The plastic monster, or not?
Q: What is your opinion on the following statement: ‘the most sustainable packaging is no packaging’?
“I don’t agree that no packaging is the best solution in terms of environmental impact. Packaging serves a purpose, and that is to protect food and thus reduce food waste. When it helps to prolong the shelf life and reduce food waste, packaging might tip the sustainability balance to a positive outcome, compared to a product without packaging. At the same time, you do need to make active decisions on what materials to employ, what the impact is on the life cycle, and how the end-of-life looks.
I’m convinced we need to take a fact-based, scientific approach in our decision-making, meaning that whatever shows to be the most sustainable choice, that’s what we go for. And sometimes that might even be (recyclable, bio-based) plastic. When you look at the climate impact of glass bottles, for instance, it could be worse than plastic. So, it’s highly important to take a full-lifecycle approach and not solely zoom in on the end-of-life situation.
As companies, politicians or NGOs, we all want to be rational and take the right decision, but we’re always biased by our history, ambitions and outside pressure. So, if consumers are in upheaval because of pollution, littering and the plastic that washes up on the beaches, you feel pressured into taking action against plastics. But when you take into account all the environmental problems that we’re facing, it’s maybe a marginal issue. But it’s visible, easy to understand and easy to get upset about. That’s why I’m convinced that first we need to get our facts right before we have a license to speak.”
Train the trainer
Q: Plastics are indeed a more visible problem, compared to CO2 emissions and air quality, for instance. How do you approach communication and education around these issues – and sustainability overall – at Duni Group?
“If we want to be this fact-based science-based company, we have to convey our messages in a credible way. We are installing a train-the-trainers mindset within the company. At the sustainability department, we are the experts, but we have to make sure our marketing and salespeople are as competent and confident as possible when it comes to discussing sustainability topics. Our objective is that they can answer at least 80% of the questions right away in a customer meeting or discussion. For complex questions, we can step in with our expertise. But I think the quickest and best solution is to have our colleagues able to answer customers’ questions and help them in turn with how to communicate about this (note: Duni Group mainly sells in a B2B context). For example, if one of our customers decides to switch from plastic bowls to renewable fiber-based bowls for salads, it’s our job to coach them. We help them with how they can communicate this to their consumers and provide arguments to why this is a good, sustainable choice. The key aspect here is the competence and the trust that our salespeople convey.
And talking about trust, for me that is really the currency for sustainability achievements. In fact, when shaping our strategies, we often refer to a model by Frances Frei, Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School. She states that trust has three core drivers: empathy, authenticity and logic. First, we need to understand our stakeholders and be genuinely interested in them. Second, when understanding their issues, we need to act. And third, we need to communicate what we’re doing back to our stakeholders, in a meaningful way. And that’s how we can close the loop, position ourselves as a more valuable partner to our customers. For me, that is a long-term competitive strategy.”
Towards a sustainable future
Q: How do you envision the future of sustainability?
“The COVID-19 pandemic made us understand that if push comes to shove, we can implement change; we can stop flying, we can stop going to the office, we can lock ourselves down in our homes. So, I perceive the pandemic as an enabler of sustainable action. Hopefully, when we get back to some form of normalcy, rebuilding societies, sustainability takes center stage in the new solutions that will be implemented. It’s a little bit like a white slate where you can do things differently and do them right.
I think the future will be all about providing customers with solutions that allow them to continue their way of life without compromising on sustainability. In the end, we still need to go to the office, buy food, hop on a train, or buy a cup of coffee. Our solutions should be as smart as possible, enabling consumers to live their lives while reducing the overall sustainability impact. My biggest worry is that not all stakeholders are on the same page. Think for example about regulators and politicians, that are impatient and want to be seen to take decisions but take a narrow perspective. Like I mentioned with the plastics; not all plastics are bad and should be banned. There is a lot of unclarity, and we need to be careful with that. Oh well, back to the facts. Back to the science…”
In summary, Erik advocates a more fact-based scientific approach towards decision-making around the topic of sustainability. When it comes to packaging, for example, one needs to consider the full lifecycle instead of solely focusing on the end-of-life situation. Duni Group invests in training salespeople to ensure they are competent and convey trust when talking about sustainability topics. And finally, Erik is positive towards the future, seeing COVID-19 as an enabler of sustainable change.
Hungry for more? Stay tuned as we will release more ‘Conscious Consumption’ interviews in the coming weeks!