This subject - as so many - is not quite as shallow as common perception might indicate.
Kraft Paper (virgin), the major raw-material for the manufacture of corrugated cases and displays, is sustainable, as long as it is made from tree-farm- and managed-forest-growth and not from old growth forest (e.g.: rain forest). Several watchdog groups are available to certify the sustainable nature of forest management and paper production, such as the Sustainable Forest Initiative and Forest Stewardship Council. By virtue of their growing, young trees add oxygen to the environment and bind carbon. However, an industry solely based on virgin fiber is not sustainable, as discarded product must be handled, as well.
Recycled Paper helps the sustainability of paper packaging and displays, as it re-uses discarded product and keeps it from landfills. We identify different grades of recycled (post-consumer, office clippings, trim bales, old corrugated cases). Recycled corrugated case and display raw-material in the US is available made from OCC, BLK, and mixed waste paper (local/residential collection).
In the United States we are proud to have reached a 65% level of discarded fiber collection. However, in paperboard packaging we use only 30% recycled fiber. We still ship most of our recovered fiber to Asia. [For comparison: Western Europe uses 70% recovered fiber in corrugated packaging of which the vast majority is post-consumer.] The optimal balance of recycled and virgin fiber in an industry is determined by such factors as climate impact on tree growth, population density and infrastructure impact on cost of collection, and existing mill capacity. The author believes that a healthy balance for sustainability in North America lies somewhere between today's recycled content level of 30% and the European level of 70%. High percentage use of virgin fiber is expensive in paper manufacture and does not deal with waste effectively; high percentage use of recycled fiber reduces the strength of the furnish and requires additional materials; in the US, with the low population density areas, it is also not economical to collect post-consumer in all markets. Perhaps 50% / 50% would offer great environmental and economic benefits!
Why do large retailers seem to drive "sustainability"? As we see in the above discussion, a well balanced and sustainable furnish to the packaging industry has both, economic and ecologic benefits. But, it is not only the raw-material we use for the manufacture of displays and boxes which has an impact; the manufacturing practices and engineered design of cases can enhance sustainability. Correct determination of product requirements and application of latest technology can reduce the amount of fiber used in an application. Experts estimate the potential of fiber savings upward of 30% in the US market!