Category analysis: Green products

An in-depth look at how the green agenda is impacting job roles in the office products industry.


At the start of 2013, the world’s leading office supplies reseller Staples appointed its inaugural Chief Culture Officer. John Burke, previously head of Business Services, took on the role and will be responsible for improving associate engagement and steering the big box’s approach to corporate responsibility.

Burke will act as a culture ambassador both internally and externally, advising the executive team on topics that will hopefully embed the retailer’s values more deeply throughout the organisation.

Such a job description just would not have existed 20 years ago, but the appointment is indicative of the wider corporate world, where similarly specialist positions are focused on sustainability and the green agenda. There are plenty of examples across the OP industry, which is arguably evidence that, after years of rhetoric and best intentions, environmental concerns are becoming part of its make-up. Companies often tell OPI that sustainability is part of their DNA, and rather than just being a throw-away public relations line, many larger firms now live up to such a description.

Carol O’Hern, Director of Sustainability at US wholesaler United Stationers, says: “United has a ‘green team’ with roles across the organisation, including managers in operations, transportation, merchandising and marketing. This is probably the biggest recent change in green teams everywhere – moving from random, targeted projects, to a long-term coordinated effort with ongoing, measurable goals.”

Research conducted by OP manufacturer Avery Dennison as part of its preparation for hosting this year’s Green Office Week in the UK, shows that two-thirds of workers are more likely to purchase a product if it is environmentally friendly. Such a statistic – and there are plenty of surveys conducted around the world that suggest a similar demand for green goods – highlights the pressure on vendors to produce items with strong eco-credentials.

From 3M’s perspective, it has a team in place that ensures the products its factories make have undertaken various checks in terms of their impact on the environment.

Michele Whyle, Global Head of Sustainability and Quality, Consumer Business Group, 3M, comments: “Every business unit within 3M has product stewards whose responsibilities are to guide the business around environmental, health and safety issues related to 3M products. We also have a materials environmental health and safety group that includes toxicologists and regulatory specialists that provide expert guidance to the business units on issues of human health and environmental issues of concern.”  

In addition, Whyle notes, 3M employs industrial hygienists, environmental scientists/engineers and product safety specialists who support the company’s manufacturing operations around the world. 

When it comes to dedication to the sustainability drive in the OP arena, however, few come close to matching European reseller Lyreco, which has picked up the Corporate Social Responsibility Award at the last two European Office Products Awards. The company is currently rolling out its independently-verified Green Products Assessment across Europe, which will significantly increase the amount of information provided for each product it sells. In turn, this will allow customers to understand how a product affects the environment.

An extensive eco-focused team is inevitably required to work on such a green-central business strategy, and CEO Steve Law says that Lyreco has a team of 29 people devoted to sustainability across the organisation. Each country in which Lyreco operates has its own Quality, Security and Sustainability (QSS) Manager, who is a member of the senior management team and reports directly to the Managing Director. At headquarter level, a Group QSS Director oversees matters and ensures implementation of the green policy nation by nation.

“The involvement of the senior management team was and remains a key requirement to boost the sustainability principles within the whole company,” Law explains. “Regular group board director meetings are held with the Group QSS Director to analyse and discuss sustainability projects, actions and results, and make corporate decisions regarding these matters.” 

Expert advice

While larger organisations in the OP world can afford to dedicate time and resources to the green agenda – and ensure their marketing departments promote news of their endeavours accordingly – it is a different situation for the smaller independents.

Scott Zintz, a National Account Manager at US dealer group Independent Stationers (IS), whose role doubles up as a Sustainability Strategist, says that the green agenda is typically “very low on the list of priorities” for OP firms, but his company is working to change this.

Zintz’s responsibilities are to manage the internal IS green team, lead the group’s Sustainability Committee of dealers, train all IS staff on general sustainability knowledge and to assist them when they are asked questions by vendors, members or customers.

“I think adding staff with green knowledge and skill sets is crucial to success moving forward, especially if a dealer is focused on jan/san and furniture,” he argues. “Customers are increasingly going green for various reasons, and the businesses that service them must be able to speak the language.”

He also suggests that because it is difficult for small to medium-sized firms to afford full-time sustainability staff, they may wish to consider hiring consultants on a retainer basis, or recruiting specialists in full- or part-time positions to assist their general sales and operations staff with sustainable business decisions.

“In a commodity industry, every dealer needs to find a way to differentiate themselves and since sustainability is one of the largest business trends of our day, OP dealers should strongly consider implementing sustainable business strategies and knowing how to use them when selling to their customers,’” he says. 

Sustainable future

Carol O’Hern, Director of Sustainability at United Stationers: “Sustainability will continue to be absorbed into everyone’s job until it becomes second nature to think of green impacts. The opportunity for exclusively-green jobs will probably be in the level of expertise available in one particular area. For example, new Green Guides were published by the Federal Trade Commission [in the US] in October 2012 to guide marketing language regarding green, and those who read the documentation became the experts within their business. These experts spread the knowledge through training, and eventually most marketers learned how they needed to adjust their language. Sustainability is evolving, and so will the need for experts in specific areas of sustainability.”

Michele Whyle, Global Head of Sustainability and Quality, Consumer Business Group, at 3M: “The office products industry will continue its focus on improving the environmental profile of the products it offers. This focus will include traditional product features such as recycled content, recyclability and renewable resources as product inputs. However, the focus will expand deeper into supply chains. We have already seen a more focused approach applied to supply chains by multinational corporations and this will continue to expand to include both environmental and social issues – the office products industry has been and will continue to be a part of this movement.”  

Steve Law, CEO at Lyreco: “For the future, I think sustainability job roles will increasingly focus on supply chain management due to the supply chains getting more and more complex. Responsible companies therefore have to analyse in detail how suppliers manage the risks related to their own suppliers. This is a multistage process, starting with risk assessment to identify suppliers with possible exposure to labour, environmental, social or ethical issues, and completed with auditing processes.”