Carol Singer Neuvelt, the executive director of the National Association of Environmental Management, discusses how brands can move themselves towards sustainable packaging this year.
Carol Singer Neuvelt
Executive Director, The National Association of Environmental Management
What are some attainable goals for Fortune 500 companies to meet for the year 2020? How can they start working towards these goals?
CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are aware of the need to urgently address the crisis of global plastics waste, as demonstrated by the primacy of the issue on the agenda at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Sustainable packaging offers an opportunity to tackle this crucial challenge.
As such, leading corporations have concrete performance goals tied to reducing plastic waste and improving the sustainability of packaging materials. The most ambitious companies have already committed to making 100 percent of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.
What are the first steps in making companies switch to sustainable packaging?
Companies are facing both internal and external pressures to make the move toward sustainable packaging. Internally, companies are under pressure to achieve their corporate reduction goals as well as to reduce packaging costs and prices for their customers. Externally, companies are hearing from consumers, their business customers, Wall Street, and NGOs on the need to rapidly phase out plastics in packaging as the impact of plastics on the environment, especially on oceans, has emerged as a headline issue. The urgency of this issue was captured last year at NAEM’s 2019 Environmental and Sustainability Forum in Toronto by Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar. His message to the audience of corporate environmental sustainability leaders: “Plastic waste is not an emerging issue, it’s an emergency issue.”
Companies looking to make first steps towards sustainable packaging can follow the lead of those Fortune 500 companies who’ve already begun down this journey. Tools used include life-cycle assessments on the environmental impact of packaging materials, internal assessments, and treasurer hunts. Often companies find the biggest opportunity to reduce comes from working with their suppliers to find alternative, sustainable packaging options.
Why are some Fortune 500 companies hesitant to switch to sustainable packaging? Do you have any advice on how it can be easier? What about for smaller companies?
Companies are not necessarily hesitant to switch to sustainable packaging, but they are balancing several factors in choosing a packaging option. Companies want to ensure product quality, minimize shipping and packaging costs, and guarantee on-time delivery of products.
There is an enormous amount of innovation taking place in the packaging sector aimed at meeting precisely those demands, but Fortune 500 companies must also scale up these innovations to suit high-volume global business operations. So while we can applaud companies like Dell and Ikea for replacing styrofoam packaging with Ecovative Design’s innovative mushroom-based packaging material, it’s important to recognize the challenges companies face as they try to switch to sustainable packaging.
Is there a particular industry that would create more impactful change for the environment by switching to sustainable packaging?
There is no silver bullet to unsustainable packaging. However, the plastic packaging industry is responsible for an estimated 40 percent of total plastic production every year, so changes made in the plastic packaging industry will have a significant environmental impact. Additionally, the biggest users of plastic packaging – major consumer-facing brands and retailers – can drive changes by making more demands of these packaging suppliers.
How does this affect consumers?
More sustainable packaging means less greenhouse gas emissions as less fossil fuels are used to ship products, less trash in landfills, and more money in consumers’ pockets as prices go down. Today’s consumers are savvy enough to recognize that there is more to the products they consume than shiny wrappers.