Smurfit Kappa is one of the world’s leading providers of sustainable paper-based packaging. A constituent of the FTSE 100, it has about 47,000 employees and operations in over 36 countries. It is committed to being an impactful business and supporting a greener, bluer planet.

As a manufacturer of paper-based packaging, a product that is naturally sustainable, biodegradable, recycled, renewable, and that eliminates waste, environmental sustainability is part of Smurfit Kappa’s DNA. “Led by our Better Planet Packaging (BPP) initiatives, we continue to provide our customers with sustainable packaging solutions, and we are a plastic replacement or substitute for customers,” Sharon Whitehead, Group Chief HR Officer, says. “We are constantly looking at what we do and how we do it, to make sure it is as environmentally friendly as possible. People join us because of our sustainability credentials, and it really matters to the younger generation.”

Demonstrating this commitment to the planet, Smurfit Kappa has a board committee focused specifically on sustainability, which encompasses all environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects. HR is accountable for the ‘social’ element, including EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion), health, safety and wellbeing, and for working to support local communities in Smurfit Kappa’s many markets. In addition, ‘environmental’ aspects are also deeply embedded in Smurfit Kappa’s people processes too. “We create knowledge within the organisation so that everyone focuses on the environmental priorities,” says Whitehead. ESG is core and is included in both the short and long-term incentives at senior management and director levels, with multiple ESG targets linked to remuneration, and to group financing.

The aim

Two years ago, the business underwent a significant global exercise to identify its purpose beyond profitability. Working through the pandemic as a critical partner in keeping supply chains moving to provide packaging for ventilators, medical equipment and medicines, and to support the global food and beverage supply chain, had given people a strong sense of purpose and pride. Employee engagement scores had risen by 13 percentage points over this challenging time. Coming out of the pandemic, the plan was to leverage this purpose and pride, and to understand Smurfit Kappa’s true purpose.

How was change achieved?

Over the course of a year, the HR team, in partnership with Smurfit Kappa’s communications teams and other stakeholders, carried out multiple workshops all over the world, with employees at all levels. “With purpose workshops, you have to touch on as diverse a group of people as possible, and allow them the space,” Whitehead advises. “As an organisation, we asked very few questions and allowed the conversation to evolve without zoning in on specific topics. We had no idea where it was going to go.”

While entering into the process completely open-minded, it soon became obvious that, whether talking with Latin American, European or North American colleagues, three loud and consistent messages were emerging. These were ‘create, protect and care’, and all have clear links to the sustainability commitments at the heart of the business. “Create is around us creating sustainable solutions for our customers, creating ways that allow us to reduce waste and reduce our impact on the environment, and creating opportunities for people and communities,” Whitehead explains. “We protect our planet, our brands and products, and our people through our health, safety, wellbeing and diversity and inclusion initiatives, and protect our communities by giving them sustainable livelihoods and education. And we care about our planet, our environment, our people, our communities and our customers. Sustainability is the thread running through all of it.” 

Once the ‘Create, protect and care’ purpose was decided, it was a year-long process for our marketing communications colleagues to bring it to life through storytelling, internal and external narratives, videos and within the annual report. “Once you have your purpose and it feels authentic and right for the organisation, full executive sponsorship becomes really critical,” says Whitehead. “Having that top-down sponsorship brings it to life for people and allows you the space for the organisation to understand it first, before rushing to take it externally. People must be able to feel it and understand it before you communicate it externally.”

How has change affected the organisation?

“Developing this purpose has allowed us to connect the dots,” she continues. “Whether we’re talking about a carbon reduction agenda and using less energy, investing money in solar instead of using electricity in some of our plants, or discussing the human rights agenda, our purpose runs through the fabric of the organisation and in the mindset of our people.” Running such an in-depth, global process also allowed the HR team to acquire plenty of rich data to use in planning future employee engagement and communications initiatives. 

Sustainability is also embedded in learning and development programmes across the organisation. Modules around sustainability are included in graduate development programmes, high potential programmes and executive education. “Through our global learning academy, we train and develop people from a very early stage on what sustainability means to Smurfit Kappa, seeing it through the lens of ESG and thinking about how we hold ourselves accountable and how we measure it,” says Whitehead.  

That holding to account and measurement is a complex task for an organisation with operations in 36 countries. Different countries and markets are at very different stages in their sustainability journey, as are attitudes to environmental sustainability. Smurfit Kappa uses its sustainability development report, which includes metrics on climate, water, people and more, as a common standard across all its markets. 

While Whitehead acknowledges that some markets are ahead in terms of customer and regulatory expectations around sustainability, keeping clarity on the importance of sustainability to the entire organisation is key. “As a business, we are fully aligned and we talk to our leaders about our positioning on sustainability, regardless of what market they’re in,” she says. “You may be in a market where sustainability is not the number one priority for your people or your customers, but you still know exactly what Smurffit Kappa’s ethos and philosophy is around it. From an organisational perspective, it’s very clear.”

Top tips

  • Start by understanding the problems you are trying to solve.
  • Reposition solutions around sustainability; for example, how could becoming more sustainable help you attract and retain talent?
  • Make it authentic to your business and your people.

“Don’t try and copy what someone else is doing, because it may not be relevant or add any value to your organisation or your people,” advises Whitehead. “Look at the problem you are trying to solve through a sustainability lens. If it’s not real for your business or your people, it’s just not going to stick or add any value.” 

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