Buffalo native Michael L. Keiser is a self-styled crusader for the environment who is trying to convince the greeting-card industry to conserve trees by using recycled paper.
He acknowledges that he hasn't yet succeeded in winning over industry giants like Hallmark Cards Inc. and American Greetings Corp. But along the way Keiser has created a thriving company that produces millions of cards on 100 percent recycled paper.
Recycled Paper Products Inc. of Chicago is the nation's fourth-largest greeting card company, with sales of $100 million and a work force of 1,110. The enterprise is famous for its witty and sometimes irreverent cards from artists like Sandra Boynton.
Walk into any stationery store and RPP items are probably on the shelves. They're the cards featuring the "Cathy" and "Sylvia" comic strip characters and Fido Dido, as well as Ms. Boynton's menagerie.
"When we started Recycled Paper Products in 1971, our commitment was to offer an alternative in the greeting-card industry -- an alternative to traditional designs and an alternative to virgin stock paper," Keiser said in a telephone interview from his Chicago office.
"For years, people have bought our cards because of the humor and art. Now, they're buying them because it's the right thing to do for the environment," he said.
RPP recently launched a marketing campaign urging consumers to save 420,000 trees this Christmas season by sending cards made from recycled paper.
Nancy Riviere, a spokeswoman for the Greeting Card Association, estimates that Americans will buy 2.3 billion cards this yuletide season. Laid end to end, those cards would stretch 200,000 miles, weigh 24,000 tons and fill 14 cubic miles of landfill space when discarded.
Keiser claims that if every Christmas card were made on recycled paper, the nation could potentially save more than:
1 million kilowatts of electricity or enough power to serve all the homes in Boston, Miami and Denver for a month.
170 million gallons of water, which would provide enough drinking water for Chicago's 3.4 million people for three months.
Eliminate 1.5 million pounds of air-polluting effluents.
"We're the only major company that offers a complete line of Christmas cards printed on recycled paper," the 45-year-old executive said.
Keiser returns to his Western New York homestead every Thanksgiving to visit his parents, N. Michael and Louise Keiser, and his brother Stephen. The elder Keiser is a broker with First Albany Corp.
Michael Keiser recalls that when he was growing up in East Aurora during the 1950s and early 1960s, he never dreamed he'd end up running a greeting-card company. The graduate of Buffalo's Nichols School says that he first thought about starting a business to save trees during a skiing vacation in the Rocky Mountains with his college roommate, Philip Friedmann.
"This really started out as a small ecology project," Keiser said. "We just wanted to make a statement that we hoped would help the industry into ecologically sound practices."
Friedmann explained: "We didn't envision a corporate venture. Mike (Keiser) and I had just graduated from Amherst College and were taking a little time off before moving on to graduate school at NYU (New York University) and Harvard."
Keiser added: "Even when we decided to form a company, we intended to be in business for a couple of years, at the most.
"We just wanted to prove that consumers would buy greeting cards printed on recycled paper. We were both surprised that the major greeting-card companies didn't follow our lead," he said.
Hallmark, American Greetings and Gibson Greeting Inc., who control 85 percent to 95 percent of the card market, have made token environmental efforts. But industry observers explained that the types of cards produced by the Big Three don't lend themselves to reused paper pulp.
Hallmark, for example, prides itself on the glitter, embossing and bright colors found in its greeting cards. Company President Irvine O. Hockaday Jr. often describes his cards as sophisticated, high-quality products.
To the titans of greeting cards, recycled paper simply possesses the wrong texture and isn't white enough to make "quality cards," said several industry observers, who asked not be identified. They also noted that U.S. paper mills aren't producing enough recycled paper to meet the demands of greeting-card companies.
Recycled Paper Products currently prints only about half of its 6,000 different cards using paper fibers from old newspapers, magazines, cardboard boxes and other discarded paper products. By next year, however, every RPP item will be made from recycled paper.
More than 90 free-lance artists work for Recycled Paper Products. For every card selected by Keiser and Friedmann, about 200 never make it into the stores.
What began as a dream on a snow-capped Western mountainside a decade ago has grown into a major company, selling 173 million greeting cards a year. Keiser acknowledges that he's stunned by RPP's progress.
But he also predicts that some day, maybe 30 to 50 years from now, his company will capture Hallmark's crown and all Christmas cards will be made from recycled paper.