Q&A With Sappi North America's New Sustainability Leadership Team

Team discusses innovations and strategy following Jennifer Miller' retirement
Aug 20, 2020 12:30 PM ET
Multimedia with summary

A dialogue with Sappi North America’s sustainability and innovation leaders

Jennifer Miller is SNA’s Chief Business Sustainability Officer, responsible for integrating the company’s sustainability strategy into its business growth plans. An experienced business professional in managing profit and loss as well as market strategy, Jennifer recognizes the important roles that customer insight, employee engagement, and strong governance play in ensuring an effective sustainability strategy.

Beth Cormier, SNA’s Vice President, Research, Development, and Sustainability, wears multiple hats in leading the company’s innovation strategy. Using market insights, she partners with manufacturers, suppliers, and customers to drive new and improved product and process initiatives consistent with business strategy. In addition, she collaborates with global leaders within and outside Sappi to invent, incubate, and grow our emerging biomaterials business.

Sandy Taft is SNA’s Director of Sustainability. With a strong energy and environmental management background, Sandy adds a fresh perspective to SNA’s sustainability initiatives. High on his priority list is Sappi’s continued commitment to productively engage in the circular economy through material waste reduction, product design for end of life, and carbon mitigation strategies. Sandy is also keenly focused on how to describe and promote the role that the wood products industry can play in carbon sequestration strategies in North America and globally.

Here, Jennifer, Beth, and Sandy share their thoughts on how the success of SNA’s sustainability strategy depends on great innovation. 

What is the value of looking at sustainability through the lens of innovation, particularly for a renewable resource company like Sappi?

Jennifer Miller (JM): Our value as a company is strengthened through our ability to innovate and create unique, sustainable solutions to evolving customer needs. Innovation is how we create a sustained competitive advantage in a carbon-constrained world, by offering products derived from a naturally renewing resource, wood. And innovation is not limited to our product line. Just look at the power of leveraging employees’ passion for volunteerism as a great way to invest in your local community as we do with our Employees Ideas that Matter program grants. Innovation provides a holistic lens, looking at old challenges in new ways. What can we do differently as a company to make more sustainable choices, invest in different paths to create a more sustainable future for our customers, employees, and communities?

Beth Cormier (BC): I look at it this way, most anything you can do with a fossil fuel, you can do with the natural cellulose from trees; you just need to be creative and tackle the technical challenges involved. Since cellulose is the most abundant polymer on Earth, innovation in this space is opening up new markets to us and helping us optimize our wellestablished legacy business. We are fully engaged in developing innovative new processes, designed to extract more value from each tree and utilize these biomaterials to provide more sustainable and lowercarbon alternatives in textile, packaging, and graphic communication markets.

Lowering your carbon footprint seems to be a common commitment many companies are making these days. What role can innovation strategy play here?

Sandy Taft (ST): As we look to bring the pulp and paper industry closer to net carbon zero, disruptive technologies will be key. Sappi North America and, in fact, much of the paper industry, has made great strides in reducing carbon impacts through fuel switching and energy conservation and efficiency measures. For example, since 2005, the NA pulp and paper industry has lowered its carbon footprint by 35%, and SNA by 66%, in excess of the US 26% to 28% reduction commitment called for under the Paris Agreement on climate change. But the next phase of carbon mitigation strategies will depend on breakthrough innovation in process and material use. 

BC: At SNA, and across the entire Sappi group, R&D teams investigate a broad range of options to mitigate carbon impacts. We’re looking at lower-carbon product compositions, particularly innovative new binder and coating technologies. We’re looking at ways to increase the recyclability and compostability of our products, which will help mitigate life cycle impacts. Beyond product, we’re also experimenting with next-generation technology for reducing energy use in our mills. Finally, we’re developing valuable biomaterials and biofuels from naturally renewable components of trees, such as cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. By substituting these biomaterials for fossil fuel–based materials, we impact many markets and help reach global carbon goals. 

What roles do customer insight and market expectations play in setting SNA’s strategy around product innovation and sustainability?

JM: Customers play an absolutely critical role in shaping our priorities. We recognize that customers have choices in the market and that meeting product performance expectation is no longer enough. If we’re to be a valued part of their supply chain, we must source all materials responsibly, manufacture without waste, transport in lower-carbon ways, and commit to transparent reporting, so all of our efforts can be assessed and compared with the competition.

BC: SNA uses a stage-gate process for managing innovation. We need a rich funnel of ideas, and those must be rooted in market insights. It is critical that Sappi scientists get out of the laboratory and meet with customers and attend industry events to hear firsthand what unmet needs they have, ask them what challenges they have in reaching their own business and sustainability goals. Their answers inspire us to rethink and reimagine possible solutions to those needs.

ST: What really struck me when I joined Sappi was just how much we focus on what customers say and how much we take what we hear to heart. I spent a good deal of my time this first year at Sappi with our sales teams and with our customers. It was important to me to get that foundation—of what we were doing right from their perspective and what was missing. Based on their feedback, we relaunched the eQ Calculator, and jump-started a new, invigorated Sustainability Customer Council. Their insight is powerful. 

When you think about innovation strategy, you think “confidential, proprietary,” and yet in sustainability strategy, it’s all about transparency. How do you reconcile that tension?

BC: It’s tough, but doable! In my view, there should be protection for our inventions and trade secrets, whether it is a new process or how we make a product. That said, we can share a lot—benchmarking that measures the carbon footprint of one product design over another. Assessments around the recyclability and compostability of the materials used in our products as part of product declarations. The list goes on.

ST: We’re exploring new supply chain platforms that may have the potential for allowing us to increase our level of transparency with our customers, with the protections of encrypted technology. We’ll have to be measured on how we proceed, but I think there is a great opportunity to engage more deeply with our full value chain while protecting proprietary information. 

JM: At the end of the day, it’s a matter of trust. Consumers have a new expectation—they want assurances that they can trust that the products they buy are produced responsibly, the product materials are safe, and that employees are working in safe, healthy, supportive environments. It’s our responsibility to figure out, in partnership with our suppliers and our customers, just exactly how to provide those assurances. We are committed to doing just that. 

Read more from Sappi North America's 2019 Sustainability Report here.