I recently sat down with Megan Stasz, Vice President, Packaging and Sustainability at the Consumer Brands Association to talk about the role of packaging in many corporate sustainability initiatives. Packaging is critical to ensuring that goods can move safely throughout the supply chain to the end consumer, but it can be difficult to navigate from a sustainability perspective due to fluctuating consumer expectations and highly fragmented supply chains. Read on to learn how the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) is helping their members make sustainable packaging choices and reduce waste across the end-to-end supply chain.

CBA works with a broad range of companies. Is sustainability a consideration for those businesses on a daily basis?

Even in the most normal operating environment, sustainability is critical, especially to global businesses. In essence, sustainability is about doing more with less. It’s all about efficiency and operational excellence, trying to find ways to sell more products, produce more products, keep employees engaged while using fewer natural resources, and thinking about how you can be more efficient in your operations.

And now, in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis there’s even more evidence of the strains on our supply chain. We’re all being asked to do more with less in order to put product on shelves and ramp up production.

How have consumer demands changed with regard to sustainability, especially when it comes to things like packaging?

Packaging is really critical to get products to consumers all around the world. Especially now, we are seeing how important that is. We’re seeing increasing awareness of packaging, and consumers evaluating whether that is waste and where it will end up in the environment.

There are a lot of thoughts about what kind of packaging companies should be using, but one of the things that we’ve seen in the US is that the foundational system to collect and recycle packaging isn’t working very well. It’s very broken and very confusing. We know from research we’ve done that there are easily 10,000 different recycling systems just in the US alone. Each one of those has their own set of rules about what you can put in the recycling bin. And so all of us as consumers want to do the right thing with packaging, but we’re hopelessly confused about what to do.

Even further upstream, it’s difficult for companies to design packaging with recyclability in mind. Companies have taken major strides in this space – all of the largest 25 consumer packaged goods companies in the US have made some public commitment to their packaging. These commitments vary depending on what types of products they make and sell, so for some it means using more recycled content, for others it’s making their packaging fully recyclable or compostable, and for others it’s switching the materials they’re using to a different type of packaging.

From where we stand at the Consumer Brands Association, we need to make sure the underlying recycling system is working, so that those design changes in packaging can come to fruition.

There are additional costs associated with becoming more sustainable. How do you measure the ROI of these initiatives?

ROI tends to be project-specific. If you think about a multitude of sustainable projects within a company, you measure them all separately. When we think about measuring the ROI of some of these initiatives that are driving waste out of the system, it’s easy to see the ROI very quickly. When we think about issues that have a longer term benefit, or a reputation benefit, it can be harder. If your customer base is incredibly concerned about single-use plastic, what are the switching costs? Sometimes it can be much higher than the cost of changing the packaging.

We’ve worked a lot on food waste in the supply chain over the years, and one of the top ways to reduce food waste is to not produce it in the first place. One of our members makes frozen pot pies. They really empowered their plant managers and engineers to reduce waste. One of their engineers realized they could simply change the way they placed the pie dough on the shelf, so there was less trim, and they saved hundreds of tons of pie dough every single year. That’s flour they didn’t order and water they didn’t use. The win for their cost savings and their environmental footprint were really tremendous.

Do you see a point where the carbon footprint of a product is given a value on the packaging, much like calorie count or weight?

It’s certainly possible. One challenge has been accurately measuring that footprint on all products using the same metrics. This is some of the foundational work of The Sustainability Consortium. But I do think more information about products and their attributes is the future of consumer engagement. CBA, for example, created a tool called SmartLabel that’s a standardized digital platform for CPG products, where companies can offer far more information to consumers, in real time, than could ever fit on a printed label. With so many consumer segments interested in so many different attributes of a product, digital platforms like SmartLabel are likely the best way to get that information – quickly and accurately – to consumers now and in the future.

What’s the best way for companies to take their sustainability initiatives to the next level?

Just how not every consumer is the same, not every company is the same. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a really good guide. I don’t think any single company or government entity could address all of them perfectly, but it’s a really good framework for how you can make progress within your organization.

It’s really important to build your sustainability programs around data, and understanding where your biggest environmental impact lies within your whole supply chain. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

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To learn more about how the Consumer Brands Association helps companies maximize their sustainability initiatives, watch our recent Virtual Sustainability Summit, where we featured speakers from Henkel, Coca-Cola North America, Land O’Lakes, Gartner and CSCMP.

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