Sustainability – Beyond the Business Case

The Business Case 

The Environmental Leader reports environmental news and related material on-line.  Several weeks ago, the EL published “What is the Business Case for Sustainability?”[1], an article by Dr. Laura Thompson, the Sustainability Director at SAPPI Fine Papers N.A. It’s a short article, directed at general readers. It emphasizes cost savings and enhanced brand reputation as business rationale for Sustainability. The article encourages other firms to pursue Sustainability as a smart business move.

My initial reaction was that the business rationale for pursuing Sustainability goes well beyond cost savings and enhanced brand reputation. I even gave some thought to what a formal business case presentation[2] might include. I still wasn’t satisfied.

My difficulty was that a business case advocates a tactical initiative. A decision to pursue Sustainability is a strategic matter. Sustainability is not an add-on. Rather, it goes beyond a business case to the heart of business strategy, by extending the scope of management awareness. The business rationale for pursuing Sustainability is nothing less than, as Adam Werbach put it, “thriving in perpetuity[3

A Case Study

Then I googled “SAPPI Fine Papers”, Dr. Thompson’s employer. Surprise! I learned that SAPPI provides a great example of a coherent, thoroughly implemented strategy for pursuing Sustainability on a global scale. SAPPI goes far beyond the business case, and SAPPI is very public with what they are doing and how they are doing it.

Some context: The SAPPI Group manufactures paper and other forest products. The Group is based in South Africa and operates through three regions — South Africa, Europe and North America. Global turnover is around USD 7 Billion. SAPPI is a public company, listed on the Johannesburg and New York stock exchanges (NYSE: SPP).

The paper industry presents a number of significant challenges. First, paper is made from trees, and environmentalists are (often justifiably) wary of anybody that cuts down trees. The paper making process uses large quantities of water, treated with harsh chemicals. Paper production can — and historically did — produce a lot of very visible (and smell-able) air and water pollution. Moreover, the rise of digital communications has reduced the demand for some grades of paper, and the increase in paper products recycling has further affected demand in some segments of the industry.

SAPPI’s commitment to Sustainability is explicit in SAPPI’s Mission Statement. There is a Charter that outlines “triple bottom line” (People – Prosperity – Planet) commitments and a larger “Unpacking the 3 Ps” document that details those commitments and the specific actions taken with regard to each commitment. The specifics are impressive. SAPPI’s three geographic regions each have a Sustainability Director, and each publishes an annual Sustainability Report, to accommodate differences in laws and customs.

One of the best ways to develop your own approach to Sustainability is to study what others are doing. SAPPI provides a great Case Study, for free. See

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated. Click on the title of this post to open the comments section.

…  Chuck Harrington (

P.S: New posts to this blog are posted weekly.


[2] Many of us have been through the process of preparing and presenting a Business Case in support of some new initiative. If you haven’t been through that drill, the Harvard Business Review Press offers a handy-dandy Pocket Mentor entitled Developing a Business Case. It is available on Amazon.

[3] Werbach, Adam, Strategy for Sustainability, Harvard Business Press, Boston (2009), page 9