Getting ahead of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

At Sappi, we’re unlocking the power of trees to make every day more sustainable – for the customers we serve, the communities where we operate and the planet we all call home.

Sappi's Graeme Wild, Head of Investor Relations and Sustainability, describes our strategy to contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the exciting breakthroughs we're making on our journey. Business Reporter in the UK conducted this interview in November 2020.

When did Sappi first commit to the SDGs?

We formalised our commitment in 2019 in alignment with the UN Summit on the SDGs. Having said that, as a signatory to the UN Global Compact (UNGC) since 2008, we have incorporated the UNGC’s ten principles across all business operations and supply chains for more than a decade – a good baseline for any company engaging with the SDGs. So, in a way, we were working to integrate the SDGs into our business well before they were finalised.

What did formalising Sappi’s commitment to the SDGs involve?

We established a working group drawn from colleagues across all regions to prioritise the SDGs most relevant to our business, develop related action plans and translate them into specific business targets.

Could you describe the SDGs you have prioritised and their relevance to Sappi’s business?

We prioritised seven goals where we believe we can make the biggest contribution–through reducing our footprint as well as increasing our positive impact.

Let’s look at the SDGs we have prioritised at a global level first. SDG6: Clean water and Sanitation is relevant to Sappi because water is one of our key process materials. In terms of SDG7: Affordable and Clean Energy, as an energy-intensive industry, Sappi’s fuel choices have a major impact on air emissions. Our related action plan is to increase the share of renewable energy within our total energy consumption and to continually improve and look for new energy solutions. To this end, we have established a Future Energy Technologies And Decarbonisation “cluster”. This cluster is tasked with exploring and developing novel technologies for fuel shift and deep decarbonisation in terms of Scope 1 and 2 emissions, with a particular emphasis on energy, pulping, papermaking and bleaching.

SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth aligns with our focus on being a responsible corporate citizen by providing a safe working environment in which our employees can reach their full potential. We facilitate social and economic wellbeing by using labour drawn from local communities, and the services of small and medium enterprises situated in the areas around plantations and production facilities. We also have a best practice training programme and follow a shared value approach to business which means that communities close to our operations benefit from our extensive socio-economic development programmes.

Safety is one of our core values

There are many points of relevance for how Sappi can contribute to SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, especially from the perspectives of manufacturing, product design and product use/end of life. Our manufacturing process begins with sustainably harvested, renewable forest resources and we operate according to circular economy principles. We do so by using resources efficiently and reducing waste generation, from manufacturing processes through to end-of-life product recycling. With investments in R&D and new product development, we continually strive to create new products and value from woodfibre and side streams. Not only does this work improve resource use, but in many cases, it also generates products that have superior sustainability credentials to the conventional products that they replace.

Our biomaterial Valida is used in cosmetics

For Sappi the obvious and direct connection to SDG13: Climate Action is through our CO2 emissions. Enhancing energy self-sufficiency, improving energy-use efficiency and decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels, thereby reducing our carbon footprint, are key strategic goals. For each of our mills we are developing decarbonisation roadmaps to identify and plan for the necessary investments.

SDG15: Life on Land has particular relevance for Sappi, given that our business is dependent on sustainably sourced woodfibre. Globally, we enhance sound forestry management practices by utilising credible, third-party verified forest certification schemes. We neither harvest nor buy woodfibre which originates from tropical natural forests and our wood sourcing causes zero deforestation. In South Africa, Sappi owns and leases 390,000 hectares of land of which approximately 26 per cent is managed for biodiversity conservation.

In terms of SDG17: Partnerships for the Goals, there are many further opportunities in the sustainability field for us to become more involved. Over the past year, we became a founding partner of  4Evergreen, an alliance of fibre-based packaging leaders in Europe, joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and committed to setting science-based emission reduction targets in collaboration with the Science Based Targets initiative. 

Verve, our dissolving pulp brand, is primarily used for textiles.

What SDGs have you prioritised at local level?

Sappi is headquartered in South Africa, a developing country. Accordingly, in this region we have also prioritised SDG1: No Poverty and SDG4: Quality Education, both of which align with our commitment to the national drive to promote socio-economic development.

Please explain the link between your priority SDGs and targets?

In 2020 we closed off our previous set of targets and set new 2025 targets under our new Thrive25 strategy. The indicators we selected are aligned with our seven priority SDGs. We believe the targets set are sufficiently ambitious to enable us to accelerate progress and support the achievement of  these SDGs. We see them as a way of entrenching sustainability further into our core business, while strengthening our connection to the 2030 Global Agenda.

Any closing thoughts?

Given the wide scope of sustainability, the SDG framework gives us focus. It also offers a common language to engage our employees and to guide our interaction with our customers and other stakeholders. Integrating the SDGs into our Thrive 25 business strategy gives us clarity and purpose in unlocking the power of renewable resources to help build a thriving world.