Noel Morrin, executive vice president for sustainability at the renewable-materials company Stora Enso, began working in sustainability 29 years ago, applying his background in chemistry and biology. Since his first position—working on environmental issues in the chemical industry—he has spent time in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. His resume is packed with firsts in corporate responsibility: He was among the first to work on the business case for corporate environmental responsibility, greening supply chains, investment indices that led to the DJSI and FTSE4Good, and more.

When he was appointed to his current executive position in December of 2014, Morrin said, the biggest change was no longer having to ask for permission to pursue sustainability strategies. “For 28 years, I had to say please, and all of a sudden I was an executive,” he recalled. “Being an executive vice president really makes a difference. I have executive parity. My boss is the chief executive, and I sit at the table with the finance and business guys.”

He spoke with us about the importance of “learning by doing” in the dynamic field of sustainability, and why one of the biggest changes he has made at Stora Enso is to focus on ambitious, long-term goals.

Eva Dienel: What are your company’s top sustainability priorities for the year?

Noel Morrin: Sustainability can’t be planned on a 12-month basis, yet it has to sit comfortably in the planning horizons of business, which are typically one to five years. Sustainability is about intergenerational change. That’s one of the first things I wanted to reinforce when I got in here. The big thing we’re focused on is ambition, and there are three areas we want to be really good at.

The first is we want to combat global warming—we use a military, aggressive term. For more than a decade, Stora Enso has actively reduced the energy intensity of its operations, as well as its dependence on fossil fuels. Today, more than 75 percent of the energy the group generates and uses comes from carbon-neutral sources. This journey started 10 years ago, and we want to continue on that journey for the next 10 years.

We have also set ourselves the ambition to be a leader in human rights. Our company has been around for nearly 800 years; it sold its first shares in 1288. Historically, our business has been primarily in the Nordics and Western Europe, but when we made the decision to grow outside traditional paper markets and moved into Latin America and Asia, we encountered new challenges in terms of the social aspects, particularly in human rights. We have got to grow in emerging markets, and we have to deal with some difficult social issues. We are one of the first companies to publish a total review of our human rights situation: every unit and every country we do business in. It’s a classic situation that started with a real crisis, but we have taken our medicine, and we can turn this into an advantage.

The third area that is very important is community investment and helping make communities resilient. We are a business that depends on rural economies because we depend on trees as our raw material. We want to help rural communities that are facing social shocks from people leaving due to unemployment, environmental shocks like climate change, or economic shocks. We have conducted a baseline study across 62 of our units to see what the situation looks like today and are analyzing the results.

Dienel: These areas are all big, and your goals are long term. How do you approach bold goals?

Morrin: I’m a great believer in consensus. You can interpret consensus as lowest common denominator, or you can say consensus is about common ambition. We talk to our own people and people around the world, and we look at how to build off a strength we already have or fix a weakness.

Then it’s about buy-in—I spend a lot of time talking to my colleagues and stakeholders. Then we develop KPIs. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. The other thing is competence: We recognize where we have skills and knowledge gaps and have been filling those.

Finally, you have to do this over the long term. We have a 10-year plan for global warming and are working on 5- to 10-year plans to deliver our ambitions on human rights and community investment. You have to get time horizon right; you can’t change big companies overnight.

Dienel: How have you been working with BSR?

Morrin: BSR has supported us in a variety of ways, mostly in consultant mode. You’ve been helping ensure we have a sustainable supply chain.

And BSR also did an interesting piece of work with us when we took the business decision last year to exit India. We had one manufacturing unit in Chennai, packaging for mobile phones, and one of the largest customers left and the new owner shifted production to another part of the world. We had to close the factory down—but in a responsible way. About 350 people would lose their jobs, with impacts on families and community. BSR helped us put a social compensation package together for employees that was best practice, and you helped us develop a stakeholder communication to clarify our objectives and activities in the process.

This blog is one in a series highlighting BSR members and their sustainability stories. To learn more about BSR membership, please contact memberservices@bsr.org, visit the BSR Membership webpage, or join the conversation at #BSRmember.