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Open letter: What can be learned from a major tobacco company’s push towards sustainability

Open letter: What can be learned from a major tobacco company’s push towards sustainability

Sustainability is no longer just a key business metric but rather a way of doing business that should be embedded into the day-to-day operations of every organization across Canada. Transformation towards sustainability will help ensure that businesses remain competitive both domestically and globally over the long-term. 

We are a group of industry and community leaders serving on a Sustainability Council to share our feedback on best practices and standards to help shape the sustainability practices at one of the world’s leading tobacco and nicotine companies, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges (RBH). 

We believe that RBH can be a beacon – both for their industry and corporate Canada at large. Their path forward can serve as a roadmap for any organization looking to improve their own sustainability practices.

RBH has a clear vision. The company aims to stop selling cigarettes and make Canada smoke-free by 2035 – transforming itself, its products, and its place in society. And RBH sees sustainability as a core part of this transformation. 

Transparency and dialogue are critical for building trust and fostering the change that they envision. It’s important for Canadians to know how businesses' conduct themselves, how they treat employees, support communities, and the clear actions they take to reduce their environmental footprint.

The RBH roadmap includes reducing their manufacturing, energy, and water use by 40 per cent and getting to zero waste to landfill by 2022.  Their top priority is fighting against cigarette butt littering – one of the most littered items in Canada – which is crucial to combat the pollution of our land and seas. The organization is also looking at how it can contribute to a circular economy by ensuring that its entire smoke-free product portfolio is recyclable.

They have made progress against this roadmap. With their national cleanup program, they have collected nearly five million pounds of litter roughly three years ahead of their original goal and have achieved zero waste to landfill from their Quebec manufacturing plant this year. They are also looking at and introducing programs that promote a circular economy. One of their achievements to date is a take-back program that allows users to dispose of their products responsibly. The program – a smoke-free recycling program – was also built by listening to consumers to help ensure ongoing engagement. 

There is more work to be done, but we are optimistic about the path that they are on. RBH is an example of how sustainability needs to be integrated into the fabric of a business to meet the changing expectations of the role of corporations. We believe that organizations across Canada can take away the following. 

  • Make sustainability a core business principle: In order to have a lasting impact, the focus has to be on long-term integration and it is crucial that the efforts are not siloed to individual parts of the business. There should be a leader or team in the organization that is focused on reshaping policies, processes, and attitudes towards sustainability principles. This will come with time, but it is achieved by getting leaders on board and a steady stream of training and communication. 
  • Be accountable: Sustainability is becoming much more mainstream but, in order to achieve success, businesses have to hold themselves accountable to a set of targets or metrics. Closely paired with accountability is transparency. Once target metrics have been set, it is best practice to report out the progress made towards achieving them. This allows for a degree of nimbleness – organizations can see where they need to adapt and pivot and, in other cases, where they can set new targets once others have been achieved. 
  • Don’t boil the ocean: Major, global companies have sizeable commitments – achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 or, some technology companies, are working to deliver a carbon neutral cloud – but it is not necessarily about trying to do everything or overachieving on commitments. Depending on the size of the organization, starting with finding vendors and partners that are aligned with minimizing an environmental impact or committing to sustainable products and packaging can be an impactful way to drive change and align more closely with the expectations of today’s consumer. Another option is to look at waste – what is produced and where it can be prevented, reduced, or re-used. As a global society, we’re working more towards a circular economy to find ways to eliminate waste and pollution and looking at how products and goods can be kept in circulation longer so they do not end up in a landfill. 

Today, sustainability is not just good business – it’s a must for business success. Every organization has the opportunity to embed sustainability practices into their core business model, and we call on every business – regardless of size – to take action. Doing so will help provide a competitive long-term advantage and decouple commercial growth from negative environmental and social impacts.


Melissa Barbosa
Shawn Hewson
Bethany Borody
Bernd Christmas