12 Steps to Sustainability in the Packaging Industry

You’re blazing through your calendar app, lining up appointments, noting approaching deadlines, and getting the weeks ahead in order. Your eyes drift up to “February 2021” in the title bar. A new year, and that means another year gone by.

And how things have changed. You’ve lived through a pandemic that upended not just the packaging industry, but global society. In spite of the challenges, you’ve furthered your career by leveraging your best assets: coworkers, customers, and ultimately yourself.

In our last two blog posts, we discussed procurement and research & development while touching on sustainability. Now, in this roundup, we’ll examine sage insights for building a sustainable packaging firm.

Steps to Sustainability in the Packaging Industry

Sustainable Procurement: A Sound Choice For A Better Tomorrow

Sustainability is the name of the game in the packaging industry. Aligning your procurement efforts with your sustainability strategy can go a long way towards becoming an industry leader in sustainable packaging.

Writing for Industrial Packaging, David Roberge notes:

“It doesn’t always have to be a drastic change in business practices, even simple changes can make a difference. There are many benefits that come along with being sustainable, and going greener with packaging brings many along with it.”

One step for companies procuring packaging is using smaller packaging. This reduces the amount of material needed and as Roberge points out, it shrinks the:

“Space required for transport, allowing you to ship more product than you had prior while still reducing your freight costs. This helps you cut down on the number of transports you have to make which saves you money in the long run.”

From : 6 Benefits Of Sustainable Packaging

Fewer transports may also reduce the greenhouse gases emitted by semis, ships, and the like. Your choice of transport matters too. Packaging firm Ebro Color notes:

“Businesses aiming to be sustainable need to assess their distribution channels to find ways to use them more efficiently and to consider alternative means of transport. Rail transport for goods, where it is possible, has a lower environmental impact that [is ] moving the same volume by road.”

From: Sustainable Packaging: Why Should We Care?

Another way to increase sustainability through procurement is building a circular economy. William Brittlebank writes for ClimateAction.org:

“Opportunities are sought to use recycled materials in their production and to facilitate subsequent recycling so that, after becoming waste, they can again be transformed back into a resource, thereby furthering the implementation of a circular economy in the packaging industry.”

From: Packaging design to prevent waste and emissions

‘Recycle’ is perhaps the hottest word in sustainability. However, during procurement ‘reuse’ may produce even more benefits. Kim Overstreet quotes Martin Blacher, the Director of Sustainability at Bockatech, who argues for:

“Low cost durable containers that allow innovative reuse models at scale.”

Blacher further states:

“Reuse is throwing down a challenge to materials and packaging manufacturers to come up with new solutions that really suit this format of packaging.”

From: Innovations in Reuse – a Sustainable Solution

Of course, recycle and reuse need not be one or the other. Both can contribute to systemic efforts to improve sustainability. Stepping back to consider larger systems, McKinsey experts Peter Berg, David Feber, Anna Granskog, Daniel Nordigården, and Suku Ponkshe ask:

“Can system-level approaches, including collaboration along the value chain, make our approach to packaging more sustainable?”

The answer:

“To truly achieve significant progress toward sustainable packaging, changes to the broader packaging and recycling system will be required where development and implementation costs are also much higher—and will be difficult to achieve by individual stakeholders.”

From: The drive toward sustainability in packaging—beyond the quick wins

High costs may scare some off, but by working together, packaging companies and their customers can share burdens and drive sustainability. Continued research and development will also contribute to a more sustainable future.

R&D Lights The Way To A Greener Future as Steps to Sustainability in the Packaging Industry

R&D Lights The Way To A Greener Future

R&D builds the future. Yet, the future is uncertain. Throughout the years, many of the world’s best and brightest have failed in their forecasts. So how can we predict where research and development will take us? Jana Iverson suggests:

“By analyzing emerging technology, global packaging trends, and market projections, we can get a pretty good glimpse into what the packaging industry will potentially look like by 2028 and beyond.”

Iverson bravely jumps into bold predictions for the years ahead, noting:

“As the world moves towards more advanced and sustainable methods, packaging manufacturers and consumers will benefit from efforts that will revolutionize customer experience, manufacturing & shipping, and environmental protection.”

From: Future of Packaging: Technology & Design in 10 Years and Beyond

This brings us back to sustainability, R&D, and innovation. Writing in Forbes, Matt Jones takes a gander at the world’s leading tech companies:

“Most of today’s top global tech companies got where they are very quickly. Their products and services are in a constant cycle of innovation to avoid being outdone by their peers or by disruptive startups.”

Jones further suggests a data-driven approach to R&D, noting:

“Data can also make R&D more cost-effective. It reduces research time by guiding research scientists to experiments with the highest chance of success and dismissing unproductive routes. Making R&D data accessible reduces duplication of research and allows new discoveries which may otherwise not have been considered.”

From: How To Gain A Competitive Advantage With Your Research And Development Data

Research and development can promote sustainability. Writing in the Harvard Business Review back in 2008, Andrew Shapiro states:

“R&D, of course, is a core driver of product innovation and critical to staying ahead in any changing market. Sustainability, in turn, is a lens on innovation that is becoming increasingly important in diverse industries – from energy and transportation to consumer products.”

From: Make Green R&D a Competitive Advantage

One area of active research that could drive sustainability is simplifying packaging. Writing in R&D World, Dr. Bob Maughon and Dr. Mark Jones urge us to simplify packaging, noting:

“Most users are unaware of the technical complexity contained in the packaging they encounter. Many packages are made up of multiple layers, with layers for structure, for barrier and for aesthetics. Multiple materials complicate recycling so efforts to provide more functionality from the same base resins continue to be ripe for innovation.”

From: R&D Efforts to Make Plastic More Sustainable

Ultimately, our products, packaging, and indeed global society as a whole are what we design them to be. Writing for Recycling Today, Megan Smalley quotes Joe Iles from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation who says:

“Everything is designed – from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, and the buildings we live in. Considering the principles of the circular economy at the design stage can have a huge influence over how such items are produced, used, and what happens to them after use.”

From: DS Smith establishes Circular Design Principles for packaging

So when approaching R&D, it’s important to design it to be sustainable from the get-go. Let’s wrap this up with a wise quote from Amit Kalantri in Wealth of Words:

“Research doesn’t assure definite rewards, but it assures lesser risk.”

From: Wealth of Words

The Big Takeaway

It’s hard to say just how your packaging R&D efforts will pay off. Yet if you want to remain competitive over the long haul, R&D is a must. And packaging companies serious about building a sustainable future will have to ante up the resources to develop sustainable new products and to rework inefficient processes.

What does R&D have to do with recruiting? EVERYTHING! How to find the best and brightest thinkers in the packaging industry if you don’t know what they look like? We get innovation. We get thinking outside the box.

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The Modern Packaging Expert Must Be a Sustainability Guru

Australia is burning. The snow is melting in Siberia. Up to 200 species go extinct each day. Landfills are overflowing. And packaging is contributing to all of the above. Our disposable economy produces a lot of waste, which has been linked to global warming, decreased forest coverage, and mountains of trash.

As a packaging expert, you’re in a prime position to make an impact. If you can reduce waste, adopt biodegradable alternatives, or otherwise become more sustainable, you might save lives and contribute to a more prosperous future.

Sound pie in the sky? It’s not! We’re going to share 3 strategies that you can leverage to make your packaging more sustainable. But first,  let’s examine why packaging experts must become sustainability experts.

There’s a famous Native American proverb:

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”

When we use up finite resources today, we could deny future generations access to those resources. And if we pollute the environment now, someone else will eventually have to clean it up.

For the packaging industry, this is a serious challenge. Writing for Thinkstep, Sophie Kieselbach and Flora D’Souza point out:

The media floods us with images of once beautiful beaches, now resembling landfills, and vulnerable ocean animals dying after swallowing plastic packaging. Our immense consumption of packaging also depletes non-renewable resources.

The packaging industry catches a lot of flak for pollution. Packaging experts who want to fend off bad press will have to become sustainability experts. Sustainability isn’t something packaging experts can ignore. Writing for Greener Package, Mike Ross puts it this way:

“A packaging professional once held a more strictly technical role, mainly focused on product development and product protection. The modern professional’s role has greatly expanded to include expertise in sustainability.”

Regarding packaging project management, Ross notes:

“Before considering materials, dimensions, tolerances, specifications, etc., it is crucial to first understand what exactly the business is requiring.”

Businesses are requiring more sustainable packaging. This could be due to enlightened leadership, consumer pressure, government regulations, or a mix of all of the above.

Modern Packaging Expert Must Be a Sustainability Guru

Strategy #1- Sustainability Will Require A Systematic Approach

So how can we achieve genuinely sustainable packaging? The first step towards sustainable packaging is understanding that it’s a collective effort. As Bryan Shova writes in Packaging Digest:

“True solutions will come through “systems thinking” that requires the material supplier, manufacture, retailer, consumer and the municipality to share in the premium costs and labor required to design, collect and recycle packaged materials.”

You can’t shoulder the burden alone. Your employees, suppliers, customers, and end users all need to pitch in. Start building systems and making allies now. Even if you can’t pivot to sustainability right away, you can lay the foundation for future success.

“End of life” is a consideration for any packaging expert. Too much packaging is making its way into landfills, or worse, the environment. Writing for The Die Line, Shova argues:

“The sustainability payoff for some of these technologies has more to do with end-of-life recovery than actual materials, so the consumer would ultimately need to understand his or her role in recycling or composting.”

Consumers must play a vital role in sustainability. The wasteful consumers of today need to become enlightened sustainability gurus. Likewise, recycling plants will need to become more efficient. In the same blog post, Shova notes that sustainable packaging often ends up in the landfill anyway. The reason?

“Many recyclable and compostable products and packages look too similar to non-sustainable items and can’t easily be differentiated by workers sorting the recycling streams.”

Even organizations trying to reduce waste fall short. Packaging experts can help by making their sustainable products more distinguishable.

Strategy #2- Don’t Dream About Tomorrow, Do What You Can Today

Could futuristic materials provide the answers? Sustainable, biodegradable plastics, recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), and other technologies may solve a lot of headaches. Unfortunately, these materials aren’t ready for commercial use.

In the short run, we can’t wait for technological progress to solve our woes. Our grandchildren might never see plastic bags clogging up streams because of biodegradable plastic. However, right now pollution remains a huge problem.

With a smart approach to design, you can create sustainable packaging that uses less materials. The less material you use, the better, even if those materials are plastics.

Writing for the Pakfactory blog, Mark Velarga notes:

“The primary goal of minimalist packaging is to save raw materials and eliminate waste without compromising the durability or functionality of the packaging.

The packaging should be able to perform its duty of protecting the products and conveying the message of the brand.”

Even materials with a bad rep may have a sustainable future. In Packaging Digest, Trina Matta makes a strong case that plastic can be part of sustainable strategies, arguing:

“A plastic bottle made of recycled content is an example of sustainable sourcing of plastic. Would it really be better to shift this particular package to aluminum or glass? Most likely not. In this case, plastic (and in particular recycled-content plastic) appears to be the most sustainable option available.”

In the future, biodegradable plastics and other materials might make the traditional plastic bottle obsolete. Right now, if you can identify sustainable sources for plastic and also ensure that end of life means recycling, plastic could be a sustainable option.

Strategy #3- Your Rock Star Packaging Employees May Be Your Most Sustainable Asset

Sustainability isn’t just about technologies and organizations but also individuals and company culture. Writing for Forbes, William Craig claims:

“When sustainable work culture is nurtured, employees arise to actively steer the company toward its mission with passion and innovation, promoting its longevity and success.”

Your employees may be your greatest sustainable asset. Green technology may not yet be ready or commercially viable. Yet your employees can reduce waste, design packaging that uses less material, cut down on energy use, and take other measures to reduce your company’s impact on the environment.

Some companies are now turning to internal “green teams” to drive change. Everyone wants to go green, but there’s often no unifying vision or process. By setting up internal teams that regularly meet and tackle sustainability together, you can amplify results.

As Deborah Fleischer explains in Greenbiz:

“Green teams are self-organized, grassroots and cross-functional groups of employees who voluntarily come together to educate, inspire and empower employees around sustainability. They identify and implement specific solutions to help their organization operate in a more environmentally sustainable fashion.”

While many green teams are internally driven, evolving market conditions will increase pressure on companies to become more sustainable. Writing elsewhere, William Craig says:

“Customers are wise to the fact that they can deserve something more from companies in return for brand loyalty: things like cleaner supply chains, fairer working conditions, community give-backs, more inclusiveness and constructive participation in social issues.”

Sustainability may be inevitable as consumer demand for green products grows. This is going to have a huge impact on the packaging industry. How about your company? Do you have rock stars on staff who can lead the charge? Sustainability doesn’t have to be a hassle or a burden. It can be a passion that drives engagement.

What does this have to do with executive recruiting? EVERYTHING! Recruiting sustainable talent that takes your brand to the next level is a niche all its own. If you’ve read our Top Talent white paper, you know this is a crucial passion for our firm. 

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