The Way JTI Sees Sustainability

Exclusive Interview

Georgia Today interviewed Suzanne Wise, JTI Senior Vice President Corporate Development in Vienna this May at the European Newspaper Publishing Congress to find out more about JTI best practices in supporting the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda – 17 global goals each with its own set of targets and indicators, monitored and reviewed against 169 targets and 230 further indicators. According to Ms. Wise, managing the business sustainably, in many ways, is not only in JTI’s own interest but is “the right thing to do.” Discover more about JTI approach to sustainability, particularly to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the implications for business and wider society in our exclusive interview with the JTI SVP.

Tell us about JTI’s strategy of supporting the SDGs. What does it mean for JTI?

Being a sustainable company, being a responsible company, is pretty much at the heart of everything we do and has been for a long time. Part of that goes back to us being owned by a Japanese company. Even today they have a slightly longer-term view than perhaps other countries do. This has always been important to Japan Tobacco in Japan and is really important to the whole group internationally. We are ultimately a business and we want to be a profitable business, we want to be successful, but that success cannot come at any cost. One of our core values is doing the right thing: we want to do the right thing for our consumers, our shareholders, but also for wider society. It’s a fundamental part of our business strategy.

The SDGs were declared by the UN in 2015 when JTI was already active in terms of supporting CSR activities. Are the SDGs a wider and broader concept than CSR?

In some ways it’s a bit like a brand change. Old-style Corporate Social Responsibility in companies was a lot more reactive, a lot more about reporting what companies were doing, gathering lots of statistics, analyzing them, feeding them to the external world, often to the shareholders, rather than taking a really long-term view of the company’s sustainability or its impact on society. The UN and SDG broaden the focus. They have a very clear date, 2030, in mind. As soon as you have a specific date, people can start to see what they need to do in specific areas. The SDGs broaden the debate immeasurably, they talk about sustainability in its widest possible sense and meaning. 10-15 years ago, people would not have thought Diversity & Inclusion was part of sustainability. But, actually, you can’t have a sustainable business unless you have strong diversity and inclusion in the employee workforce and that’s just one example.

Of the 17 goals which are more important for you?

As an international business operating in over 130 countries, we can touch and contribute to most if not all of them to a greater or lesser extent. We focus on 9 of the SDGs, including for example ones that related to the environment, water, climate action; reducing inequalities, for example in the area of diversity & inclusion, and provision of decent work and economic growth. Our recently launched sustainability report has a clear report on the impact we have and where we make a difference.

Do you have annual reports in terms of transparency or what the company does to support these goals?

We do. Historically, companies have reported on sustainability only if there’s a good story, because that is seen as part of the company’s PR, and so people like to show pictures of starving children in Africa that they have supported, because that helps them with their brand. But, increasingly, you need to be honest about the challenges in the area of sustainability, whether it’s human rights in your supply chain or whatever the issues are… You need to be honest about them and you need to explain what you are doing about them. I think the JTI and JT group is on the right side of that transparency debate; we’ve come a long way and we’ll probably go even further. Many sustainability issues are big systemic issues that no company can solve by themselves. And owning up to that fact and working with others is critically important.

Do you think without business involvement and participation these goals could be achieved?

No, I don’t. Governments, society, people and industry have to work together. No one alone can solve the problems. These are really difficult problems. The thing about industry is that, yes, it is driven by profit and success, market share, volume and all those things… but businesses that are responsible, like us, have that long-term vision. They need water in their factories, they need water to grow their raw materials... whatever the issue is, they have an incentive from the long-term sustainability point of view to find solutions. Industry has the funds and the energy behind it to drive innovation, to find answers to some of these global problems.

Tell us about JTI’s cooperation with the European Publishing Congress. What does the newspaper and media industry mean for you?

It is linked to transparency. If we’re going to solve these problems, we have to be transparent about them. To know what the solutions are. You need a strong press, strong media to help report on these issues. The two are linked: it is important for us as a tobacco company to get our point of view across on the topics we are talking about.

One of the SDGs relates to public health. Since you are in a tobacco business, we understand it might not be comfortable to talk about sustainability on one hand and to support these goals on the other. What’s your vision on that?

I’ll answer the question with two different points. Many tobacco control activists use the SDGs, and particularly the one related to health, as a reason to exclude us from debates about this topic and from having a voice in helping find the solutions to some of the problems, some of which are endemic, like child labor in the tobacco industry. Child labor is endemic in farming throughout most of Africa and Latin America where we buy our supply of tobacco. We have a program to try and resolve and improve it. But there are those who say because of the impact that we have on public health, because of SDG 3, we can’t have a voice and can’t help find a solution to child labor. I find that morally wrong. In terms of what we do, in terms of SDG 3, we obviously admit our products can cause health concerns, but we are completely open and transparent about the risks of smoking and that’s an important part of who we are. We are transparent, we are open, but we also treat our consumers as adult consumers, who, if informed, should be able to make their own decisions. So, we are transparent on one hand, but my second point is that we are also increasingly operating in the world of Reduced Risk Products, new vaping products, T-vapor and E-vapor, which we believe have real potential to reduce the [health] risks. We see ourselves as part of the solution to the SDG 3 through that avenue. We have a reason to have a seat at that table, to be able to have a conversation with governments about our contribution to the SDG goals, whether it’s about for example the regulation of Reduced Risk Products or taking children out of tobacco farms – we should have a voice and be able to put our point of view across.

A final note from the author: GEORGIA TODAY would like to thank JTI for giving the Group such a good opportunity to participate in the European Newspaper Congress. It brought not just positive emotions, but also positive results. It was a good chance for us to meet the best designer in Europe, Kevin Loftus, and to ask his help in rebranding our newspaper. It was a success for GEORGIA TODAY as now we have a European standard newspaper. Every year we gain new knowledge and best practices in media vital to helping us develop our business further.

By George Sharashidze, Publisher, Georgia Today Newspaper

01 August 2019 18:21