CHEMISTRY, MATERIALS & PACKAGING
Sustainable Brands Issue in Focus
CHANNELS    |    Behavior Change      Leadership      Products & Design      Supply Chain      Marketing & Comms      New Metrics    |    MORE

Decision-Making Science: One Woman’s Method for Creating an Industry Sea Change

Dr. Shabnam Sanaei | Image credit: Domtar

There was the agrarian revolution, followed by the industrial revolution and now the digital revolution. With each came efficiency and added value. But with each also came a loss of jobs and painful adjustments.

Currently, the world straddles two distinctly different ways of life: On one side sits the taxi cab and newspaper users among us; on the other, the Uber and Twitter devotees.

These distinctly different worlds lead many businesses to a fork in the road where the path toward survival and long-term growth is often complex and unclear.

It’s no secret that the digital revolution has impacted the paper industry as a whole. People communicate via texts and emails. Information is exchanged via PDFs and cloud-based data storage.

So, Domtar – a world leader in pulp and paper manufacturing – is working to expand its traditional product offerings with an acute interest in biomaterials, which use wood pulp and its remnants to engineer more sustainable products. But with hundreds of complex options to consider, the right solutions sometimes seem indistinguishable.

Sponsored by the
Domtar.

Enter Shabnam Sanaei, a 37-year-old native of Iran, project manager in Domtar’s biomaterials division and the face of the company’s 2017 Sustainability Report, Working Smart for the Long Term. Sanaei is offering a new scientific approach to identifying the most promising path forward. Here, she sheds light on what fuels her optimism for the future of Domtar, and the industry at large.

What is giving you hope for the paper industry?

Many people think of the pulp and paper industry as a declining market, but I see pulp mills as bio-refineries designed to separate and extract the natural chemical building blocks of wood, where feedstock is renewable and sustainable. At Domtar, we’ve identified hundreds of potential new opportunities to enhance our current product portfolio using a renewable raw material. Now it’s about deciding what makes the most sense to pursue.

If the possibilities are so plentiful, how does Domtar choose what to pursue?

We are using a customized version of a multi-criteria decision-making tool that I developed as part of my PhD studies. Using this tool, Domtar leadership evaluates and ranks all of the opportunities in terms of sustainability and commercial attractiveness. This new tool aggregates conflicting criteria and identifies sustainable opportunities. It helps us evaluate each opportunity, accounting for economic performance, market potential, competitiveness, technical feasibility, environmental impacts, strategic fit, regulatory and social factors to help us make science-based decisions. We also take into consideration different types of risk that could impact how long it will take us to get products to market. We then segregate options into short-, medium- and long-term possibilities. The short-term options typically involve less risk and are generally more market-ready and technically mature. Then there are many opportunities that are not technically mature enough to bring to market but have long-term promise.

How did you come to develop this assessment tool?

The tool was something I developed as my PhD project at Polytechnique Montréal where I did research on sustainability assessment of integrated biorefinery opportunities and strategic decision-making. Domtar was partially funding my doctoral project, so my school supervisor selected Domtar’s Dryden, Ontario mill as the place for me to gather data and apply the findings of my tool. I moved to Dryden for four months to do this work.

And you never left Domtar?

Right. My supervisor at Domtar was satisfied with my work and asked me if I would be interested in joining Domtar’s research and development team as a post-doctoral fellow. I said “absolutely” and completed my industrial post-doctoral internship in two years. Eventually, I was promoted and I am now a permanent employee as a member of the Biomaterials group, located in Domtar’s Montreal office. I am very delighted to work with such a great team that has a great mission for an outstanding company.

What are the challenges to redefining the industry?

A leader on our team once said that dramatic change brings dramatic response. But in the forest products industry, changes are often gradual and therefore see a slower response. But the industry is in need of a drastic change. And consumers worldwide need to dramatically reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and fossil-based products, replacing them with bioproducts. Domtar’s leaders care a lot about sustainability and developing a robust, sustainable future with an eye toward biomaterials. But some in the forestry industry are risk averse and that will be a challenge for them. While we are dealing with emerging technologies and there is risk involved, we also understand that those who take the risk tend to eventually reap the rewards.

How did you enter this field?

I earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Iran with a focus on the oil and gas industries. By the time I decided to continue my studies abroad I also made the change to focus my engineering goals to more environmentally responsible industries. There were highly competent professors at Polytechnique Montreal who work in the biorefinery field, and that is where I ended up.

And your outlook now?

The resources in North America are huge and I am very optimistic about the future of the forest industry. The world needs trees and more wood-based products that come from them. It will take time, but we are at a point where the rate of industry improvement towards new businesses like biorefinery and biomaterials could be higher than ever before.

For more sustainability stories about Domtar, its people, products, partnerships, industry and communities, visit Domtar Newsroom. Additional information about Domtar’s sustainability work, including the 2017 Sustainability Report, may be found here.


Mark DeAndrea joined Domtar in January of 2016 and is a member of the Pulp and Paper Leadership Team. He has management oversight and responsibility for Domtar’s newly created BioMaterials Business Unit, which includes five platforms: lignin, extractives, cellulosic sugars,… [Read more about Mark DeAndrea]