September 27, 2019
“To whom much is given, much is expected.”
At the risk of sounding melodramatic and understanding that ship may have already sailed right out of the gate, I truly believe those words. Simply by the fact that you are reading these words today most likely means you work for a successful company and would be considered by many to be a successful, fortunate person.
I believe that comes with a responsibility to try and do the right thing when it comes to our society and our planet. Those words, “do the right thing,” also happen to be the key words in our guiding principle at Sonoco.
But, doing the right thing, is not always easy. And there will at times be debate about what the right thing is. That is certainly the case when you are discussing sustainability. On this issue, like so many others, there are different, valid perspectives. And like most complex issues, the answer will most likely require multiple, interconnected solutions.
So, what is the right thing when it comes to sustainability? Sometimes simply having the will to do the right thing, even if you reach consensus, is not easy. We may face legislative, technical, infrastructure, financial or socio-economic obstacles.
There’s a quote I believe is especially appropriate when it comes to a discussion around sustainability and food waste—"Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” It will take a village. As companies involved in packaging, recycling, or food production, we are all looking for answers to questions being asked by our shareholders, analysts, journalists, customers and consumers around the use of plastic. The ultimate solution demands innovation throughout the supply chain, and as leaders of our organizations, we need to be leading the conversation on these issues.
There are so many sides to consider on this issue of sustainability. All plastics are bad. Is that really the case? If the elimination of plastics increases food waste, which increases greenhouse gases, which negatively impacts climate change, is the complete elimination of plastics the right thing? Aluminum is the solution. Is that right? Nothing against aluminum, we use it in some of our products, and it has a place in packaging, but it’s not perfect either. Aluminum is made from bauxite, which has to be mined, and bauxite mines have their own environmental issues. Aluminum production also contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions each year.
Granted, I am taking an extreme position simply to make a point. This is a complex issue, with unintended consequences around every turn that need to be taken into consideration, and there is no silver bullet. But that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t try. We owe it to our planet and to future generations to figure this out.
If you follow the management consultant and author, Simon Sinek, you are probably familiar with something he calls the Golden Circle. The primary goal of the Golden Circle exercise is to help a company, or any group really, find its purpose, or it’s “why”, while also tackling the “what” and the “how”.
Speaking on behalf of the packaging and food industry at large, I feel pretty confident about our “why.” Others may say it differently, but to me the gist of our “why”, is to preserve and protect our planet, while reducing the amount of hunger in the world. That’s a pretty lofty purpose, but goals like these stretch us, and hopefully capture the hearts and minds of people involved in the mission.
In terms of the “what”, again there are no doubt different ways to say this, but for me our “what” is creating more sustainable packaging, improving our recycling processes and infrastructure, and reducing food waste.
Our greatest challenge in my mind, is our “how.” Let’s see if any of the following sound familiar:
We will use 75% post-consumer recycled material in our packaging by 2030.
We will double the use of recycled resin in our plastic packaging by 2025.
We will ensure 90% of packaging is recyclable, or there are programs in place to develop the ability to recycle it.
Those are just a few of the commitments being made by companies around the world. No doubt these are all great, worthy, aspirational goals being announced by a wide range of companies. But how do we really get there?
“How” requires new technologies, new approaches, new ways of doing things. It requires changes in consumer behavior. “How” is hard. But things that are hard are worth doing. And everyone in the industry is looking for the “how.”
I believe everyone in the packaging and food production business is committed and passionate about finding solutions around sustainability. And much of the focus is naturally going to be on packaging and recycling, as it should be. But I would like to take a few minutes to turn the spotlight on what I happen to believe is actually the most important aspect of this discussion, and that is food waste. And I say this for two reasons. One is just the human element of this issue which can be pushed to the side sometimes in corporate America. Companies are focused on trying to grow, to return value to shareholders and to reach financial targets. But I like to believe as I referenced earlier, at some point it’s still about doing the right thing. In today’s world I know that can sound naïve and overly idealistic, but it doesn’t make it wrong.
As a publicly-traded company, we talk to financial analysts almost daily. I think I can safely say that their primary focus is on the future of packaging, and which form is going to be a winner. We don’t happen to believe there is only going to be one solution, but that’s just us. Food waste is probably not on their radar, and I get that. But it needs to be on someone’s radar when people are starving around the world for no good reason. And food waste, by most accounts, is a greater contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change than packaging, which is really the ultimate issue here when it’s all said and done. Packaging, in whatever form it may take, is a major part of the solution to food waste. We just don’t believe you can disconnect the food waste discussion from the sustainability discussion.
We have the technology and the infrastructure so that no family or child should go hungry. Americans throw away billions of pounds of food each year, worth billions of dollars and enough to feed millions of people. In fact, if we were able to recover all our wasted food, we could provide a 2,000-calorie diet to 84% of the population, according a recent report on food waste by Johns Hopkins University.
And food waste affects more than you might think. Getting food to our tables eats up 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50% of U.S. land, and swallows 80% of freshwater consumed in the United States. What if we could find ways to extend the freshness and distribution life of fruits and vegetables by two to three days, or even more? Extending shelf life is a top priority for customers and retailers. Just for fresh produce, there is $15.6 billion in spoilage at retail—improving shelf life by one day is worth approximately $1.8 billion.
Forty million people live in a food insecure household in the United States alone: that’s one 1 in 8. We can do better. We must do better.
What if we could find ways to reimagine the entire fresh food lifecycle from planting to consumption, all while dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of the entire supply chain?
At Sonoco, we have created a partnership with Clemson University called Sonoco FRESH. Our mission is to deliver breakthroughs to help the entire packaging industry and ultimately to have a major impact on the reduction of food waste, while increasing access to fresh, nutritional foods for millions of people. We believe this partnership has the potential to deliver breakthroughs by discovering new technologies and new forms of packaging that can optimize the fresh food lifecycle. For us, that means taking a holistic look at the entire lifecycle, and working to identify opportunities to reimagine processes, science and technologies associated with harvesting, packaging, the supply chain and consumer perception.
Everyone who cares about this issue is trying to figure it out in their own ways. How do we solve the problem before us? How do we address one of the biggest issues of a generation, an issue that has an impact on the future of our planet and on generations to come?
This is a very personal thing for me. I have been blessed to have eight grandchildren. I want them to have a great life and to live in a clean, vibrant, inspiring world. And I believe when you bring curious, intelligent, passionate people together, we can figure this out. Mother Theresa, someone who knew a little bit about purpose and change said, “I alone cannot change the world, but i can cast a stone based on my own actions to create ripples of change.” I believe that is our challenge. We have the collective ability and responsibility to create positive ripples of change that can reverberate throughout our organizations and indeed, the world. To whom much is given, much is expected.