Goals and aspirations: three takeaways from the SPC Advance 2017 Brands Roundtable

October 31, 2017

Look at almost any corporate social responsibility report from a major brand or retailer and you’re bound to find commitments to make packaging more sustainable. They’re easy to find, but interestingly, no two are the same. For example, many companies make public commitments and goals to increase the recyclability of their packaging, but some specify a certain type of packaging, some specify a percentage of overall improvement, others specify an absolute target, and some simply state that it’s important and the company will do their best. At SPC Advance, we brought together brands and retailers to talk about sustainable packaging goals in three areas: recycled content usage, recyclability, and responsible fiber sourcing. The conversation was lively! Here are some interesting takeaways:

1: Beware of the unintentional conflicts. If a company makes a commitment to use more postconsumer recycled content, they should be applauded. But those same companies also tend to have goals in areas like reducing packaging weight and reducing carbon footprint, and navigating the trade-offs with recycled content can be tricky. Recycled fiber, for instance, can have a slightly larger carbon footprint and necessitate more material usage. That doesn’t mean a company shouldn’t use more recycled fiber — we think bold commitments to using postconsumer recycled content are extraordinarily important, given the current climate of markets for recycled materials — but a brand can create dissonance if the pursuit of one goal comes at the expense of another. Choose wisely.

2: When it comes to responsible fiber sourcing commitments, “deforestation-free” appears to be the prefered nomenclature du jour. Most companies with deforestation-free fiber sourcing policies employ a robust set of rules and guidelines for fiber sourcing that includes the use of certified fiber but also opens the door for uncertified fiber so long as it can be verified that responsible forest management practices are in place. But the name “deforestation-free” is a bit unfortunate, since it invokes the idea that deforestation is the problem and “deforestation-free” is the answer. Responsible forest management serves a number of important purposes besides limiting deforestation and promoting reforestation. Protection of biodiversity, water quality, and community wellbeing are all important aspects of responsible forest management that don’t come through in a phrase like “deforestation-free”. Deforestation-free policies tend to have sound thinking behind them but better phrasing would be more precise.

3: There are secret goals out there. Lots of them. We shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgement on a company’s goals based on what we can find in their public communications. A brand might publicly state a goal in very broad, borderline meaningless terms, but if they do, there’s a chance that an internal goal with very specific guidelines and targets exist. For instance, a brand might publicly state that one of their commitments is “improving the recyclability of all packaging”, without a target date, metric, baseline, or any other information that would denote a meaningful, measurable pursuit. Internally, that same company might have ten different “micro goals” for various product or package categories, with a very robust set of success metrics. They may not want to go overboard with information in a streamlined annual report, or there may simply be no easy way to roll up these “micro goals” into one overarching statement. Nonetheless, voluntary accountability is best demonstrated through publicly-stated commitments, and it’s best for a brand or retailer to be public with the gory details of their pursuits. Maybe just not in the annual report.