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Sustainability Reporting: Why Bother?


By David Struhs

Let’s be honest: Most corporate sustainability reports are not read carefully, if they are read at all. So, why bother?

At Domtar, our CEO, John D. Williams, got to the heart of this question in his introduction to our company’s latest report when he wrote: "I hope your reading of this report will be as helpful to your own sustainability interests as preparing it was to ours."

With that sentence, John revealed a simple but often unspoken truth: A principal benefit of public reporting is, in fact, its very preparation. Nothing galvanizes an organization’s attention on its sustainability agenda more than periodically sending a report to customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders. It’s not unlike getting your house in order when you know you are throwing a party and inviting friends and relatives over.

That said, having made the investment and realized the internal management benefits of producing a public report, how can a company make sure its guests (i.e., its readers) enjoy and appreciate the results?

Here are some suggestions that have worked for us:

1. Put it on paper

While this may seem self-serving at first, coming from a paper company, the fact is all of our email boxes are overflowing. And seriously, how many people are really going to navigate from an email to a corporate website to only then be confronted with downloading a PDF file?

Nowadays, getting a well-designed, interesting magazine in the mail with well-written and inviting stories serves as an enticing excuse to take our eyes off a digital screen for a few minutes. This becomes even more compelling when accompanied with a personal note from a sender whom you know.

2. Keep it real

How do you make the repurposing of manufacturing byproducts interesting? Hint: It is not by talking about spent lime dregs, grits and wood ash. Instead, try telling a story from the point of view of the end user. In our case, that was a farmer:
"Managers at our mill in Plymouth, North Carolina, recognized the potential to blend together several byproducts from the manufacturing process to create a nutrient-balanced soil amendment," our report reads. "Chris LeFever, a local corn, wheat and soybean farmer began using Plymouth K-Lime, a new potash and lime fertilizer developed by the Plymouth mill, to grow higher yields, produce better looking crops, and save $35 an acre.

'I like that it’s all natural … It’s clean, it breaks down well, and the roots get at it right away. With commodity prices going down and so much cost going up, these savings really help,' said LeFever."

Domtar’s industry-leading success in reducing our landfilling and turning former waste materials into new revenue streams comes alive when told by someone else. You can adapt this approach to your own sustainability success stories.

3. Make it memorable

Charts and graphs help make performance data digestible. Pictures make it remarkable. And people and their stories make it memorable. A good report uses all of the above.

Pie charts and bar graphs are stock-in-trade for corporate sustainability reporting – and Domtar’s report has its share of them. Unfortunately, by themselves, these charts too often fail to provide context to the general reader. That is why, where we could, we employed graphical elements that are more compelling.

For example, reporting that Domtar avoided landfilling 573,853 dry metric tons of manufacturing byproducts is just that – dry. Presenting that pictorially as 1.73 Empire State Buildings makes it remarkable.

But to make a performance story truly memorable, tell a person’s story. We shared Domtar’s commitment to improving water efficiency through the eyes of an intern:

"Follow the water. Simple instructions, you might think, until you realize that the maze of pipes before you was laid a hundred years before you were born. Oh, and there aren’t any diagrams.

"Enter Kevin … a recent graduate with a summer project to map water usage in one of our mills, to identify opportunities for improvement, and to assess the tradeoffs and consequences of changing water use.

"'When we started, there wasn’t a set of diagrams showing where water came in and where it went, so we grabbed flashlights and went to find out,' Kevin said."

Fast forward: Kevin’s successful project led to a full-time job with Domtar’s sustainability team. He is now part of a team building a model that will enable Domtar to better understand water efficiency opportunities at all 13 of Domtar’s mills.


Producing a corporate sustainability report may be its own reward, given how the internal process brings every corner of the organization together to focus on the company’s progress on its sustainability agenda. However, employing these three simple techniques increases the likelihood that your final product will connect and resonate with your customers, employees, communities and investors alike.

To get a copy of our latest effort, drop us a line at: sustainability@domtar.com. We would be pleased to send you one and to learn what you think. You can hear more from Domtar’s sustainability experts through an upcoming webinar.

Image credit: Flickr/Jiri Brozovski

David Struhs is currently Vice President for Corporate Services and Sustainability at Domtar, North America’s largest manufacturer of uncoated freesheet paper, a leading global pulp supplier, and an innovative maker of absorbent hygiene products. At Domtar, David oversees environmental performance and sustainability; corporate communications; and certain human resources functions, including professional development.

Domtar serves markets in more than 60 countries, has approximately 10,000 employees, and annual sales of $5.6 billion.

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