As one of the most successful brand owners in the world, even Nestlé is realising that to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to packaging and sustainability, they have to make some adjustments in their packaging process.

“I’m particularly motivated by thinking about our brands and thinking about the design stage earlier. The best choices are made when thinking things through early, when you may not then have anything to reduce or change,” explains Betsy Cohen, vice-president of sustainability.

Whilst in her role, Cohen has been described as a ‘corporate futurist’. Her job involves aligning all the different groups through Nestlé, helping them work together and open up the communication lines, ensuring they get the most from each individual’s expertise.

“People have to realise that the water bottle will get to a point when it can’t get any thinner. Packaging is there to serve a purpose.”

Julie Phillips, group strategic manager procurement resinbased packaging, looks after the process more at ground level.

“It’s my responsibility to understand the technologies, drivers and market changes in order to help each division reach best in class status, strategic partnerships, highend procurement, benchmarking innovation, and sustainability.”

Nestlé claims that it has always been energy efficient, though it was under a different guise.

“We call it efficient manufacturing or cost saving. We call it many things but we’ve always been into light weighting and source reduction. We’ve done a lot of improvements over the years that we didn’t talk about at the time, but now because of retailer and consumer interest we are letting them know of our practices.”

Nestlé and others are going to have to change tack from their traditional ‘reduce and reuse’ mantra.

“People have to realise that the water bottle will get to a point when it can’t get any thinner. Packaging is there to serve a purpose. It’s there to protect the food or the product, from the point of manufacture to the point when it’s consumed – it’s there for a reason.”

So how else can the company utilise responsible practises without reducing their packaging to nothing? Cohen is looking at the process from a holistic stand point. An example she uses on how to reduce emissions and the packager’s carbon footprint is with LED lights.

“We have factories that use LED lighting which has benefits and cost savings, but how does LED lighting relate to other kinds of savings? Or, other energy sources, including renewable energy – how does this fit in with the bigger picture? As I’m able to see what we are doing in one location I can relate it to what we’re doing in another, and connect what we’re doing in Switzerland to what we’re doing around the world. I’ll then see how it adds up in

Need-to-know basis

It’s important to realise that often, too much information on the packaging can be confusing to the consumer.

“Consumers like to know a product is ethical, that it has the benefit of doing something good for the environment. But then, if you tell them the product may not work as well but it’s green and energy efficient, nobody wants to buy it.”

This ethos extends to the retailer too. They are obviously aware of this issue, but how willing are they to risk their profit margins and sales to have a sustainable and green focus?

“Walmart has suggested using a scorecard; a method to evaluate packaging. Corporations have to balance the use of all scarce resources to get product to market: electricity, fossil fuel, water. Furthermore, what if it turns out that your best-selling product has a terrible score – would you have to stop selling it?”

“It comes down to common sense. Look at soup, for example. Dehydrated soup is obviously the most efficient or green way of selling soup, so you get four envelopes in a carton compared to a can with mostly water in it, or the ready-to-eat product with the metal lid, the over cap, the soup and other materials. But if they change everything on the store shelves to dehydrated soup mixes and that’s not what the customer wants, the customer will go elsewhere. They want soup that will fit in with their lunch, has an over cap so it doesn’t splatter and is tasty and easy to prepare. Retailers need to balance consumer convenience with improved packaging. It has to be what they want packaged the best way it can be packaged.”

Teach from the grassroots upwards

“We’ve done a lot of improvements over the years that we didn’t talk about at the time, but now because of retailer and consumer interest we are letting them know of our practices.”

So the next key step is to make sure the customer is aware and ready for the next step. How can we all as an industry encourage the customer to make life easier for brand owners and packagers alike? Efforts are made across the industry, score cards are introduced and products changed in order to try and encourage development. Phillips has also noted a growing trend with consumers, starting with the customers of the future.

“With the younger generation it’s getting there, my 11-yearold daughter made me take a test which tells me how many planets it would take for us to survive if we live in the same way we do now, from my answers it claimed it would take nine planets to support us; she was shocked! Her peers are learning about architecture and green design. It’s very much a way of life for them; she’s very happy to recycle and she asks questions. It’s part of their standard curriculum,” she says.

Education is at the heart of making a change, or as Phillips puts it “a development of awareness” not only of the consumer, but of the brand owner and packager as well.

“The issue is having the courage to take the chance and look at this more closely, and from a marketing point of view if we sometimes add cost because it adds excitement to the retailer and consumer, in the same way we have to look at innovation and improve sustainable packaging and the investment to excite the retailer and the consumers. In each market you have to understand where the retailer is and where the consumer is coming from.”

Welcome change

The key is finding a balance between pushing new technologies and respecting the public’s natural fear of change or the unknown. Traditionally, the consumer is tentative of new packaging products. Nestlé is focused on materials and the different resources they can use to get new and more efficient packaging.

“There’s so much that needs to be done in the way of education and recycling streams,’ says Cohen. ‘Consumers don’t realise that their water and soda bottles become carpet under their feet, or the fibres that insulate their coat; they think that they’re bottles only become bottles again. Water gets a bad reputation, but no one says they’re going to put down their 20oz soda bottle. The bottle and how much work has been done to make it lightweight, and the management of water resources – that is where the hard work goes, which is trickier to publicise.”

If continually striving to cut costs and emissions is being actively encouraged, surely the economic downturn should persuade brand owners to continue the efforts they have already made.

“Realities don’t change but the attention and the priorities are on economic issues right now, and I think that some of the developments of packaging materials are going to be slow,’ says Cohen. ‘In six months to a year the pace will decline but I think it will continue to develop because it has to. We’re all going to have to reassess what to do from 2009 and beyond. One has to recalibrate all the important initiatives and keep lining them up again. We’re going to have to continue learning to use packaging in as many different ways as possibly we can.”