The current American political climate well positions business to demonstrate leadership in sustainability by filling both a void and a need.
The current federal administration drives an agenda of deregulation to maximize profits for business in a free market. This is reflected by many obvious examples, including the appointments of individuals who are focused on promoting the immediate economy rather than long-term environmental and social concerns, and by separating ourselves from most of the world by leaving the Paris Agreement (aka the Paris climate accord).
The responsibilities largely ignored, and even denied, by the U.S. federal government demonstrates a large contrast with the millennial generation. This contrast creates the opportunity for businesses to make a significant environmental impact, and profit, by announcing major sustainability commitments over the next few years.
The growing population of powerful millennial consumers is largely environmentally conscious. Younger customers don’t want excess and complex packaging. They want something easy to open, easily recyclable, something with a low carbon footprint and made with recycled content. Recent research has shown that 75% of millennials expect brands to demonstrate social responsibility, and more than half attempt to buy products from companies that support causes they care about. In many instances, these demands have only become louder since Nov. 8. By 2018, these younger consumers will fully cement their foothold in the commercial market, contributing a record breaking $3.39 trillion in annual spending power.
In response to the void created by today’s political climate and the expressed needs of the powerful and growing millennials, industry is well poised to promote positive change and profit. Several large brands and retailers have already publicly committed to ambitious sustainability goals, many of which are rooted in sustainable packaging:
• Target centers its sustainability goals on packaging. By 2020, it will feature the consumer facing How2Recycle label on all private-label packaging. The retailer will also source all paper from sustainably managed forests and eliminate expanded polystyrene from its private brand packaging by 2022.
• Wal-Mart announced its goal of using 100% recyclable packaging for all private-label brands by 2025. By 2030, Wal-Mart also aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one gigaton, the equivalent of taking 211 million cars off the road for an entire year.
• Similarly, Unilever, which owns brands such as Dove, Axe, Ben & Jerry’s and Vaseline announced all plastic packaging will be either fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
• Likewise, PepsiCo—owner of Quaker Oats, Tropicana, Lay’s and many other brands—will be designing 100% of its packaging to be recoverable or recyclable by 2025. In addition, it will also work towards increasing packaging recovery and recycling rates.
The fact that these power players are publically setting new standards will likely encourage other brands to follow and initiate a domino effect of sustainably minded packaging.
The success of brands and retailers is vital to the national economy. In 2016, the retail industry alone comprised two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Fortunately, corporate sustainability goals have transitioned from an afterthought to a primary driving force.
A recent study by Arabesque and University of Oxford found that 90% of 200 companies with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards have lower cost of capital. Additionally, 88% result in better operational performance, and 80% demonstrate a positive correlation between higher stock performance and good sustainability practices.
The large disconnect between our political climate and the contrasting view of many younger consumers sets the stage for brand owners to demonstrate leadership in sustainability. The time is ripe for industry to prove that lofty packaging sustainability goals can be not only good business but can move the needle and make real, positive change. With a deluge of more easily recoverable packaging and industry efforts to increase national recycling rates above the 34% it has been hovering around for the last several years, the future seems bright for landfill diversion.
The time is now. The environment benefits from powerful players are setting a new precedent for packaging sustainability and creating the opportunity for greater material recovery. Consumers win by having their needs addressed, allowing them to be more environmentally conscious and responsive. Industry wins by greater consumer loyalty and larger profits.
Caroline Cox is project associate, at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, focusing on the How2Recycle program. She holds a B.S. in Psychology and two minors in Environmental Studies and Spanish. Cox is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in Natural Resources from Virginia Tech. Previously, she worked in marketing and management for a real estate firm, led a sustainable agriculture camp for local youth, and studied in the Ecuadorian highlands of the Andes and lowlands of the rainforest.