Here’s a question for sustainability specialists: How do you transform a centuries-old multinational corporation into a circular business? Siegwerk, a top global manufacturer of inks and coatings, has a unique answer that extends beyond its products and engages employees around the world.
The 200-year-old German company has manufacturing centers in 13 countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas, as well as more than 60 production sites globally, that ensure inks are tailored to meet customer requirements in specific regions of the world. The company boasts almost 5,000 employees and about 1.2 billion euros in annual revenue.
That’s a lot of moving parts to redirect in an earth-friendly direction. So, a year ago with the help of Alina Marm, Siegwerk’s head of global sustainability and circular economy, the company developed the HorizonNow sustainable business agenda to support the implementation of the company’s renewed and ambitious sustainability targets.
Through the agenda, Marm’s team quantified the company’s goals, built a sustainability office and established what they call the green change agent teams (Green-CATs) — a decentralized, grassroots system that helps move the company’s sustainability agenda forward.
The agenda allowed Siegwerk to create measurable targets, including circular sales targets, ambitious climate goals for 2025 (including Scope 1 and 2 carbon neutrality), and a way to engage regional facilities in the drive to achieve the tall order of circularity — a concept that involves reusing and recycling products and materials instead of wasting and polluting.
Growing into sustainability through the circular economy
The Board of Directors agreed to starting with a step-wise approach, first adopting a circular economy business model to generate positive impact revenue and then expanding the strategy to include additional sustainability topics such as carbon and diversity, equity and inclusion. Embracing the concept of the circular economy was Siegwerk’s perfect gateway into sustainability, Marm told us. “Sustainability can be this really big beast,” she told us. “If you come to a board and say, ‘Hey, let’s do sustainability strategy,’ I don’t know how open the doors are.” The promise of a circular economy, though, includes a business opportunity in green growth, which is an easier angle to discuss and quantify with higher-ups — “and once you have your foot in, it’s really difficult to take it back out again,” she said.
Siegwerk’s CEO Nicolas Wiedmann echoed the need to think about business when pursuing sustainability in a recent press statement: “To deliver, Siegwerk must build a sustainable business that remains economically viable. This was always going to be challenging, but myself and the Executive Board strongly believe that [HorizonNow] is the right strategic direction to take, and that we will be successful in achieving this aggressive objective.”
Engaging a company in circularity, from top to bottom
Now, what if someone were to argue that a company can achieve circularity simply through top-down decision making? Siegwerk itself has certainly gained ground through centralized action. The company has developed custom inks and coatings for customers that increase the recyclability or compostability of packaging and reduce the use of non-renewable raw materials, such as plastics. And most of its industrial plants will soon operate on renewable energy through a global program that’s part of HorizonNow.
But Marm saw a specific need to engage employees in leading the path forward. “Circular or sustainable products don’t happen by themselves,” she said. If that was the case, our grocery stores would look very different — not filled with packaging that lands inevitably in the landfill or leaks to nature. Marm said the Green-CATs have enabled the company to create an environment that nurtures forward-looking ideas for specific regional contexts, which have varying governmental policies and infrastructure.
The Green-CATs also allow Siegwerk headquarters to better engage with employee ideas. As part of the program, the company’s Sustainability Council, headed by Siegwerk’s CEO Nicolas Wiedmann, officially endorses a selection of projects proposed by employees from around the world. There’s no guarantee of implementation or money, Marm said, but the seal of approval can give a project credibility in the eyes of local site management — conveying a message that the project has reasonable costs and good ideas — in a sense, she asks employees, “What’s holding you back?”
Putri Rizka Lestari, a senior technology development executive for Siegwerk in Indonesia, has a pitch in the top 10 for this round and is waiting on the final results. Having earned her doctorate in chemical engineering, she said she’s programmed to think about opportunities for innovation. Her project improves the cost-competitiveness of using existing infrastructure to increase the biorenewable content in Siegwerk products — which she says can help build customer interest in more sustainable offerings.
Contextualizing sustainability through a system of ‘change agents’
A significant part of what makes the transition work is that the Green-CATs are staffed by employees who become leaders of sustainability in their regions and have been elected with dedicated time to work on the topic of sustainability. Green-CATs are trained by internal circular economy experts and tasked with educating fellow employees about Siegwerk’s sustainable offerings and inspiring action in regional offices. In just a year of work, facilities have taken divergent approaches in response. Some regions have come up with creative ways to engage employees in sustainability, while others have gotten right down to product research and adaptation.
A task force in China, for example, developed a quiz show with prizes to incentivize employees to learn about how the company is approaching the circular economy. In India, labs replaced disposable droppers with stainless steel spoons. France’s Annemasse team led a project that recycles surgical masks into work shirts for employees — a move that cost little money but diverted a great deal of medical waste. “[A mask is] often considered not recyclable or, ‘We just have to burn or bury it, because it’s toxic.’ And here’s a company that we bring on site that actually creates a resource loop for these products,” Marm explained.
Educating a region in a new idea: Sustainability
Lestari is a Green-CAT ambassador focused on Indonesia, where she sets up regular webinars to educate her team members, as well as customers, suppliers and government leaders, about sustainability and circularity. Her aim is to create buy-in so these actors will bring ideas to her, which she can then help bring to life.
“It’s more efficient, right?” You don’t have to rally individuals around an idea they’ve come up with themselves,” she said. “I’m not going to lie, I still see many people who [are] skeptical of the idea of sustainability. They think … sustainability is just a campaign.”
Still, others have reached out to ask her how the sustainability office can support their ideas or help them respond to customer inquiries about more sustainable products, including bio-based offerings. When colleagues struggle to figure out where to start, she encourages them not to try to reinvent the wheel. “We don’t have to be really innovative in doing sustainability,” she offers, saying it’s often helpful to observe what others are doing and tweak their approach to suit sites in Indonesia.
How do you create a network of employees working toward a circular economy?
From her perspective in Germany, Marm said she’s been impressed with how the Green-CATs have developed sustainability networks in their regions. But those networks didn’t happen by mere chance. Siegwerk has a dedicated employee who manages the network, and about half of her time is spent working with Green-CATs around the world.
For any company looking to try out Siegwerk’s approach, Marm offered a lesson: find the right balance between freedom and guidance. “Freedom is great, but sometimes people just want very, very clear guidance on what they’re supposed to do,” she explained. It took Siegwerk some effort to learn the right amount of instruction to give Green-CATs. They currently have a minimum-to-do checklist. “If they want to do more, that’s perfect,” Marm said. “They certainly have the freedom to do so.”