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WestRock shares sustainability lessons learned

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This article is sponsored by WestRock

It has been an eventful 2.5 years for WestRock and the world at-large. In the midst of increasing global resolve to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, as a company, WestRock began a refresh journey in 2019 to further ramp up its sustainability efforts. In the process, we underwent changes that have enabled us to more broadly and deeply incorporate the lens of sustainability into the business.

Now, with the approval of a science-based target, an updated set of ESG goals and the publication of the 2021 Sustainability Report, everything has coalesced. Executives and sustainability managers are sharing insight into key decision points, and what they’ve learned along this journey.

We’d previously approached sustainability from the perspective of a manufacturing organization, with a heavy focus on the environmental aspects. But we also have an important responsibility to make sure we’re advancing the social and governance aspects as well and bringing them into the ESG story. As vice president of sustainability, I’ve seen how much we’ve done over the past two years to embrace this responsibility and say, "We need to do more."

Earlier this month, WestRock’s science-based target was approved by the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi). It calls for the company to reduce absolute Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions 27.5 percent by 2030 from a 2019 base year and to reduce Scope 3 GHG emissions from purchased goods and services, fuel and energy activities, upstream and downstream transportation and distribution, and end of life treatment of sold products by 27.5 percent within the same timeframe.

Although we’ve already achieved a 22 percent reduction in absolute Scope 1 and Scope 2 market-based emissions since the creation of WestRock in FY15, we know we need to do more to reduce emissions to help avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As we ramp up for our next challenge — achieving the target — we wanted to take a moment to reflect and share what we’ve learned during this process over the past two years, so that others may benefit from our learnings.   

Lesson 1: Set bold goals and then pursue them

Setting goals can be daunting, especially when you’re not sure where to start. A good rule of thumb is, identify the areas of importance to your stakeholders within the environmental, social and governance realms and set related goals. Keep in mind where you are progressing naturally to help guide you.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. It’s better to aim high and not quite make it than it is to not aim high enough. Ultimately, expectations are that companies reach as far as they can. Boldness (paired with honesty) will be appreciated by your stakeholders.

WestRock’s goals were formed from a combination of an internal assessment (the basis of the company’s original 2025 enterprise goals), a follow-up stakeholder review, guidance from expert consultants and culminated with our Enterprise Sustainability Project — a cross-functional group of internal stakeholders tasked with developing and aligning our new goals across the organization. All of these pieces helped us focus in on where we needed to be improving and where we could have the biggest impact.

I recently asked Doug Sharo, senior program manager of sustainability, and George D’Urso, director of fiber sustainability here at WestRock, to reflect on this process at large. "We knew that setting a science-based target would be a challenge. But it’s the right thing to do," D’Urso said. I couldn’t agree more.

Sharo added: "Especially given the recent [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports. It has become more important to our investors over the past few years … it has reached a fever pitch."

Meeting this target will be an evolving process. The team has done the modeling, and it’s clear that large reductions across the business will be required. We have identified pathways, including increased use of renewable electricity, and continuing to explore the increased use of biomass for thermal heating, but it’s definitely not a small feat. Looking forward, we also recognize that we may need to challenge ourselves further by increasing our emissions reduction ambitions.

Lesson 2: Be transparent

No one company has it all figured out. In a sustainability journey, regardless where you are, transparency is crucial in order to improve.

For WestRock, a growing area of importance is Scope 3 emissions. As set forth in our science-based target, our Scope 3 emissions reductions will focus on purchased goods and services, fuel and energy activities, upstream and downstream transportation and distribution, and end of life treatment of sold products. The good news is that we already have great relationships with our suppliers. We can leverage these partnerships to reduce emissions across value chains and make meeting our goals easier.

A good way to ensure transparency is by leveraging appropriate frameworks to share and communicate your data. This gives your stakeholders an opportunity to tell you what they care most about and allows us to reference our progress through reputable frameworks and standards, such as those from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) WestRock’s latest sustainability report is aligned to GRI, with a bridge to SASB.

In WestRock’s experience, increased transparency has benefitted us in the long run. For example, if the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed climate rule is approved, we’ll be ready to provide our Scope 1 and 2 emissions as we’ve had them externally assured for the last three years.

Lesson 3: Use external assurance to gain credibility

We partner with our internal assurance teams to ensure we have strong reporting processes in place for our ESG reporting. However, seeking external assurance on your material topics adds an additional layer of credibility for your stakeholders.

WestRock is in its third year of limited assurance with Ernst & Young LLP over select ESG metrics that align with our material topics. We know that transparency, particularly in areas that we have defined to be important to stakeholders, or recognize as areas of growth, is important. We’ve also taken the extra step of assuring social indicators such as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) metrics. Greenhouse gas emissions, water, virgin fiber sourcing, recycled fiber content, recordable incident rate and energy usage are among the other metrics that we seek external assurance on.

Overall, assurance forces your organization to implement controls and processes on your collection systems. For example, on the energy and emissions side, we have a database that tracks invoices and fuel purchases by site around the world.

Lesson 4: Collaborate, and then collaborate more

If there’s one piece of advice I have for sustainability teams, it would be that you can’t do this alone. We really built up momentum when we socialized this and built cross-functional teams across the organization, getting buy-in from the C-suite and engineering and marketing teams alike.

Sustainability is a team endeavor, and success requires everyone to be in lock step. As we look to what we hope to achieve in the years ahead, we know that enterprise-wide collaboration will be crucial. WestRock’s Enterprise Innovation Council and the recently created Enterprise Sustainability Project are both cross-functional teams that have been integral in facilitating collaboration in the development of our enterprise goals.

Looking ahead

Our team is thrilled to have recently welcomed Alpa Suturia, senior vice president of strategy and sustainability. My thoughts on the work ahead are echoed in her recent comments to us: "I’m so impressed by what this team has accomplished over the past few years. We have our work cut out for us in the next few years, but I’m excited to help lead this effort forward. Together, we can achieve a more sustainable world."

Now, the work continues. For those interested in learning more about WestRock’s sustainability journey, check out our 2021 Sustainability Report, or reach out to us at [email protected].

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