Letters From The Earth

Sincere change

March 11, 2011

Why do we change? Why do we change our habits or routines? Do we make changes in our businesses because of legislation or regulation? Do we make personal, at-home changes because of peer pressure? Do we make a change for economic reasons, e.g., if I don't throw away so much I pay less? Or, if I don't reduce size and/or weight based on minimum requirements I won't be a supplier? Or – and I know I will stretch you with this one – do we make a change because we have learned more and sincerely believe we need to change because it will result in a more sustainable environment for everyone – our families, businesses, and mankind? I know I'm on a bit of a roll. I just left Europe and, as usual, I'm not sure if I'm coming or going.

Change is difficult. It is frustrating. Substitution, alteration, and variation are difficult. If you can bring yourself to the "c" word you move on to the "s" word. Is change "sincere?" What if change costs time and/or money? Really, are we changing because we honestly believe we will improve? Or, are we changing because of customer/vendor demands or society's requirements?

I'm on my way back from a meeting in Zurich, Switzerland. To be honest, I really became agitated and frustrated at this meeting. My sense was that participants at the meeting were willing to change but only on their terms. Notwithstanding my friend John Penhallow's love for European custom (most assuredly to make sure everything meets regulation), the drive for sustainability, at least at this meeting, had to be compliant. It didn't make any difference "what." It just had to be compliant. Change could occur but only after compliance. European custom, right, John! I can't tell you how frustrating this is. Change, yes, but change only if it meets regulation: REACH #1907/2006; 1935/2004; 2002/92/EG, and on and on ad nauseum. Yes, Europe has its regulations and bureaucracies. Well, don't turn your nose up, at least not yet.

The Global Packaging Project (GPP) has published a draft for packaging sustainability. It is into Version 2 and I am sure by the summer of 2011 we may be into Version 3, even 4. GPP has developed 52 metrics, not unlike TLMI's Project LIFE. I think GPP will find 52 sustainability metrics far too cumbersome but it's a start. There are already 80 some odd stakeholders, and pilot evaluations amongst the founding members will, I am sure, reduce the metrics to a more manageable number.

So we have scorecards and the establishment of a common sustainability language. Doesn't this confirm that sustainability is here to stay?

In America it's all about money. We change because if we don't, it will cost us money; it will cost us business. I suppose this is me, at my cynical best. I'm sorry, this is what I observe. This is what I've experienced. In 2009 I was invited to speak to a group of "techies" at a software conference. After I was introduced I looked at the audience and they were all on their computers, every one of them. I mean 200 crazies punching away on their laptops. How the hell do you speak to a group like this on sustainability? Trust me, I got their attention and they shut those damn things down. My point: these folks don't want to change. They were so driven to use those confounded machines that they didn't want to listen to changes that make us better stewards.

Regardless of how you view change there are really very dynamic, positive developments in packaging and print technologies that affect our industry. There are several that you need to know about: The Global Forum, which has created the GPP, and "scorecards" from the likes of Walmart and P&G.

In January 2010 the CEOs of Tesco's and Unilever agreed to create an organization that would require all suppliers to focus on reduction and simplicity in packaging. It was, and is, an impressive attempt to reduce and mitigate material usage. I applaud this effort. As time has passed the stakeholders in this project have grown. Many major brand owners have joined. Why not? The focus is to make us better citizens of environmental packaging. Reduce and reuse is their motto.

In Europe the use of recycled fiber in food packaging is under intense evaluation. Is a box made from 100 percent secondary fiber for rice, cereal, raisins, etc., clean enough? Could it cause disease? The United States solves the problem by using a film liner in cereal. Hence, double packaging. However, rice and raisins are in boxes, without liners, made from 100 percent secondary. Is this a double standard? Europe says the box must be made from 100 percent virgin, not recycled. Attendees at my sustainability meeting responded, "If we have to use 100 percent virgin fiber here in Europe for food packaging, we'll have no more trees in 10 years or fewer. OK, change!"

Walmart's scorecard is pretty simple. It requires packaging vendors to show improvement by reducing packaging by weight, thickness, and/or less waste. Sure, Walmart gets a cost benefit. But I'm OK with this. They are forcing improvement in sustainable packaging. The ultimate is a cost benefit for Walmart, yes, but a benefit for all of us because we are all generating less. PSA labels are a tiny part of the problem. We may not be under the microscope like the box and film manufacturers but because we generate so much contaminated waste, we're every bit of the problem. In my view our industry must reduce and divert our byproduct. We must participate in solutions that are available like liner recycling and matrix into waste-to-energy schemes. This is what scorecards want.

Walmart didn't start sustainability. Many of us in packaging were already driven to improvement and reduction. Some of us joined certification standards like ISO 14001, LIFE, and so forth. Walmart, P&G, and now GPP have merely jumped on an initiative (sustainability) that made them part of the process and resulted in less cost for them. I think it is a win-win for all of us.

My mentor, Lester Brown, always has the answer. In his latest, World on the Edge, he is reminded by a French riddle used to teach school children exponential growth:

A lily pond has one leaf in it the first day, two the second day, four the third,
and the number of leaves continues to double each day. If the pond fills
on the thirtieth day, when is it half full?
Answer: the twenty-ninth day.

Lester concludes the analogy, "Unfortunately for our overcrowded planet, we may now be beyond the thirtieth day."

Lester's riddle is pointed at population explosion, now seven billion with a fifth of that in China alone. I think the riddle could also point to the need to make packaging simpler just as it is being proposed by GPP. Reduce, simplify, and eliminate double packaging. If we don't we, too, will have moved beyond the 30th day.

Initiatives like the Global Packaging Project and scorecards such as those introduced by Walmart may help us regain balance. I realize, as mentioned above, that as label suppliers we are only a fraction of the problem. Unfortunately, our technology isn't environmentally friendly and unless we change we'll be like the pond, overcrowded with lily pads.

Let's make 2011 a time of change. Let's embrace solutions that are available. The ultimate recession is not economic, it's environmental. Lester continues in his recent book, "The threats to our future are not armed aggression but rather climate change, population growth, water shortages, poverty, rising food prices, and failing states." We need to reallocate fiscal priorities to shift resources toward achieving solutions that change our underlying culture.

Sustainable packaging, scorecards, and the activity of the GPP are part of the change necessary to reach the kind of goals that Lester Brown advocates.

None of this is simple. I understand this. Look at our major corporations and try to take their goals and create a synergy with sustainable packaging. It is unbelievably complex. But we had better do it. Our industry, particularly, or we are at serious risk.

Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.