Solving the challenges of sustainable development is a complex task that cannot be tackled in isolation. It encompasses a wide range of economic, social, and environmental issues, and addressing these challenges requires coordinated efforts and collaboration among multiple stakeholders, even if their short-term objectives may seem to compete. This is crucial to prevent growth and innovation in one area from inadvertently causing negative consequences elsewhere.

Nowhere is this need for collaboration more apparent than in the pursuit of sustainable packaging solutions. Achieving sustainability in packaging demands the involvement of the entire value chain, including manufacturers, packaging providers, coding and marking suppliers, retailers, end-users, and waste and recycling companies. While each stakeholder in this extensive ecosystem possesses their own domain expertise, businesses must look beyond localized innovation and work together to tackle the complexity, scale, standardization, and behavioral changes required to address a systemic problem. As Lee Metters, Group Business Development Director at Domino Printing Sciences, emphasizes, true progress in sustainability necessitates a system-level approach.

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The sustainability paradox

In their paper ‘The Facets of the Sustainability Paradox,’ Argento, Broccardo, and Truant underscore the fact that even within a single organization, there can be varied interpretations of sustainability based on an individual’s role and perceptions. These differing interpretations can influence how sustainability is put into practice and monitored. The authors emphasize the importance of establishing a common understanding and shared expectations regarding the three facets of sustainability: financial, social, and environmental.

If the concept of sustainability already presents challenges within a single organization, it becomes evident that, on a macro level, developing solutions for sustainable packaging will necessitate broader collaboration for several reasons:

Complexity: The packaging industry involves a wide range of stakeholders, including manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, consumers, and recyclers. To create sustainable solutions, all these players must work towards a common goal, which can be challenging as the effectiveness of individual efforts often falls outside of a business’s direct control. For example, while brands are expected to take responsibility for the packaging they introduce, they have limited influence over waste and recycling practices or consumer behavior after a purchase is made.

Standardization: Achieving sustainability in packaging requires a shift across the entire industry towards using more environmentally-friendly materials. This shift demands standardization across the industry. Without collaboration and consensus on the definition of sustainable packaging and how to achieve it, there’s a risk of confusion, duplicated efforts, and conflicting messages.

Broader Understanding and Agreement: There is a need for a broader understanding and agreement on the definition of sustainability. Balancing initiatives to reduce plastic packaging, for example, with potential impacts on food waste and the carbon cost of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in food is essential. A decision to save a small amount of packaging might inadvertently increase food waste, offsetting sustainability efforts.

Scale: The packaging industry is vast and operates on a global scale. Achieving sustainability in packaging at this level is a significant challenge that requires collaboration among different regions and stakeholders. Collaborative efforts enable organizations to share best practices, harness economies of scale, and foster innovation.

Consumer Behavior: Consumers play a pivotal role in the success of sustainable packaging. They need to understand the importance of sustainability, know how to recycle and dispose of packaging properly, and be willing to invest in sustainable options. Collaboration among industry players, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can help educate and incentivize consumers to adopt more sustainable behaviors.

What is open innovation?

Open innovation represents a mindset that involves being open to sharing and receiving information, collaborating with various individuals, businesses, and institutions to advance common objectives. It entails the sharing of knowledge and information about problems and actively seeking solutions and suggestions from external sources beyond a single organization.

This concept of open innovation may challenge traditional business practices, where internal knowledge and expertise are often closely guarded as a competitive advantage or intellectual property, and innovation is kept secret. However, open innovation is essential when it comes to sustainable development. To make substantial changes that benefit everyone, issues and solutions must be developed within the context of the entire value chain.

A recent report by Bain & Co and the World Economic Forum on global food system transformation emphasizes the significance of “committed collaboration” in scaling up promising demonstration models and achieving the collective goal of improving food systems more rapidly. The report underscores that addressing today’s food system challenges requires the simultaneous activation of various levers, including government policy, public-private partnerships, financing, technology innovation, corporate action, and multi-stakeholder coalitions. Collaborative efforts across these areas can drive large-scale changes at the country level and accelerate food system transformation.

Open innovation through collaboration

The University of Cambridge’s Open Innovation Forum serves as a practical example of open innovation in action. This consortium brings together various food and beverage companies to share ideas, innovations, and collaborative approaches to problem-solving. The group includes major manufacturers, organizations from across the food and beverage industry, such as ingredients and materials suppliers, technology providers, brand owners, retailers, and waste and recycling companies.

Dominic Oughton highlights the value of this forum, emphasizing how it successfully integrates different perspectives along the entire value chain. The importance of this collaboration becomes evident when addressing complex challenges like sustainability, which inherently require a system-level approach that can’t be permanently resolved through one-to-one interactions between any two players in the system.

The challenge of transitioning to sustainable packaging is one that affects the entire industry, and no single entity owns more than a small part of the problem. Proposing individual changes can sometimes have unintended negative consequences on a larger scale. For Domino, participation in the Open Innovation Forum provides a broader perspective and establishes connections throughout the supply chain to collectively address the sustainability challenge. Working within this group, where various perspectives are shared and industry views evolve, is crucial to the overall success of addressing global issues related to sustainability.

Sustainable packaging in development

The Open Innovation Forum actively explores various issues related to the adoption of new packaging materials, including compostable and recyclable materials. These considerations involve:

  • Ensuring Packaging Performance: New materials should meet performance requirements without negatively impacting the shelf-life of the products they contain.
  • Compatibility with Manufacturing Technology: Packaging materials must be compatible with manufacturing technology and production lines, ensuring smooth processing and management.
  • Consumer Education: Proper disposal methods should be communicated to consumers to ensure they understand how to handle the material at the end of its life.
  • Appropriate Management by Waste and Recycling Companies: The material must be manageable by waste and recycling companies to facilitate recycling or composting.

The forum also explores challenges related to new packaging systems, such as deposit return systems for recycling and returnable or refillable packaging. These systems demand significant changes in packaging design, management, technology, and traceability throughout the supply chain. Creative solutions for coding, marking, and labeling products are required to assist in usage and disposal.

In all these instances, collaboration between brands, packaging providers, retailers, and technology partners in the food and drink industry is essential. To achieve success, all stakeholders within the packaging value chain must work together to create and validate solutions that are interoperable, not proprietary. This collaboration should involve open architecture that is accessible to everyone, ensuring widespread adoption and implementation of sustainable packaging solutions.

Conclusion

You’re absolutely right. Sustainability is a complex, system-level challenge that cannot be solved in isolation. To make a meaningful impact and develop solutions that benefit society, businesses, and profitability, it’s essential to look beyond individual organizations and collaborate with actors across the entire supply chain. Being open to collaboration and networking is the key to finding sustainable solutions that work effectively without causing negative consequences in downstream processes. By working together and sharing knowledge and expertise, we can collectively address the challenges of sustainability and drive positive change.

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[i] https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/MEDAR-10-2020-1051/full/html.

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