The Business of Sustainability for Paper and Print

By on February 11th, 2011

Guess what? Being “green” and being “sustainable” are not the same thing.  Sustainability includes three elements, or three “pillars”: environmental responsibility, social responsibility and financial responsibility.  Sustainability takes into account the realities of our economy and our society.  In other words, it means that organizations or individuals should operate in a financially sound framework but also be socially and financially responsible in their activities and operations.

Think of the “environment” or being “green” as just one of the three pillars, and don’t dismiss the other two.  For example, a company may have a good environmental record but they may be faced with difficult social issues in some regions, like human rights abuse and a high incidence of workplace accidents, as an example.  Likewise, the financial status of the company may be of concern.  Corporate sustainability is about how organizations are able to effectively balance social, environmental and financial responsibility.

Sustainability is an endless journey of continuous improvement.  Profitability can always improve and so can air emissions, water and energy use, workplace safety, and so on.  Some companies are further ahead on this journey than others.

A few years ago I was involved with a study that attempted to identify the key traits of corporate sustainability leaders.  Here is what we found:

  • Visible and active commitment from the top-down.  Is the CEO talking about sustainability?
  • Engagement that brings external knowledge into the company, and/or effect positive change (ex: partnerships with non-profit environmental organizations).
  • A set of sustainability principles that lay the framework for the sustainability program.
  • Short-term and long-term sustainability targets (a visible commitment to future performance is key).
  • Demonstrating continuous improvement.
  • Addressing performance across the life cycle of products, processes and activities.
  • Innovating, learning by doing, being prepared to try new things.
  • Sharing, learning, influencing, setting standards.
  • Transparent and credible communications that inform and teach (less “bragging”).

Some of the above signs should be visible on a company web site.  Below are some additional features that show engagement in sustainability:

  • Large publicly-owned corporations who have been identified as sustainability leaders are typically part of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index , FTSE4Good Index , and Global 100
  • An annual sustainability report covering environmental, social and financial elements, written based on GRI guidelines (Global Reporting Initiative) guidelines
  • Recognitions or awards related to sustainability, or environmental and social responsibility.
  • Certifications and eco-labels such as:
    • Sustainable forest management certifications and eco-labels, ex: PEFCSFI , FSC
    • Environmental management certifications, ex: ISO 14001 standard , EMAS
    • Eco-labels that cover the product life-cycle. ex: EU Eco-label , Ecologo, SA8000
    • Certification for social accountability OHSAS 18001  for occupational health and safety management.
  • Voluntary reporting for key initiatives like the Carbon Disclosure Project

In 2010 the following companies ranked among the top on the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes:

Companies are usually selected for the following reasons:

  • Above-average environmental performance due to modern pulp and paper mill assets, i.e. lower emissions to air, water, landfills, energy-efficiency, lower carbon footprint.
  • Above-average financial performance due to low production costs and availability of raw materials at a competitive cost.
  • Well developed social responsibility and philanthropic programs.

To find out more about corporate engagement in sustainability people need to look beyond the environmental marketing that companies are doing.  Environmental advertising, claims and eco-labels only represent a small portion of corporate sustainability.  Company web sites should be reviewed to see how open transparent companies are when reporting of environmental and social performance. The sustainability of the companies you do business with affects your own sustainability measures and your reputation.

 Editors Note: We’re pleased to welcome Phil Riebel to TheDigitalNirvana. Phil is a senior sustainability advisor to the forest, paper and print sector.  He has 23 years of international experience in the sector including senior management positions in industry and consulting.  Phil also owns and manages 200 acres of sustainable forest.  He can be reached at

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    3 Responses to “The Business of Sustainability for Paper and Print”

    1. Gareth Says:

      Printers nowadays are certainly striving to be kinder to the environment, and things like digital business cards certainly help make it easier for them.

    2. Dave Schirmer Says:

      Nice commentary Phil !

      Best , Dave

    3. Joshua Says:

      thanks for the article. Good read. But I am surprised to see Weyerhaeuser on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. They are not well liked in most “green” circles for sure. see here