For the past several months, Sopheon has been sharing perspectives on sustainability and climate change mitigation through an innovation and product development lens in the Thriving Sustainably webinar series.
Our latest webinar – Sustainable Innovation in Practice: A conversation with Sappi – a leading global provider of everyday materials made from woodfibre-based renewable resources. And a Sopheon customer.
I had a great conversation with innovation and R&D leaders from Sappi to learn how the company unlocks the power of trees to make every day more sustainable.
We learned how Sappi integrates sustainability and green principles into its corporate strategy, particularly its R&D and innovation processes. But we also learned that sustainability is far more than just a marketing buzzword for Sappi; the company’s very existence – and the value it provides to customers – is rooted in sustainable practices that mitigate climate change impact.
"When you look at our company purpose, which is important, and our NorthStar, it's the reason we exist. It's to put renewable solutions in the market to benefit not just our company but everybody.”
Here’s a summary of our conversation - how Sappi ensures that its product R&D, partnerships, and supply chains include an intentional strategy for sustainability.
What sustainable innovation means to Sappi
Our guests – Krelyne Andrew, General Manager of Sustainability for Sappi and Verve in South Africa; Bernardo Semadeni, Director of Product Innovation for Sappi Europe; and Beth Cormier, VP of Research, Development & Sustainability– each explained how sustainability impacts everything Sappi does, from ideation to launch and beyond.
Sustainable innovation is deeply rooted in the company culture at Sappi, which makes sense because the company’s products rely on sustainable growth and harvesting of forest resources. This is why – according to Krelyne– the company’s sustainability strategy is so intentional and remains informed by its heritage and legacy in responsible forestry.
“We employ a multi-pronged approach to putting sustainability at the forefront of innovation, and we are continuously working to improve our approaches.” Krelyne Andrew said.
“With the development of and use of Accolade, we have taken the opportunity to refresh our structures. We ensure that the projects that we select in the pipeline for funding and progression through the stage gate® process are aligned with Sappi's focus and sustainable innovation and market needs.”
The company’s sustainability strategy is also closely tied to customer and market needs and demands, not only government mandates, Beth said.
Sappi prioritizes customer insights in managing its sustainable innovation practices with a “customer council” that provides input on new products and processes. This way, the company can stay agile and one step ahead of market changes.
“At Sappi, we continuously work to ensure that there's a strong ‘voice of our customer’ in our R&D efforts. And this is really to ensure that any R&D effort is aligned with market needs and it also delivers value.” Beth Cormier said.
Bernardo concurred those changes in the market – particularly the large-scale market needs for more sustainable solutions – is the primary driver for sustainable innovation at Sappi. He emphasized that companies like Sappi need to remain nimble and institute strategic and organizational changes that allow them to cope with rapid changes.
“The key aspect here is to foresee what the future market needs will be and then be ready when they're there. A big challenge in terms of organization, how to cope with these new challenges and how to set the organization in the right way that you really can cope with the rapid changes.”
How Sappi balances sustainability with the need to grow
Growth is rarely the sole reason for product development and must always be based on a market need.
"Growth is not the sole reason for development and it's always based on a market need, and sustainability nowadays is a key driver here. Sustainability and growth are very much linked together. I think that growth without sustainability will not exist anymore in the future.” Bernardo said.
This includes better leveraging the green potential of the company’s root-based products, as well as recovering valuable raw materials – such as cellulose and lignin – for downstream uses.
“But these are also valuable raw materials that could be used in a much better way. And that’s the main goal in many of our developments.”
Sustainability is not the “enemy of growth,” Beth said, although sustainable innovations often incur higher material costs. But it’s the value to the customers – the fact that customers are making the choice to put a premium on sustainable products – that spurs profitable innovation.
"In all of our R&D centers, there's seven of them worldwide that we see that happening. We see developers getting more creative, saying, well, I've got this constraint, whether it's legislation or whether it's just our own goals around sustainability. So, I see that it's not the enemy of growth; I think it breeds more innovation.” Beth said.
With so much going on and so many changes happening, it’s important for Sappi to be able to grow without compromising its own environmental footprint.
Krelyne stressed that understanding trade-offs are essential for growth in an environment where sustainable innovation is a key value for both the company and its customers. Sappi examines all factors of sustainable product innovation – from carbon footprint to greenhouse gas emissions – and makes appropriate adjustments to new product planning and innovation strategies.
How did Sappi get buy-in for its sustainability strategy?
When the company sharpened its focus on product end-of-life impacts in 2016, innovation leaders had to figure out how to tailor its operations to support sustainability drivers, particularly the impact its raw materials might have on the company’s sustainability goals.
Buy-in starts with education, Krelyne said. First as an organization and then as a partner to Sappi customers and suppliers.
“It’s about education, it's about understanding this and taking a step back, it's about education, educating all levels of the organization from board level to exco and creating a lot of awareness. That’s the biggest driver, and what helps us to shift is the market pull, and the markets are responding to regulatory constraints or responding to other drivers.” Krelyne said.
Cormier elaborated even further on this idea of incremental education and buy-in by noting that “it’s progress, not perfection” that Sappi is pursuing with its innovation strategy. The most important element of buy-in, in her opinion, is the partnerships the company has with key suppliers and other third parties in the value chain.
As an example, one key customer developed a blockchain solution for value-chain sustainability. While this wasn’t a Sappi innovation, it was still a critical piece of helping track the fiber made from Sappi pulp and trace it back to the company’s operational source. The upshot? Product innovations don’t have to come from inside the company to have a big impact on sustainability.
For Sappi, sustainability is deeply rooted in their culture. It’s been no easy feat to get to where they are today as an organization. But by prioritizing sustainability in R&D, innovation, product development, and company culture, Sappi has seen incremental growth and is on track to meet or exceed their Thrive25 sustainability targets.
Want to see more sustainable innovation in practice? Join us for a conversation with Dr. Sebastian Roos, Innovation Management at Evonik, and Paul Heller, Chief Evangelist at Sopheon, to learn how Evonik overcomes common sustainability challenges and meets the rising demand for more sustainable products and services.