By Shawn Welch, Vice President and General Manager of Hi-Cone Worldwide
As industries across the world are facing unprecedented uncertainty and anticipating the economic implications of the current health crisis, business leaders have the unique opportunity to seize the chance to make lasting, positive changes and re-interpret the business challenges in a positive way – without forgetting or minimising the toll the pandemic has taken. When trying to identify a way forward, the future must be sustainable. We must take this opportunity to find a more sustainable way for businesses and manufacturers to survive.
Environmental and economic concern have only increased the gap on what consumers want – more sustainability – and how much progress businesses can make without risking their viability. However, rather than giving up on ambitious goals, maybe we need to reframe the way we look at sustainability. So far, businesses have tended to react to consumer demands, often without looking into the long-term implications and research-based due diligence one would expect. Therefore, now is the right time to be more deliberate: to continue on the path towards a truly sustainable ‘new normal’, businesses need to consider the bottom line impact more than ever before and truly invest in changing their business models to become more sustainable.
To meet the UN’s ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, businesses ultimately must thrive – working towards establishing a circular economy remains crucial. Instead of a linear ‘extract, use, dispose’ approach, materials need to be respected and re-used as many times as possible, which is only possible if products are designed for re-use, re-manufacturing, repair or restarting. After all, any and all consumption comes at a price. In manufacturing, processes draw on resources to produce items that, once they have served their purpose, become surplus to requirements. Yet, to ignore this is to take an incomplete view of sustainability: instead, materials are extracted from waste to re-enter production processes. Reuse and recycling initiatives are central to this and great strides have been made in raising awareness of this need. The full environmental cost of production and consumption includes the choice of materials themselves but also the level of carbon emissions generated, and energy consumed.
Once products and processes have redesigned for a circular approach, this initial investment will often easily be recouped, especially if we start with looking at the facts when starting this crucial process. To make the Circular Economy a focus for any business very often means changing the business model. Here, investing in research and development is vital. In the packaging industry, for example, we are seeing that customers and consumers are increasingly more focused on sustainability, and that surprising changes can unlock societal and business value. Through minimising a product’s carbon footprint or making recycling easier for consumers, lifecycle-assessment-based product redesigns or using recycled plastics instead of larger quantities of cardboard, companies are identifying these more creative options and enjoying the long-lasting benefits that come with implementing them. In any case, leadership is key. A research-driven approach gets everyone on-board and seeing management committing to these goals as part of business plans helps cement these. At a recent Reuters Responsible Business Summit virtual panel, I was part of an interesting conversation. Here, Yolanda Malone, Vice President Global R&D Snacks PKG, PepsiCo, discussed how leaders have to drive the behaviours within the organisation and the tone for the culture. She explained that her sustainable plastics vision is a world where plastics never become waste. Only through putting the mantra of “reduce, recycle, rethink and reinvent” can we bring circular products to consumer. She stressed that, if we don’t reinvent, we will fall back into old habits.
Of course, consumer behaviours play a part and the easier the solution, the more likely consumers will get behind it. End consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of packaging. So, to be truly circular, we need to take into account the entire lifecycle. Mindset change needs to continue to happen. Consumers need to be clear about what their choices are. To achieve this, we must change our businesses from the inside out, allowing for close collaboration inside and outside of our organisations. Other organisations – such as governments and recycling organisations – will need to be involved in businesses’ efforts, multiplying the impact our investments will have. We must address all aspects of sustainability and, for example, have better recycling, a focus on infrastructure and emphasis on consumer education. To recover, reuse and recycle, the R&D must be in place and dedicated to sustainability. Partnerships are important as we, as other leading global companies realise, cannot do this alone. Collaboration is key when investing in a more sustainable, more Circular, future.