Moving Beyond the Easy Wins – Integrating Sustainability Into Our Core Business Strategies

As a follow up to our recent SPC Spring Conference, I’d like to share some thoughts on the big picture trends I see happening in the sustainability industry today.

The focus on sustainability within companies is shifting. Sustainability has matured and is being embedded in new ways. In the past, sustainable packaging was often considered the gateway to sustainability; the first focus of many sustainability initiatives. While sustainable packaging still plays a role in a company’s larger corporate responsibility initiatives, there is a difference in the “job” of sustainable packaging versus the larger “job” of sustainability in organizations.

Sustainable packaging initiatives usually fall into three major areas:

  1. Sustainable sourcing, including use of certified and recycled materials
  2. Optimization of materials used through primary and secondary package design and transport optimization
  3. Recovery strategies including design for recycling, composting or reuse

In contrast, corporate sustainability initiatives are focused on energy, water, and waste on a larger scale. As a result, it can be difficult to create the link between sustainable packaging initiatives and these larger corporate sustainability initiatives.

Now in our tenth year, the way the Sustainable Packaging Coalition thinks about sustainable packaging has evolved. In the beginning there was a great deal of hype: the SPC worked with members to develop its Definition of Sustainable Packaging and COMPASS® (Comparative Packaging Assessment), a  tool for companies to assess the life cycle impacts of their packaging. Walmart created the Sustainable Value Network (SVN) and their packaging scorecard. Significant industry effort was focused on reducing greenwashing, developing educational materials, learning about common packaging materials and end of life research. Industry embraced sustainability initiatives especially when they were aligned with cost savings.

Today sustainability is no longer new to companies or their customers. Many of the SPC’s original individuals have moved into new positions. Sustainability scorecards have proliferated but haven’t been embedded into decision-making. It has been very difficult to build a strong business case outside of cost savings.

It’s time to move past the easy wins.

I hear many of our members talk about how the easy wins have already been won – it’s very difficult to move the conversation beyond cost savings and visualize how to create the business case to tackle significant sustainability issues. This is the next step. In order to move to a more resilient and regenerative economy, we need to figure out how to create the business case for sustainable materials management (SMM).

At the Conference, GreenBlue Program Director, James Ewell, presented on the SMM framework and how it complements the current work of the SPC, while providing a vision for the future.

Collaboration is the key if we want to move sustainability forward; working together, we can help identify the key sustainability issues and opportunities to create a viable future. There are a number of  examples of companies that have embraced sustainability as a core part of their business strategy that are performing better than those that have not. It’s unclear whether these are just well-managed, efficient companies or if it’s the sustainability thinking that has helped make them great. This question is reflected in a recent survey of the SPC’s executive committee which identified the two most important future elements of performance for the SPC:

  1. Helping members connect sustainability initiatives with economic value (beyond the obvious), and
  2. Helping integrate sustainability into their company’s activities

Gartner Hype Curve Results

At the conference, I asked attendees to show where they thought we were in the sustainability life cycle using the above Gartner Hype Curve as a framework. I am encouraged by the results and agree with attendees that we are on our way toward the slope of enlightenment, where we will finally begin the work of moving business from the idea stage to implementation –  integrating sustainability into our core business strategies.

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