Papermaker SFPNA deserves credit for moving in the right direction with its sustainability reporting, but still has a fair distance to go

Sappi Fine Paper North America once claimed: “When you begin with a blank sheet of paper, amazing things can happen.” That would be an exaggeration when describing the company’s second annual regional sustainability report, though the company makes a solid effort.  

The North American producer of coated fine paper, “release paper” – the backing for adhesive layers – and market pulp is a subsidiary of Sappi Limited, global company headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa. SFPNA’s report covers Sappi’s three US manufacturing operations, as well as corporate facilities and sales offices in the region, covering the fiscal year ending September 30 2012. SFPNA’s sustainability performance data is also consolidated in an annual report to Sappi’s shareholders in conformance to the Global Reporting Initiative’s G3.1 framework.

The report is split into three major sections: economic, environmental and social responsibility. The issues that are covered in the downloadable PDF (sustainable forestry, energy and emissions, recycled fibre, employees, local communities and customers) are addressed thoroughly. Several standard reporting features are also included: a statement from the chief executive, a Q&A with the sustainability director, an overview of the businesses, and a list of key performance indicators.

Big issues, little coverage

What’s missing from the report is a comprehensive discussion of some important industry issues. Water, one of the key inputs in the paper-making process, is not mentioned until page 53 and coverage of safety performance feels cursory, amounting to just a few paragraphs. Both of these topics are covered in greater depth by competitors.

Although the 55-page report runs shorter than those of many of its competitors, it is not easy to navigate. The weighting and prioritisation of issues throughout the report is unexplained since there is no section on materiality, and the absence of a table of contents heightens the sense of being lost in the forest.

While not issuing a fully integrated report, SFPNA balances discussion of “people, planet and prosperity”. A theme that emerges clearly from the company’s leadership is that earning the business and trust of customers and attracting top talent depends on responsible management of operations.

The company’s president and chief executive Mark Gardner says: “The actions we take to improve our environmental and social performance are the very same actions that drive our financial success and set the foundation for long-term profitable growth.”

SFPNA reports final progress on its first set of five-year goals targeting economic, social, and environmental improvements, which the company established in 2008. From an ease-of-use perspective, the portrayal of progress could be clearer – a graphical depiction of the final outcomes (achieved or not achieved) would help.

Five out of the seven of the goals were met in the five-year period, but readers must strain to read the small descriptive text and spend a few minutes making sense of the bar charts before this becomes apparent. A more frank discussion on how the company met its goals (or fell short of them, in the case of community support and certified fibre) would contribute to the reader’s understanding of the company’s efforts.

New goals

SFPNA used the 2012 report to announce its new set of goals for the next five years (2012-2016). Three of the original goals remain with increased targets, but the rest have been retired without explanation (including the community support goal that the company failed to achieve the first time around).

Readers are left wondering about the rigour of the process the sustainability steering team used to set the goals and left looking for discussion of the rationale behind the new suite. For example, did SFPNA consult external stakeholders in the goal-setting process? Other questions remain as to how SFPNA plans to drive progress towards the new goals and who is responsible for meeting them.

The KPIs at the back of the report offer a deeper look at the company’s fibre, emissions, energy, water and solid waste data, but they appear to be an afterthought. Moving them into the environmental responsibility section would provide a balance of discussion on approach and results.

Examples of stakeholder engagement are peppered throughout the report, though the stakeholders that are represented within the report are skewed toward business-friendly entities. SFPNA uses case studies to give voice to several of its employees, including four members of the company’s wood procurement group, and supportive quotes from customers validate the company’s efforts to communicate about sustainability through a range of media. These examples give the report a personal, approachable feel, but quotes from stakeholder groups such as NGOs and government representatives would be more impactful.

SFPNA succeeds in delivering a clean, succinct report without fluff. While some questions remained unanswered, such as the prioritisation of issues and goal-setting, the report is a step towards increased transparency.

Kristen Marzocca is a consultant at Context America.


Follows GRI? Data from this regional report will roll up to Sappi Limited’s report, which follows G 3.1.

Assured? No.

Materiality analysis? No.

Goals? Overall progress on 2012 goals reported; a new suite of 2016 goals announced.

Targets? List of environmental KPIs included at end of report.

Stakeholder input? No.

Seeks feedback? No.

Key strengths? Clean design, succinct and straightforward.

Chief weakness? Lacks explanation of goal progress and goal setting. Would benefit from a materiality analysis.

Pleasant surprise? An infographic on the process of recycling for use in coated fine papers.

communications  Kristen Marzocca  paper  Sappi  sustainability report 

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