“Everybody understands that something has changed, that sustainability is part of our business”
Interview by John L. Walters
Isabella Bussi is Fedrigoni Group’s Head of Sustainability, helping to lead and guide the company’s green policies and strategies at a critical time. She joined Fedrigoni Group in April 2021, after sixteen years in the cement industry. Her job has always been to help big companies move from ‘business as usual’ to ‘sustainable business’. After degrees in Environmental Science, and Environmental Technologies and Science, at Milan University, Bussi took a Master’s in Environmental Economics and Management at Bocconi University, the first such course available in Italy.
Following her postgraduate studies she worked for cement manufacturer Italcementi (Bergamo), first as an environmental specialist, then as sustainability manager with responsibility for improvement planning in 23 countries. Similar roles followed at HeidelbergCement in Germany and Buzzi Unicem, before Bussi joined Fedrigoni. Her role encompasses sustainability throughout every aspect of the business, from production to strategy, reporting to supply chain management, while at the same time ‘creating value’ in line with the company’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As she explains in this interview, her job is about facts, figures, targets, accountability, communication and leadership.
John L. Walters: Is this a job you ever imagined doing?
Isabella Bussi: Yes, even before this kind of job was created. So probably this is something in my DNA.
You previously worked in the cement industry …
Yes, cement is a long-term industry, with longer return on investment, with a big environmental impact and strong connections to the local community – like paper. Compared to other industries, like oil and gas, they have been more under pressure in recent decades, so they have had to have a more sustainable approach.
Your role is not solely about sustainability. How do you go about improving and changing the ‘safety culture’ of the mills and factories?
We have started working on a common approach to create a safety culture within the Group: simple daily rules to avoid risks … and pride in the fantastic products we produce.
Over the past twenty years, there has been a tendency for environmental concerns to rise and fall in visibility. For example, environmental concerns receded at the time of the 2008 financial crisis.
You are right, but today the world is changing: every sector in the world has understood and experienced how costly environmental damage can be. The automotive, oil, gas, transport and steel sectors have all experienced bad environmental situations that have impacted their profit and loss.
So how do you keep a big company focused on sustainability?
The only strategy that I follow is to pay attention on the metrics. Only the metrics can help you to say … yes, I need to accelerate on that, or yes I can live with it and wait six months. The hot topic is: ‘Are we measuring everything we need to measure?’ Whether it’s environmental impact or social impact, if it is important it must be measured.
Some companies make selective use of metrics …
That’s the scenario to be avoided! I aim to communicate the full picture. If you have the metrics, you can take a snapshot. Then, having the full picture on your screen, you can differentiate your priorities.
When you started at Fedrigoni, how did you go about gathering the figures you needed? Was it difficult?
It’s always difficult at the start. It took more than six months. Then my work started. I began by looking at targets fixed for 2030, and we will go on to develop 2040 targets very soon, thanks to Fedrigoni’s Sustainability Team, fifteen expert and passionate professionals.
Fedrigoni has become a bigger company in the time you have been there, acquiring new divisions – do you have to travel more?
Yes, that is why I’m driving to a site today. It is about improving the housekeeping and the cleanliness of our sites, because we want more customers to meet us in person in the paper mills. We are producing the best paper and self-adhesive materials, and that should be evident in the quality of our industrial sites.
It’s not enough to set targets …
You have to check with your own eyes! Always …
I imagine that there’s a communication element here, to show these things are serious …
Indeed, communication is key, but as I have learned, visible leadership is the first guarantee for our workers and our managers that sustainability really is integral to the group’s strategy. The fact that I’m travelling to production sites, wearing my protective footwear and all the safety equipment and touring the plant, is transmitting a very clear message! When you are visible, you can communicate. You are driving the change, not asking others to do things from your desk.
And that’s hard work …
Yes, but it is the most fantastic job. You have a lot of inputs; you see the business in 360 degrees. Sustainability people have a double view: the history, but also the strategy, the next ten years, the next 30 years.
Which takes us to the future. We have been reminded on the world stage (with gatherings such as COP26 in 2021) that there have to be some very big changes made – in transport, industry and at home – to reach ‘net zero’, to eliminate greenhouse gases by 2050. How do you go about setting a strategy for 2030 or 2050 within a company like Fedrigoni?
First step: awareness. We have set the 2030 target of reducing our CO2 emissions by 30 per cent. This is definitely good, but it is not enough, so we must raise the bar again. At the same time I am involved in working with our suppliers, saying: guys, from now on we will need ever increasing supplies of renewable energy at a reasonable price. We push them, and they are pushed by the outside world, starting with the European Commission.
Is there sometimes an ‘us and them’ attitude towards sustainability, or do people ‘get it’?
The answer is somewhere in the middle. At Fedrigoni, everybody understands that things have changed, that sustainability is part of our business. It is not so clear how every individual can contribute to the group achievement. When I talk to workers on the factory floor, they still feel a bit of a gap between their everyday life on the factory floor and our sustainability strategy. It’s part of my job to fill that gap.
The most effective message is from visible leadership, visiting sites and working directly with factory personnel.
Some people are reluctant to change. There are parts of the world where climate change is treated with scepticism, or hostility, and Fedrigoni is an international company. How do you deal with resistance?
The secret is to have dialogue with people, to help them understand the ‘why’, and how they will benefit. People need time and support.
You put pressure on providers, clients and other stakeholders, but there are outside pressures on Fedrigoni to become more sustainable, too …
So far, only our big brands and customers are pushing Fedrigoni. Chanel, LVMH, big companies like this are asking for more sustainable products, a more long-term view, a more ambitious CO2 target. Fedrigoni is aligned to the Science Based Targets initiative [a partnership with the UN Global Compact and others that set emissions reduction targets required to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C by 2030. See unglobalcompact.org.uk/science-based-targets/]
Customers like Chanel are already committed to 1.5°C. Big companies are always asking for improvements, other suppliers and stakeholders not so much.
Things are changing rapidly in the investment world. So, is everything going in the right direction for what you want to achieve?
Yes. Even faster than I dreamt!
We’ve reached ‘a dramatic inflection’, a turning point.
Recalling that you always wanted this job, even when it didn’t exist, have you achieved your ambitions?
Yes and no. I’m for sure enthusiastic about my career, especially because I’m a woman, and I work in production, historically considered a male sector.
I’ve promoted sustainability, I’ve made changes, at least in raising awareness (though, of course, progress has been made through team efforts). Nevertheless, I will only be 100 per cent satisfied on the day that this sustainability job disappears. It might take 50 years.
Let’s turn to the products Fedrigoni makes – beautiful paper and labels. How important is recycling?
It is the most sustainable way to recover cellulose fibre, and the most ‘lofty’ practice because it is based on the founding principle of the circular economy.
There are many misconceptions about paper and sustainability in the world. Some designers who work with paper will even talk about using paper as if it’s a kind of ‘guilty pleasure’, and bad for the world. Do we need to change perceptions about paper in relation to sustainability?
You are right about the ‘guilty pleasure’ perception. Using paper is seen as something not really necessary, and that’s not true. There are clinical studies undertaken during the pandemic that show clearly how much art and design are essential for the wellbeing of young people, their mental health. Digital is not as effective. And in general, paper is enjoying a big revival in popularity especially with product and packaging designers, as an alternative to plastic wrappings which are sometimes laminated with other hard-to-separate (and thus hard-to-recycle) materials. What is cool about paper fibres is that they come from a very renewable entity: trees. Not only do these fibres make an ideal material to write, print or draw on, or fold as packaging, they are also compostable and biodegradable. Plus they can be recycled several times, as there is a very well functioning downstream chain for paper collection and recycling which has been in place for years, thanks to the efforts of the paper industry. It’s down to us to find similar solutions for other materials.
“The hot topic is: Are we measuring everything we need to measure?”
Photographs by Francesco Brembati.