3 Sustainable Packaging Takeaways from GreenBiz 22

GreenBiz 22 buzzed with more than just the excitement of being back at an in-person conference; it seemed to overflow with the collective passion for action and the shared acknowledgment of the urgency needed. It was an opportunity to zoom out (no pun intended) from our day-to-day focus on packaging and materials and think about the larger system. Reflecting on the experience, three themes resonated with me as I thought about what is needed in the sustainable packaging space.

The system must change

In every session I participated in throughout the three-day conference, whether packaging-specific, main stage, or on a range of other topics, the theme of systems change emerged. In a tutorial on Reimagining Capitalism, Dr. Stephanie Gripne, the CEO of Impact Finance Center, walked a group of eager listeners through a unique way of restructuring how companies can finance sustainable solutions. Shifting to a spectrum of capital, one that ranges between grants and loans, and identifying opportunities to invest more intentionally in nonprofits and impact ventures could unlock more funding. Doing so would increase the amount of financing available within the system, with the potential to multiply the impact of those dollars.

On the main stage, Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, explained the need for systems change while discussing plastics and the gap in existing conversations. “We try to optimize the current system,” he stated, “whilst it needs a systems change.” He went on to explain the downfall in this approach: “Whatever it is, if it’s poverty, or if it’s climate change, or plastics in the oceans, optimizing a current system that simply is not designed anymore to deliver, will only bring you so far, and I think we’re at that point right now.”

There is broad agreement that the current materials system is in need of change, and significant effort to transition towards circularity. In the work that companies do to improve the sustainability of their packaging, they should be asking: Are we trying to optimize the current system? If so, how far will that take us? What could we be doing differently to contribute towards transforming the system?

Polman went on to point out the power of events and coalitions in bringing representatives of the system together to effect change on the scale needed. At the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), we couldn’t agree more. Convening the supply chain helps to build out an accurate and shared understanding of the system and the dynamic relationships between system elements. This approach is critical to finding the leverage points where intentional pressure can have large-scale impacts.

Progress first, then perfection

Systems are vast, deep-rooted, and subject to inertia – making them extremely challenging to change. To this end, another theme that resonated is the need for progress over perfection. Podcast host and climate solutions investor Molly Wood adapted a familiar expression, urging that “The perfect cannot be the enemy of the solution.” She emphasized that, all too often, we search for silver bullets, while shooting holes in anything that comes up even the slightest bit short. We all want to work towards the perfect solution, but we cannot neglect the intermediate methods that, though they may have flaws, are necessary steps forward.

What does this look like for sustainable packaging? Companies have big goals, and achieving those goals will require a certain amount of bold action. But it will also require smaller, incremental steps, and interim solutions while the limiting issues like infrastructure and processing technologies are being worked on in tandem. By no means should we stop striving for that perfect solution, but we do need to acknowledge that the short-term options may not be perfect, and that’s okay.

If I could be permitted to adapt the words of General Patton, a good plan effectively executed now, is better than a perfect plan executed in 2025 (or 2030, or after it’s too late). Achieving 2025 goals will require ambitious effort, but we have to start somewhere. This need for immediate action is why we designed our SPC Engage 2022 content to help companies with tangible methods to deliver on sustainable packaging goals.

Collaboration is non-negotiable (though it may involve a lot of negotiating)

This theme, like the others, is not new – but it was emphasized in almost every session, and spoken of in the conversations at every networking break. We can’t change the system if we operate in silos, and we can’t make real progress towards our goals without the rest of the value chain on board. In the Packaging Policy Brief session, an expert panel emphasized that when nongovernmental organizations and companies join together, legislators listen, underscoring the strength of stakeholder alignment.

There was widespread recognition of the power of collaborating and the urgency of this point in time that we’re in. Some viewed it optimistically, indicating that we are at an inflection point across all of the big stakeholders where a real shift can occur. Others cautioned any further delay, expressing that we need to take advantage of this point in time or we are going to have a really big problem.

Regardless of framing, the message was clear: we are all needed and we need to act now.  “It’s an absolutely crucial moment that requires the best of all of us,” said Polman, adding “we have this small window, and we don’t want to mess it up.”

The energy and potential at GreenBiz 22 were palpable, and the desire among attendees to learn, build, and make connections was inspiring. I came away from the conference with new connections and 3D impressions of many faces that I had only seen over screens. More than that, I returned to work with a renewed sense of hope that, together, we can make real change.

We are looking forward to continuing this conversation at SPC Impact 2022 in San Francisco, April 4-6. Join us there!

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