Paper plant, paper tissue rolls on conveyor line.
With sustainability getting higher on the agendas of companies and governments, the importance of inspiring, illuminating examples increases—especially in the light of this week’s UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid (COP25). In virtually every industry you have them: companies that are far ahead of the curve in taking sustainability seriously and integrating it into the tiniest veins of their business. Many of these companies go unnoticed by the public. They are neither large, nor have they large branding departments telling the world how great they are. But remarkable they are. One such company is WEPA Netherlands, a Dutch producer of tissue and toilet paper.
History and Company Profile
Founded in 1935 by the brothers Van Houtum, the company already produces hygienic paper for the business to business market for over 80 years. Until 2017 they carried the name Van Houtum, but since their takeover by WEPA from Germany, they go by the name WEPA Netherlands BV.
With an annual turnover of approximately $ 72 million and 200 employees, they produce 42,000 tonnes of toilet paper, towel paper and wiping rolls in various shapes and sizes every year. Next to this paper, they also offer dispensers, soaps, toilet seat cleaner, air freshener and accessories, to serve as a one-stop solutions for toilet areas.
Most notable—and most sustainable—is their Satino Black product line of washroom solutions. It is produced from 100% recycled plastic, with matching toilet paper and paper towels from, as the company claims on their website, the most environmentally friendly hygienic paper in the world.
How Sustainable They Are
As this claim suggests, this company is not your ordinary toilet paper producer. And it is also not just “ordinarily” sustainable. Without exaggeration, one could say they are extremely sustainable and amongst the most sustainability-oriented companies in the world. Not just because they say so, but because others do. A clear indicator are the many certifications and prizes this company has won. These include:
- ISO: Quality management system ISO 9001, Environmental management system ISO 14001, Working conditions management system OHSAS 18001, CSR guidelines ISO 26000 and Energy management system ISO 50001.
- FSC recycled (use of 100% recycled paper) and European Ecolabel (sustainable production process) for Satino Black. As they argue, this makes it the world’s first and only hygienic paper that is authorised to carry these labels.
- Cradle to Cradle certification by MBDC for the biological and technical closed-loop system used for their Satino Black product line.
- Cradle to Cradle Organization certification. As they explain, only about ten organizations worldwide have this certification—largely because cradle to cradle certification is done product by product.
- WWF Environmental Paper Award by the World Wildlife Foundation. This award recognizes companies’ efforts to be transparent about their environmental footprint and actively work on reducing their forest, water and climate footprint.
- Best Managed Company Award. In five consecutive years, they were nominated by Deloitte as one of the best managed companies in the Netherlands, giving them the “Gold Member” status.
- Red Dot Award and Pentaward. Next to recognitions for their sustainability, they have also received design awards for the packaging used for Satino Black.
The sheer number of recognitions, the strict nature of some of them and their diversity show the integrative nature of WEPA Netherlands’ sustainability efforts. This makes them a clear frontrunner in their industry. Furthermore, the last two categories show that they are not only focusing on climate related issues, but on their staff and product design too.
How They Do It
Becoming such a sustainable company doesn’t happen overnight. It is the result of years of continuous efforts based on a strong drive and believe in the importance of sustainability. We can learn the following key lessons from how they do it.
- Believe and persist. It starts with a strong belief in the importance of creating a sustainable company and the persistence to live up to that belief. This requires consistent leadership with a stable long term mission, patience and grit. As their mission says: “Our highly differentiated brands offer sustainable, innovative and trendy solutions for toilet areas. Our pioneering company develops unique closed-loop concepts using sustainable raw materials. This allows us to passionately and enjoyably make a positive contribution to everything and everybody who is involved with us.”
- Make sustainability the core of your strategy. In a commodity industry such as the hygienic paper industry, it is difficult to distinguish oneself from competitors. By focusing on sustainability and making that the company’s differentiating value proposition, they have found a way to stand out and be different. Their vision expresses this clearly: “Satino Black is generally acknowledged as the absolute leader in closed-loop toilet-experience concepts.”
- Go all the way. Because every small aspect of an organization consumes energy or materials, there is always room for improvement. The company goes all the way being on the continuous watch for further reduction of its footprints. An example is the use of the color black in their Satino Black line—which is used because the environmental impact of black ink and products is lower than colored ones.
- Build a strong ecosystem of partners. Every company needs partners. But especially for creating closed loops in which materials return and are reused by the company, stable partnerships are essential. Next to such operational partners, the company also has many partnerships with sustainability oriented partners, as they list on their website.
- Don’t focus on sustainability alone. Even though the company’s consistent and continuous effort to improve on sustainability is important for its success, it is not enough. In addition, they also focus on design—hence the two prestigious designs awards for their Satino Black product line. As we also saw with Tony Chocolonely, to be a sustainable company with impact, you also need a great product that customers want, even if it were not sustainable.
For many decades, Van Houtum has been an independent, family-owned company with sustainability in their veins. This strong focus on sustainability has made it an attractive party for WEPA to acquire them in 2017. This immediately triggers the question as to whether they can sustain their sustainability focus as part of the larger company—or even expand their impact to WEPA at large.
If we look at the CSR fact sheets the company produces every year, the results are mixed. On some indicators there has been a positive development since 2017 (lower carbon emissions, lower nitrogen emissions, higher use of alternative fibers) and on others a negative development (water usage, chemical oxygen demand discharges, use of electricity). On average, though, the developments show that WEPA Netherlands is still a very steady sustainable company.
The company’s sustainability ambitions don’t stop at the organizational borders. As they briefly mention, they also help their partners improve their sustainability. After so many years of improving their sustainability, they have a rich and unique base of knowledge and experience that they now also use to help others.