The sustainability industry is no stranger to collaboration, and sustainable packaging is no exception. Finding solutions to sustainability challenges often requires stakeholder engagement across diverse organizations. How do we make the most out of these efforts, especially in the face of competing motivation?
In December 2013, I participated in two meetings with similar goals: increase packaging recovery and reduce impact. At both meetings, the strategies for reaching these goals included improving recycling infrastructure, examining new recovery technologies and designing packaging to minimize life cycle impacts. Both events used moderators and informal tabletop discussions to gather information from participants working across the sustainability industry.
The Southeast Recycling Development Council’s (SERDC) Paper & Packaging Symposium kicked off conversations to improve packaging recovery in the southeast. SERDC unites 11 states in the southeast to increase recycling as an important part of the region’s economy. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery’s (CalRecycle) packaging workshop gathered information as a foundation for the state’s effort to reach 75 percent waste diversion by 2020, a new legislative requirement.
I left both events with a positive outlook and excitement to continue participating in the ongoing conversations. Although on separate sides of the country, the events left me with similar takeaways.
There is great power in collaboration and collective action, but there are also great hurdles. How do we prevent “collaboration” from becoming a meaningless buzzword? How do we move conversations beyond initial excitement to follow-through? How do we make new efforts different from previous false starts? How do we prevent duplication of efforts?
Any collective effort first requires acknowledgement—and agreement—on a problem or need. Some might say “the grass is brown” while others say it is “not green.” Defining the problem may be difficult when those involved are viewing the issue through different lenses. Meaningful collaborative action requires us to sit across the table with those who may disagree, reconcile our competing views and acknowledge our individual motivations.
Both the CalRecycle and SERDC events defined the problem as “increasing recovery and reducing environmental impact and waste.” The individual needs, and lenses, of these two regions mean the outcomes may look very different in the end.
Successful collaboration needs follow-through, and follow-through needs leadership. Like many other types of issues, we cannot simply talk our way to a solution. We have to define a path and move forward, putting that plan into action.
The Institute of Conservation Leadership (ICL) highlights important leadership qualities for coalitions and collaboratives in their recent report, The Less Visible Leader. The ICL notes that leaders must allow for twists and turns, build relationships and not constrict success by over structuring a process. Ultimately, there is some ambiguity in the collaborative process. Patience, listening skills and an open atmosphere are key.
For the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), meaningful collaboration began with our definition of sustainable packaging, which is the common framework that guides our work forward. The SPC refers to our approach as the “collaborative consulting” model. People on our staff use their packaging and project management expertise to harness the talents and unique viewpoints of members to work towards the SPC’s goals. Our members are experts in their fields who often have “day jobs” in addition to their contribution to the SPC. It is our responsibility to make collaboration count. Each SPC project and collaboration presents a new opportunity to perfect the model.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition looks forward to participating in, and leading, future sustainability collaborations. Our SPC Spring Conference is one of the most effective means of collaborative action in the sustainable packaging field. This year’s sessions will build on the theme of “Driving Innovation Through Leadership,” which cuts to the heart of what the SPC, and similar coalitions, seek to accomplish. Attendees can expect takeaways to drive action in their own companies as well as in the SPC’s industry-driven projects. We look forward to working with you March 25-27 in Seattle, WA.
Author Danielle Peacock is project associate at GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For more information about the SPC, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.