Faber-Castell is one of the oldest and most familiar names in the world of stationery. And it's pencils that spring to mind. Good pencils; ones that are comfortable to hold, which are easy to sharpen without snapping the lead, and whose profile was changed from cylindrical to hexagonal or triangular because they kept rolling off the workbenches. And there are, naturally, a useful range of grade sizes available because let's face it, HB is all very well but it's a bit unexciting. After all, anybody can pick up an HB. Why not use a B instead, or go for a 2H if you need to write something?
It's not just pencils though, that Faber-Castell have turned their hands to. There are also pens. All sorts of them, from basic fountain pens aimed at the kids, to sleek cats-that-have-got-the-cream type of metal creations. There are rollerballs and ballpoints, marker pens, drawing pens and colouring pens, and all of these have been treated to the same fastidious attention to detail and subjected to the same rigorous quality-testing and as the pencils, so that when you pick up a Faber-Castell pen or pencil, you'll know that whatever you do with it will be the best that you can do. Says Dominique Weiß, Head of Marketing International, 'The company has high quality standards for its product range, which is why every step of the value chain is closely monitored, from wood production to product packaging. Faber-Castell is expanding its commitment to the environment with new sustainable solutions.'
And it's the sustainability of their practice of which Faber-Castell are so rightly proud.
Left to their own devices, pencils are naturally sustainable. Generally, the casings are made of wood and the lead is not lead at all, of course, but a mixture of clay and graphite. When you sharpen it, the shavings are biodegradable, and if you carry on sharpening it, it will eventually disappear, leaving nothing behind but a brief pang of regret that your favourite pencil is no more, tempered by a spirit-lifting realisation that it's time to start another.
Natural sustainability is all very well when you're only making a few pencils, but it's a different story when you're committed to producing two billion a year, as Faber-Castell does. Where does the wood come from? If you're cutting down trees, what about the creatures and local communities that relied on those trees? And when all the trees have been cut down, where does the next lot of wood come from? How are the workers treated? What about the waste? Is it recyclable, or biodegradable? Questions, questions, questions. Answers? Well...
Faber-Castell has remained in the same family since cabinet maker Caspar Faber opened his workshop in Nuremberg in 1761. Keeping it in the family has engendered a desire by each of its incumbents to ensure the company keeps going, not only to provide an income and stability for family members, but to provide employment for local people, job opportunities for communities where raw materials are sourced and maintained, and to ensure that all this is done in a sustainable, ethical manner. Any other way simply cannot work in the long term, and Faber-Castell has proved this by having remained in business for over 260 years.
Eighth generation managing director Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell took over the reins in 1978. Thanks to his efforts, Faber-Castell now manages a 10,000 hectare rapid-growing pine forest in south-eastern Brazil, thousands of miles away from the Amazon rainforest. 300,000 seedlings are planted every year, and a lorry-load of wood grows every minute. It provides the raw materials for 86% of Faber-Castell's demand, in spite of the fact that a third of the forest is left untouched, to encourage indigenous species such as the white-eared puffbird (what a great name!) to flourish. Such a large area of greenery absorbs a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide: 900,000 tonnes in fact, enough to offset the company's carbon footprint and render it neutral.
In 2008 the Count received the 'Eco Manager of the Year' award, an accolade presented by the WWF and the German magazine 'Capital' which commended entrepreneurs who combine sustainable growth and returns in an exemplary manner. His work continues into the ninth generation.
It's not just the wood, though; what about what the pens are made of? Increasingly, they are being manufactured from recycled materials, and Faber-Castell's aim is to increase that proportion. 'Every single product contains valuable raw materials, complex development processes and production methods. That's why we want it to last as long as possible,' says Dominique. 'The latest example is our sustainable Textliner 46 Pastel range: the barrel and cap as well as the case of these markers are made of 100% recycled plastic. To extend the life of our products, many are refillable. The textliners, for example, are filled with water-based ink - another clear sign for the environment.'
There is also an ongoing project to get rid of plastic packaging and replace it with packaging made of recycled materials and cardboard, and this is one of their major challenges. In 1992 Faber-Castell became the first pencil manufacturer to introduce environmentally-friendly water-based paint technology, and all erasers are PVC-free.
A global company such as Faber-Castell employing in excess of 7,000 people is going to use energy. Quite a lot of it. Since 1959 the German plant has benefited from hydropower generated by a local river, and power is also sourced from the thermal recycling of wood residue. 90% of the energy the company uses is from renewable sources, and there is an ongoing project to reduce as much as possible the need to purchase energy. Four plants from around the world are already using 100% 'green' electricity: Germany, Austria, Peru and Brazil, and solar power projects are being implemented in South East Asia. Transport costs are kept to a minimum by sourcing materials locally as much as possible.
Perhaps one of Faber-Castell's most laudable achievements is its dedication to social responsibility, which was cemented by Count Anton in 2000 when he signed a charter that meets the guidelines of the International Labour Organization, which campaigns for decent working conditions for all. But fairness and equality is not new to Faber-Castell; it had in place in the mid 19th century one of the world's first company health insurance schemes, one of Germany's first kindergartens, and built schools and housing for its factory workers. These days it prioritises the 17 aims of the United Nations, which include such ambitions as no poverty, good health and wellbeing, and decent work and economic growth.
So when you next pick up a pencil, consider how it came to be in your hands. If it's a Faber-Castell pencil, you can be sure that its journey to you has not only been as sustainable as possible, it has - in its own small way - contributed positively to the lives of thousands of people, animals and plant-life.
12 April 2021