Keeping environmental sustainability at the forefront of consumer awareness a tricky balancing act for leading brand-owners, retailers and packaging industry insiders
November 1, 2010
If people really are the product of their environment, then Canadian society clearly has a lot of hard work ahead before it can claim any sort of high global moral ground as a responsible steward of natural resources and a shining beacon of environmental leadership and sustainability.
Which is not to say that it can’t achieve those lofty heights—being blessed with a wealth of technological and human resources to make a profound difference in the noble cause of reversing man-made global ecological degradation—but it will require a far more sweeping, thoughtful, concerted and collective effort by more of Canada’s key CPG (consumer packaged goods) industry stakeholders to make Canadian consumers willing and proactive participants in the ongoing drive to reduce the sector’s vastly oversized environmental footprint.
In fact, it would be a tragic waste of promise and potential if the opportunity for Canadian brand-owners, retailers and packaging manufacturers to build on the early achievements in packaging and manufacturing sustainability to go begging on the account of waning consumer enthusiasm and commitment brought about by a traumatizing economic recession and high-pitched anxiety over near-term economic prospects, according to the general consensus of an authoritative panel of senior industry executives taking part in last month’s Packaging Sustainability roundtable discussion of the Canadian Packaging magazine of Rogers Publishing Limited in Toronto.
Offering their unique takes and insights on the progress made by their respective industry sectors to date—including retailing, manufacturing and packaging—the roundtable panelists also reviewed results from the exclusive industry survey commissioned by the magazine, and carried out by the Rogers Connect Research (see pages 52-56), to determine the true level of green commitment amongst senior management ranks at Canadian-based packaging and retail enterprises.
On both counts, the panelists gave a surprisingly uniform overall assessment of Canada’s progress on carbon footprint reduction in general, and packaging sustainability specifically, as being distinctly average at best, and urgently in need of revitalization through further innovation and better decision-making at the regulatory and legislative levels.
“I think that one of the bigger challenges that our companies have is the mishmash of recycling criteria across the country—not just within the provinces but right across the country,” stated Mario Bellizzi, senior director of environment and sustainability at Canada’s second-largest food retailer Sobeys Inc. “What is acceptable in the recycling stream in one municipality may not be acceptable in the municipality next door, and certainly may not be acceptable in another province.
“It makes it difficult in terms of getting something cohesive that you can work with to focus on making more of your materials recyclable in the municipal wastestreams—a real challenge for the industry to meet everybody’s recycling criteria.”
This lack of common guidance and direction has also manifested itself in the proliferation of different competing environmental certification standards and authorities that stymies the packaging industry’s efforts to act in unison on packaging sustainability, added Bob Hagan, senior vice-president of sales for the Packaging Group business of corrugated packaging producer Atlantic Packaging Products Ltd. in Toronto.
“There are many different forestry certifications out there, with many not recognizing the other ones as having any real value,” Hagan pointed out. “You would think there is a certain altruism at play insofar as we should all be moving to the same goal, but there are instead all these little fiefdoms looking at each other as competitors, as opposed to trying to move the ball forward.”
Added Catherine McVitty, manager of environmental and corporate affairs for consumer products powerhouse Unilever Canada in Toronto: “We need a more harmonized approach to standardization for the sake of consumer education as well.
“If consumers don’t know if the certification program is legitimate or are not familiar with it, then it’s not going to motivate them to purchase a certain product,” said McVitty. “We (Unilever) ourselves use different
certifications programs in our sourcing process—marine stewardship, rainforest alliance, fair trade and so on—so the consumer may well be confused about what true environmental certification really is.
“If we’re going to put a forest stewardship logo on a package, it really has to mean something.”
While many Canadian brandowners and packaging suppliers have embraced the highly-touted, five-year-old Packaging Scorecard metrics system for packaging sustainability developed by retailing colossus Walmart Stores Inc. as a de facto industry blueprint for better packaging sustainability performance, Walmart Canada Corp. vice-president of replenishment Guy McGuffin said the realities of an increasingly global economy dictate a need for an even more international approach to promoting packaging sustainability—pointing to the ongoing Global Packaging Project work carried out by the Paris-based group The Consumer Goods Forum, a joint effort by the world’s leading retailers, CPG manufacturers and industry associations to develop globally-recognized metrics and definitions for developing more sustainable packaging worldwide.
“The big problem we have today in Canada is the lack of harmonization from municipality to municipality and from province to province, so what we’ve been trying to do with the Packaging Scorecard is to develop a standard that we can use to measure different products and packages across the industry,” said McGuffin, citing Walmart’s active participation in the Global Packaging Project development.
“The project participants agreed to take a look at existing indicators out there today, review what the SPC (Sustainable Packaging Coalition) had done with its sustainable packaging criteria, and developed a global standard of what they wanted to measure in regards to sustainable packaging and how they were going to measure it,” McGuffin related. “Now they have listed a number of different pilot projects from different multinational companies around the world to take a look at validating those metrics—to see if they stand up.
“These projects will be wrapping up around the third quarter of this year … and to me it’s a very exciting development,” stated McGuffin, adding that Walmart Canada is still moving forward with its own inhouse efforts to expand and enhance the scope of its Packaging Scorecard system, originally designed as a tool for getting the retailer’s suppliers to reduce the amount of packaging they ship to Walmart stores by five per cent by 2013.
“We are taking that one step further beyond the Scorecard in developing some kind of a national program,” he said, “with a view of helping make it more a of a globally-recognized standard.
“If we can do that, it’s going to make it much easier for manufacturers to develop more sustainable products by working with a consistent standard, as opposed to multiple standards across different municipalities and countries.”
Added Bellizzi: “I encourage the retail industry to see what it can take from the outcome of the Global Packaging Project and implement it within the retail industry, which would greatly simplify the process for us and the vendors that supply us.
“It clearly has to be a win-win situation for both parties: if it’s not, it’s not going to happen,” said Bellizzi, stressing the need for greater international harmonization in the setting of sustainability objectives and the tools for achieving them. “Retailers buy locally, nationally and globally, and manufacturers sell locally, nationally and globally, [and] with Canada being a relatively small market, it is important to be looking at this from an international perspective.
“The Global Packaging Project is a good first step in terms of giving us some definitions, and we need to move forward in really bringing those definitions to life,” he stated. “Any kind of a standard we can all work towards would be an excellent development,” concurred Hagan, “and I hope that this project will clear up some of the confusion out there by setting down some standards and collecting the correct data that packaging suppliers can really use, which is the key to the whole thing succeeding.
“Working with insufficient data and working for different reasons makes for a very confusing environment for all stakeholders, so we really need for this to all come together sooner rather than later.”
For John Challinor, director of corporate affairs at Nestlé Waters Canada (NWC) in Guelph, Ont., the lack of government leadership on environmental issues—combined with high-profile fiascoes such as the collection of eco-fees on hundreds of household cleaning products in Ontario this past summer—seriously undermines its credibility in the eyes of the consumer public to the point of general indifference to sustainable packaging efforts at large.
“Governments have a responsibility to make consumers aware why they require certain regulations to be implemented, which is to better serve the health of the consumers and the society at large, or else they are just creating more red tape. Unfortunately, that’s not happening very often today,” Challinor lamented.
“We should not be too skeptical about recycling in Canada, because a lot of packaging actually does get recycled, but there is still a sufficient level of skepticism amongst the public about what the industry and government are doing that certain demographic segments of the population don’t recycle because they just don’t believe that the material is being recycled,” Challinor expanded.
“Government has a responsibility to help the message out through education, which involves understanding the importance of recycling, the importance of not littering, what actually happens in the recycling stream, that plastic is a recyclable and valuable commodity—just like glass, paper and aluminum,” he added.
“Ultimately, it goes back to education [and] the responsibility to help the consumers to understand the benefit,”Challinor said. “To use an example, the Province of Ontario once had the best anti-littering campaign in North America in the 1960s and early 1970s, when most were absolutely ashamed to drop something out of their car or along the street—it was just antisocial behavior.
“But as the fiscal imperatives changed at the provincial level, the advertising was stopped and we have seen a societal change accordingly—the province is dirtier today than it was 25 years ago.”
Having recently developed a 100-percent recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottle for the company’s Montclair brand of natural spring water, Challinor noted, NWC found itself unable to use the new
container to package its bigger brands, such as its flagship PureLife label, “because we just can’t get enough high-grade recycled PET to use on a major brand.”
But for all the government shortcomings in respect to environmental legislation, Challinor stressed that ultimately it is the CPG industry’s responsibility to educate consumers on the value of making eco-friendlier
Said Challinor: “The fact of the matter is that the best model for the future is industry-led stewardship, and there are examples of good industry stewardship in almost every province today.
“As taxpayers, none of us can afford to have government take over the responsibility for waste management, recycling or environmental sustainability of our packaging—it has to be an industry-led effort to work effectively.”
While the last couple of years have been “very difficult for the Canadian beverage industry,” according to Challinor, they were an especially testing time for the Canadian manufacturers and distributors of packaging products expected to flood the market with a broad array of innovative, eco-friendly packaging solutions—just as most of their CPG customers were implementing sweeping cost cuts in all operations to ride out a nasty economic downturn whose aftershocks are still reverberating across many economic sectors.
Packaging suppliers are heavily pressured by their customers, consumers and legislators alike to come up with breakthrough products to reduce the product footprint across the supply chain, but often find end-users unwilling to share the startup costs and burden involved in commercializing those products, according to Robert Appel, president of Woodbridge, Ont.-based packaging supplier Canpaco.
“It’s a real chicken-and-egg dilemma for us,” said Appel, citing the relatively lukewarm response so far to the company’s recently-launched OXOBiodegradable range of compostable stretchwrap film engineered to completely biodegrade into water and biomass after being exposed to direct sunlight after use.
“There is always a slight initial cost premium for any newly-developed product before we can build up the manufacturing capacity and marketshare to reduce the price, but how do you develop the product if you’re not going to be able to get a premium that will eventually enable you to drop the price and make an economically viable, eco-friendly alternative?
“It is a challenge for us to encourage our customer base to take some sort of responsibility by paying a marginal premium in order to keep sustainability moving forward,” he said, albeit adding that more of Canpaco’s prospective customers are starting to warm up to the company’s sustainable packaging innovations.
“Corporations are starting to become more ethically responsible today, and they are starting to understand that there is some value in paying a little extra initially to set progressive programs into place, and that accepting such responsibility does reward everyone over the long run.”
But the lack of common municipal waste diversion standards and infrastructure between different jurisdictions is still a major concern, Appel pointed out, noting that many recycling operators simply refuse to accept any biodegradable plastic products out-of-hand for fears of contaminating their wastestreams, despite significant technical advances that should allay such fears.
“There are just too many definitions out there on what constitutes a ‘biodegradeable’ or ‘compostable’ product,” he lamented. “It’s one thing for us to say that we’re all for sustainability and being green, but there has to be some definition to it, or else it becomes like advocating world peace and stopping hunger.
“It’s an ideal goal, but we need concrete steps and definitions put in place that we can agree on, that our customer base can agree on, and that governments can agree on, so that we can make a clear path towards reaching an ultimate objective.”
Eldon Fink, director of environmental health and safety at the leading package printing inks and additives manufacturer Sun Chemical Corporation in Cincinnati, Ohio, concurred.
“Sustainability means so many things to so many different people that it makes it confusing and difficult to really wrap our heads around it,” Fink stated. “If we could get to a logical understanding of the problem, I think it would spur a lot of additional effort that would be aligned towards reaching a common goal.
“I personally think Canada is sitting on a real opportunity here, but only if the small businesses in Canada present a uniform and understandable program for the senior power brokers to understand and put some horsepower behind.
“It is important sometimes to tap into the smaller companies: they have the ability to put effort into R&D and other objectives without having to provide the same level of economic justification that a publicly-owned company might have to, with executives being so obsessed with quarterly results and things like that.
“There is an opportunity for innovation for small businesses in sustainability, hence an important opportunity for Canada.”
Unfortunately, that opportunity is often ignored or dismissed due to financial constraints, noted Challinor.
“We are an undercapitalized industry in Canada. It’s hard to raise capital if you are a private company or a small/medium-sized business, which really impacts the ability of a company to move forward on sustainability when faced with the issue of premiums, payback, return-on-investment and so on,” he said.
“Canada is generally weak when it comes to capitalization and access to capital: it’s a pre-recession issue, it’s a chronic issue, and I really don’t know what the answer is,” noted Challinor. “It just seems a lot easier to get capital to innovate in the U.S.”
But McGuffin, a key figure behind Walmart Canada’s unwavering push to get its entire supplier base to come up to speed on the retailer’s Packaging Scorecard system implementation targets and deadlines, countered that capital resources are only one part of the puzzle, albeit an important part.
Said McGuffin: “We recently did a confidential survey to take a look at how manufacturing companies were going about achieving greater sustainability, and there is a challenge in a sense that some small companies may feel they don’t have the resources.
“But I also found many examples of companies that have grasped its importance and gone after it regardless of their size to do some tremendous work,” he related. “We always try to use those examples at Walmart, wherever we find them, to try to encourage other small companies to get engaged and not be deterred by the fact that they think they may not have sufficient resources—there are always things they can do.
“Regardless of how large or small a company you are, when you start looking at making the right choices for the environment and seeing that it is good for your bottom line and reducing costs, you will really get a lot more traction,” he expanded. “One small company we surveyed switched from trucking products on the roads to rail transport, realizing significant savings in transportation costs while doing the right thing for the environment.
“Big or small, when you actually start to see cost-savings achieved by making positive choices for the environment, there is naturally a big incentive to pursue it further as a corporate objective.”
Added Appel: “I have to commend retailers for bringing the issue of ‘manufacturing complacency’ to the forefront by motivating and encouraging their vendor base to start thinking differently, which is where it all starts.
“Once they start thinking differently, they start to ask questions, they become more informed, and they begin to learn and to search out new ways to become better corporate citizens,” Appel reasoned. “But while manufacturers have to take responsibility in understanding the goals and objectives of their customers, they would be better at getting concrete results if there was a standardized blueprint for them to follow, which would dispel a lot of nebulous definitions floating out there.
“A more educated manufacturer is a better manufacturer, and once that’s done, we’ll start to see some real tangible results.”
Appel added: “I think it is critical to have retailers involved, because sustainability is a team sport. When you have the large retailers moving sustainability agenda down the supply chain, it provides an opportunity for teamwork to bring all the different pieces of the puzzle together … and bring about required changes to the traditional business models.”
While each of the panelists agreed that the recent economic downturn was fairly detrimental to advancing the cause of packaging and manufacturing sustainability in Canada over the past two years—especially in light of deeply-shaken consumer confidence and sharply-curtailed purchasing power—they also said that they were generally pleased with the depth of commitment to the sustainability agenda displayed by their respective organizations during the downturn.
Said McVitty: “For Unilever, sustainability is a key part of a business growth strategy regardless of economic downturns.
“Our company can’t grow as a business if we don’t have access to the world’s natural resources, and if climate change is going to result in desertification of agricultural lands, we won’t have the lands we need to produce the agricultural raw materials that we need to make our products,” she explained.
“Investing in sustainable agriculture practices is not really dependent on a robust economy. It’s what we need to do in order to grow our business, and the economic downturn didn’t impact the speed at which we are trying to address that,” McVitty stated, citing Unilever’s recently-unveiled Compass Vision strategic initiative that, among other things, targets the use of only sustainable paper packaging—either 100-percent recycled content or sourced from sustainable certified forestlands—for Unilever products worldwide by 2020, reaching the 75-percent threshold by 2015.
“Unilever has set a vision for ourselves to double the size of our company without increasing our environmental footprint by looking primarily at packaging and waste, our water use, CO2 emissions, and our agricultural sourcing,” McVitty revealed. “Those are the primary areas where we can have an environmental impact, and we need to implement big, long-term initiatives in all those categories in order to reach that vision.
“We have an R&D center in the U.K. that has mapped out what projects need to take place over the next 10 to 15 years in order to meet those goals.
“It’s a lot of research, a lot of technological changes driven by R&D, and it will extend right through the supply chain: from sourcing right through to packaging, to transportation, and on to consumer use,” she stated.
According to NWC’s Challinor, “If sustainability made good business sense before we entered into a recession, then it makes good business sense to continue to do it, because essentially you are talking about efficiency and reducing the amount of packaging that you purchase and use in your product.
“In fact, we became certified to the ISO 14001 standard for environmental management during the recession,” he pointed out, “because it was the right thing to do.”
Added Challinor: “Our new 100-percent recycled plastic bottle wasn’t created overnight: the work on that began during very difficult times in this country and, by the way, we are still in difficult times, at least in the beverage industry.
“But there are many examples of breakthrough innovation in sustainable packaging in the beverage industry, like this bottle and the PlantBottle from Coca-Cola launched at the Olympics, which took place during the recession—it’s all about doing the right thing from an environmental perspective.”
Added Bellizzi: “A lot of the sustainability initiatives are all about waste reduction and increased efficiency … to obtain a competitive advantage over the producer next door, so it makes good business sense.
“I think retailers have recognized that and have continued through the recession to implement initiatives that are going to reduce the environmental footprint. If anything, this has intensified over the last couple of years rather than subsided,” argued Bellizzi.
But for all the corporate-level commitment to sustainability, all speakers agreed that it is ultimately the consumers who will decide how far packaging and environmental sustainability advance in Canada in the coming years.
The problem is, they also acknowledged, the average Canadian consumer appears to be neither as deeply committed to fulfilling its part of the bargain as previously thought—based on most current purchasing trends—nor as well-informed and educated in all the different aspects and nuances of environmental sustainability to be able to make a sound environmental purchasing judgement call even if the commitment was there.
Overcoming this educational deficit is arguably the most puzzling riddle to resolve, according to some of the roundtable panelists, but it’s an absolute prerequisite for laying strong foundations to create any sort of a ‘green economy’ worthy of the name.
For one thing, some panelists pointed out, product packaging often accounts for a far lesser part of the product’s overall environmental footprint—as measured via a comprehensive LCA (life-cycle analysis) assessment—than other key variables involved in the manufacture of that product and its delivery to market, including energy use, water consumption, etc.
“I think that consumer use of our products is probably our biggest challenge,” stated McVitty. “The biggest carbon footprint contributor for making a cup of tea, for example, is actually boiling the kettle at home: not the manufacturing or the transportation.
“But how do you communicate to the consumer, ‘Just fill your kettle with as much water as you actually need to fill a tea-cup’?
Said McVitty: “For our home-care or personal-care products, our biggest footprint is the consumer’s use of the product—like the heating of the water or showering—so we have a massive challenge in terms of changing consumer behavior when they use our products. How do yo tell them to take a shorter shower?
“For our food products, our biggest carbon impact is in the sourcing of the raw agricultural products and materials, but consumers don’t often come to Unilever to complain about our agricultural practices. They will, however, complain about certain items if they have a difficulty with disposing of their packaging in some way.
“In our entire footprint analysis, packaging is a component, but it’s not as big as sourcing and the consumer use,” McVitty stated. “We do focus on packaging—that’s what the consumers see, that’s what they have to deal with when they take it home, and that’s what we get most of our consumer complaints about at the end of the day.
“But the truth is that meaningful carbon-footprint reduction is often beyond the control of our manufacturing facilities and our packaging.”
Added McGuffin: “All the research that we do at Walmart indicates that the environment is something that consumers are definitely passionate and concerned about, but there is an educational factor involved in helping them make the right choices.
“We are also finding that given the choice and with all things being equal, consumers are willing to make the sustainable choice at our stores—but they are not willing to pay more for it,” McGuffin related.
“I think the challenge for us it to continue making those products accessible to customers, and if we price them competitively with products that are less environmentally-friendly, they’ll generally make the right choice,” he said.
“I also think that consumers are moving in the right direction,” concurred Bellizzi. “Not at the same pace as in Europe, but we just don’t have the same infrastructure to support recycling that they do, being a far larger country with more distances to cover between our markets.
“But I do see a shift: all I have to do is look out my front window in the mornings. Where there used to be three bags of garbage out by the curb, there is now one or maybe two bags, along with three Blue Boxes and a Green Bin,” Bellizzi reflected. “I think consumers are willing to make a shift, but it is important for manufacturers, suppliers and retailers to make it easy for the consumer to integrate sustainability into the products that we make available to them, and making it cost-competitive so that they can make the right choice.
“Unless we’re able to do that, they will talk with their dollars and simply choose something that is more affordable, whatever the environmental burden.”