Take initiative: packaging and the environment

7 September 2018

In the age of social media, online campaigns and globalised activism, packaging trends can change in an instant, but sustainability is here to stay. Ross Davies explains how packaging departments are rising to the eco-friendly challenge through groundbreaking initiatives, such as providing discounts to customers who use reusable coffee cups.

The glare under which the global packaging industry currently finds itself is more intense than ever. Not only does this relate to new regulations around environmental responsibility, but also media scrutiny from traditional channels and social media. Consumers are expecting more from their brands as well; the product is no longer enough to slake their demand, as they also care about how sustainable their consumption habits are.

Put simply, packaging departments are being forced to combine innovation and sustainability; this is particularly apparent when it comes to plastics.

In March this year, the UK Government announced plans to slap a new levy on single-use plastic items, including disposable cups. Speaking at the time, Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond said a responsibility had arisen for the UK to take “bold action” in tackling plastic waste. The mooted tax soon gained the moniker of the ‘latte levy’, in response to the Treasury’s plan to place a £0.25 tax on disposable coffee cups.

For environmental campaigners, the announcement represents a victory of sorts; green proponents have been calling for such a tax for years. But it remains to be seen whether the proposed levy will see the light of the day, with some opponents fearing the tax will be passed onto consumers.

In control

What is more interesting to witness, however, is how high street coffee brands are taking packaging matters into their own hands.

In July, Starbucks announced that it would be testing a £0.05 paper cup charge across all of its 950 stores in the UK, following on from a successful three-month trial, that revealed a 126% increase in reusable cups by consumers. Customers of the coffee chain who use reusable cups now receive a longstanding £0.25 discount as a means of inducing paper cup waste production.

Starbucks worked alongside Hubbub, an environmental charity, during the trial, which compiled an evaluation report after its conclusion. This showed a 3.6% increase in customers opting to bring their own cup or flask into stores and supports the argument that a rollout of the £0.05 charge on a national level could have a genuinely positive impact on reducing paper cup use.

Speaking in July, Martin Brok, president of Starbucks Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), said, “We saw encouraging results from the first three months of this trial with Hubbub, and what stood out to us was the positive response we had from our partners [and customers] who continue to push us to innovate and find ways to reduce waste.

“Extending this to all our stores across Britain is an exciting step, and we’re hoping this charge will remind customers to rethink their use of singleuse plastic as it has with plastic bags.” The measure joins another initiative by the group that aims to eliminate single-use plastic straws on a global level by 2020. Starbucks has already launched a new strawless lid for iced coffee, tea and espresso products in 150 stores across EMEA. The company is also looking to increase sustainability by introducing paper and PLA compostable straws.

“For our partners and customers, this is a significant milestone to achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee served to our customers in more sustainable ways,” said president and chief executive officer for Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, of the measure.

Buoyed by recent successes in the UK, the chain announced the launch of a paper recycling initiative in May across 11 of its company-operated stores in the Netherlands, as part of its ongoing sustainability commitments. Customers that visit stores in Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague are now welcome to return any paper cup across the counter for sorting and collection by staff before being forwarded on for recycling.

“Reducing waste is part of Starbucks’ global environmental goals and this new cup recycling initiative in the Netherlands underlines our strong commitment,” commented Susanne Folkerts, supply chain project manager at Starbucks EMEA.

“By taking the lead in trialling cup collection and recycling, we’re optimistic about influencing partner (employee) and customer behaviours, and hopefully inspiring others in the industry to participate,” she added.

There’s more to do

Sandwich and coffee shop chain Pret A Manger is also looking to take initiative and lead from the front when it comes to reducing the impact of its packaging. In April, the group committed to a Global Plastic Pledge, which will see the company make a series of adaptations to its plastic packaging by 2025.

There are three central planks to the initiative. The first is the aim to make packaging 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable within the next seven years. While most of Pret’s plastic packaging is already widely recyclable in the UK, it is exploring possibilities around introducing even more sustainable options. A post on the group’s website emphasised that “We’ve achieved a great deal since we started, but there is still much more we need to do.”

The second prominent feature of the initiative is the removal of single-use plastic. Similar to Starbucks, this includes the introduction of new paper straws in every store and removing hot-drink stoppers. Pret has also launched a new range of reusable bottles in partnership with the brand Chilly’s.

As much as all of this is to do with the products themselves, sustainability is also about better communication. Consequently, Pret is also planning to provide clearer signs in its stores and on its packaging to show customers which products are recyclable. It has also trialled a plastic bottle deposit-return scheme in the UK cities of Brighton and Birmingham, in order to increase recycling rates for plastic bottles.

The inevitable truth about packaging sustainability initiatives is that while some work, others, for whatever reason, simply don’t take off. By increasing it reusable cup discount from £0.25–50, Pret has witnessed a significant change in consumer behaviour. However, the same cannot be said of a trial for wooden cutlery. In July, a Twitter post from the company said, “First we trialled wooden cutlery, and you told us it just wasn’t up to scratch. The good news is we will introduce compostable cutlery to all our UK shops next year.”

Social compliance

According to Chris Tyas, global head of supply chain at Nestlé, the fastmoving consumer goods (FMCG) industry needs to work together, more than ever, if it is to build truly sustainable supply chains.

In a recent blog post, published on the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), he argued that the private sector now has a “vital role to play” when it comes to shared responsibility and contributing to sustainable initiatives.

Tyas also cited the recent creation of the CGF’s Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative (SSCI) – of which he is co-chair – that aims to support companies that have chosen to recognise “credible third party standards” in a bid to embrace greener practices.

Full product transparency requires collaboration between many different companies in the global supply chain – retailers, manufacturers, upstream suppliers and a wide range of service providers.
– Peter Freedman, CFG

“I’m very excited to see how we can improve the processes in place to ensure greater trust in our supply chains,” he said. “SSCI will help make responsible sourcing easier for the industry. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, showing the clear need for guidance to navigate the many different standards companies can use to assure compliance in their supply chains.”

Initially, the SSCI will cover social compliance in its entirety across the gamut, from forced labour to working hours and discrimination. However, it will also look to guide buyers and suppliers on what is expected of them from the standpoint of sustainability, as well as the application of “robust verification practices”.

SSCI has been established with three core objectives. The first is “to aim to assist corporate leaders in selecting credible sustainability schemes”, added Tyas. “At present, decision-makers can find themselves going through a vast number of different auditing standards without necessarily knowing which are most likely to be effective, and so the SSCI will seek to address this by providing CGF recognition to those that meet the requisite SSCI benchmarking requirements.”

The second pillar of the scheme also strives “to enhance efficiency for suppliers and buyers by reducing audit duplication through providing a list of CGF-recognised schemes”.

With the third, “The programme will seek to drive an improvement in sustainability standards on a wide variety of topics, such as child labour, discrimination and exploitative labour practices, as well as robust assurance processes.”

According to Tyas, cooperation will be key for these goals to be realised. “The SSCI recognises that collaboration will be crucial in tackling social and... environmental sustainability problems,” he stated.“The challenges we face are so complex that they require the private sector, NGOs and the investor community drive positive outcomes for the environment.”

Making good on the promise

Transparency across the value chain is also paramount if the FMCG sector is to make good on sustainable pledges. In a recent post, CFG’s managing director, Peter Freedman, said, “The problem – once relegated to company technical functions – is now an urgent, CEO-level issue, ranking as one of the top three on the CGF’s board of directors’ agenda in its June 2018 meeting.”

He added, “Companies face numerous technical and operational challenges in getting reliable information in the first place, in exchanging it efficiently between value chain partners and in giving consumers easy access to it... Full product transparency requires collaboration between many different companies in the global supply chain – retailers, manufacturers, upstream suppliers and a wide range of service providers.”

It is becoming apparent that truth, and sustainability are synonymous. As Freedman puts it, “In order to thrive in the future, consumer companies must communicate honestly and demonstrate that sustainability lies at the heart of the business.”

Starbucks has introduced a cup recycling campaign in the Netherlands as part of its global environmental initiative.
Starbucks has launched strawless lids for its iced drinks across 150 EMEA countries.

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