indeed, the country consumes more than 50 million tons of wood per year, and Weyerhaeuser is helping mining companies in their efforts to sources it all from sustainably managed forests. Weyerhaeuser either consults with the mining companies to help them manage their own plantations or actively manages those environments for them. “We show them how to optimize the plantation to take pressure off native species while still [supplying the charcoal] at the lowest possible price point,” Risco says.
For that, Weyerhaeuser employs predictive modeling and analytics software developed specifically for forestry planning and management from Remsoft, based in New Brunswick, Canada. The analytics software contains modules to do harvest planning, trade-off analysis, logistics optimization, and compliance management while the modeling platform enables full-scale forest planning and optimization based on the analysis of where and how wood will grow.
In most cases, it’s been the mining company’s first experience applying 21st century technology to their plantation management, according to Risco; most planning has been manual or spreadsheet-based—let alone advanced analytics or modeling.
Weyerhaeuser’s consulting business is still in start-up mode, says Risco. The complex five- to 10-year deals they make with clients can take more than a year to negotiate. But Risco sees applications for his group’s expertise in sustainable forestry management in any industry that consumes or invests forest-based products at a high volume, from oil companies to manufacturers. “We’re growing the business slowly but surely,” says Risco. “And we’re seeing pretty good market reception for what we’re offering.”
Stephanie Overby, a contributing editor at Data Informed, is a Boston-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @stephanieoverby.
Home page photo of Harwood Dale in England by Matthew Hillier via Flickr.