You may not know Sealed Air, but chances are you've used their products often. The makers of Bubble Wrap (TM) and Cryovac food packaging is one of the largest packaging companies in the world. They are also a sustainability leader, with the Carbon Disclosure Project recently adding them to their A List for Climate Disclosure and Performance Leadership.
For Ron Cotterman, Vice President of Sustainability at Sealed Air, this recognition showed him that the company was on the right path.
“That was a huge feather in our cap,” said Cotterman. “It’s not just what we say, but a third party, outside organization that reviews thousands of companies. Really surpassed our expectations.”
In fact, partnerships are key to Sealed Air's efforts, and besides CDP, they work closely with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and local non-profits across the world. This makes their work more transparent, but also helps the company understand the wider impact of their operations.
“Having those collaborations really helps us broaden approach to big societal problems,” said Cotterman. For example, while working with WWF, they discovered that their joint project on making the Chinese poultry supply chain more efficient had the benefit of reducing deforestation and preserving biodiversity in the Amazon – as it reduced demand for imported soy feed.
“We were exactly aligned,” said Cotterman. “It was amazing to see how that worked.”
One of the key’s to Sealed Air’s approach is that they are not timid in how they approach big challenges. Go through their latest Sustainability Report, and one thing that immediately becomes aware is that this company, while focused heavily on improving their operations, sees their role as far larger than just what happens within the company. Page after page mentions global challenges such as water scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions, infectious diseases, and connected social impacts.
At first, it may not be apparent what a packaging company has in common with these massive challenges. However, this approach is, in fact, key to truly understanding what sustainability means in a global, interconnected economy. A company’s actions go far beyond their internal operations or the products they produce.
“That taps into the sense of purpose that we have as a corporation,” said Cotterman. “We can take meaningful actions that will have multiplier benefits.”
This means understanding that it's not just about the packaging products the company makes and sells. It is about understanding the role that those products play in the economy, and their overall impacts on sustainability. This has been a meaningful shift in thinking for the company.
“In the past we have focused heavily on product-based orientation,” said Cotterman. “What we’ve been trying to do through our sustainability program is understanding that, while packaging might be an article, or a manufactured item, it is really part of a broader system.”
One key example of how Sealed Air took this approach to tackle broader sustainability issues connect to a topic that we've covered quite a bit here at TriplePundit – food waste. Sealed Air does not produce, or consume, any food, and as a company it would be easy to ignore this issue and focus on those with a direct connection to the company's bottom line. But, according to Cotterman, that is not sustainability.
“Look at how much is being wasted today? We thought: what can we do make sure the food we do produce is done in an effective way? If packaging can be used to prevent food waste, it has a multiplier effect on the total amount of waste that is prevented,” said Cotterman.
By improving the use of efficient packaging, and helping brands better determine portion sizes, Sealed Air is helping make real progress in the fight to reduce food waste, meaning less greenhouse gas emissions from the transport, disposal, and production of waste food. They are just getting started and plan to do much more in this realm until food waste is reduced significantly. Considering that some estimate that 40 percent of food in the United States alone is wasted, and that these account for a large chunk of our greenhouse gas emissions, this can go a long way in helping us get closer to a sustainable economy.
Tackling food waste is just one example of this thinking, and it shows that Sealed Air can, alone, push for big shifts in how industries function on their own. However, they also understand that it won't be enough. Industry-wide action is crucial to bringing out a truly sustainable, circular economy.
“We’ve taken a lead, and hopefully we will help to inform other players across our industry to likewise take on some of those broader challenges,” said Cotterman.
Their sustainability report, with its commitment to partnerships, transparency, and focus on big problems far beyond the company's most obvious impacts, is a worthy read for any corporation looking to make sustainability a part of their DNA.
Photo Credit: Rkit via Pixabay
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.