There are certain things in this world that irk those who are concerned about the environment, like bottled water and excessive product packaging.
According to Erin Simon, SPO, Packaging and Material Science, Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund, the bad news is, these things aren’t going away. The good news is that Simon, the WWF and their corporate partners are focusing on the best way to design, create and use packaging for minimal impact on the environment and a smaller footprint.
At the recent, third annual Ford Trend Conference, Go Further with Ford, Simon spoke on the Greentopia session panel, along with Andy Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, Scott Vitters, Manager of the PlantBottle packaging program at the Coca-Cola Company, and John Viera, Global Director of Sustainability for Ford Motor Company.
The conference itself was a trend conference, so its focus was not sustainability, although that was one of the trends. The media audience ran the gamut of publications so the Greentopia session was most likely informative for many, but for sustainability professionals the panel covered a lot of basic information. However, the fact that the World Wildlife Fund was taking an interest in packaging was news.
NGO/Business collaboration paves the way for change
The WWF clearly subscribes to Nature Conservancy CEO, Mark Tercek’s philosophy of partnering with business to effect the most change. The WWF, Simon explained, is one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, active in over 80 countries and supported by more than five million members. Their mission is to preserve the world’s most ecologically important regions, many of which are populated by big business. The NGO’s strategy, Simon said, is “not about educating seven billion consumers or even 1.5 billion producers, but to work with those 300-500 companies that buy or sell 70 percent of the things we care about.”
Simon worked at Hewlett Packard for 10 years in their packaging design department, and along with working toward developing the most effective packaging for HP’s products, she also worked on sustainably sourcing the fiber for HP’s photo paper, where she crossed paths with WWF. As they worked together, the NGO realized it had a gaping hole in their knowledge base with regards to packaging, and Simon realized that the WWF presented a unique opportunity to bring together her experience and her passion for conservation. She was also eager to use that combination to effect change on a global scale, instead of within a single company, so she joined WWF two years ago.
Packaging isn’t evil, it’s just misunderstood
WWF consults with companies on many aspects of their business, helping them to develop better solutions and a smaller footprint. With Simon’s arrival, packaging became part of the package and she is encouraged by what she sees as a shift toward systems-level thinking.
The conversation is changing now. The packaging industry has always had to be on defense. People dislike packaging, they think it’s a waste and don’t understand it. The conversation has to change to why packaging is important. The work I am doing is a part of that. We are growing, we have more and more companies who are coming to us and saying, ‘Yes, talk to us more about systems thinking,’ talking about packaging not in a vacuum, not separate from the product, but about how it adds value and is part of the whole.
Simon not only works to educate the companies she works with, but her colleagues within WWF who then pass that knowledge along to their business counterparts around the world. Now, she says, their business partners come to her and discuss their current packaging or ideas for improvement. Many bring a solution and ask her what she thinks of it. Simon helps them ask the important questions and pushes them a little bit to make their solutions better. When packaging is viewed as part of the whole, not a single issue, companies can better develop sustainable solutions for it.
“It’s so exciting to see these conversations happen and people sharing these technologies, but it’s just the beginning. We are trying to make sustainability the norm, not the niche,” Simon said.