Like most sectors, it's been an interesting year for the packaging industry. With domestic economies faltering, dependency on consumer demand has created various operational challenges for future growth and capital expenditure.
Despite these challenges, the seventh annual PACE conference met in high spirits at London's vast Metropole Hilton hotel. In his keynote speech, Dominic Cakebread, director of packaging services at Canadean, discussed the wider consumer and industry trends with a generally positive outlook. He spoke about a range of issues - global population growth, increasing urbanisation and Westernisation, the fragmentation of consumption patterns and growing concern for the environment - as key market drivers in the coming years.
"Overall we see a healthy global growth rate driven by the underlying demographics and consumption patterns in developing regions," he said. "We're also seeing more lightweight and high-performance materials, the increasing use of polymers and polymer combinations, and more individualisation, convenience, single-serve and on-the-go packaging."
This air of optimism was echoed by Fredric Petit, director of sustainability at DSM Engineering. He spoke about food innovation and the role engineering and plastic materials can play in long-term sustainability, arguing that the industry must find a groove between three very different bedfellows.
"It's about profit, people and planet," he said "Companies must play a role in society because they have responsibilities beyond making money. We cannot consider ourselves successful in a society that fails."
Petit's speech emphasised that those obligations, though ethical in nature, are also drivers of growth in a commercial sense. This optimism about how packaging can contribute to collective social issues was shared by many of the forum's participants, including Peter Singleton, a delegate and principle engineer with P&G.
"Packaging saves more than it costs," he said over lunch. "In India almost 0% of what is grown gets wasted. They solve a lot of their problems with packaging. It's the solution, not the problem, and we should be using more of it, not less."
Sustainability featured on the agenda throughout the three days. During a networking event, Mark Caul, technical manager at Tesco and an invited delegate at the forum explained why sustainability occupies such an important position in the industry and how real innovation will be required to tackle it.
"Sustainability will remain on the agenda for many years to come because of its social and commercial impact and its effect on the environment," he said. "More than anything, people need to think about what innovation really means. For me, true innovation is the real game-changing stuff like plastic sandwich packs - the long-term stuff that really changes markets."
Consideration for future packaging design was also on the agenda throughout the forum. David Bishop and Heather McQuaid from PDD, a product design and innovation agency, spoke at length on intelligent packaging in a connected world.
"The next generation of intelligent packaging, will be one which senses, informs and connects with the customers," McQuaid explained. "Packaging needs to give people a sense of control and increase trust in the brand. If you're thinking about designing the next generation of smart packaging, there are two things you should look to do - identify the economic and technological drivers, and design the product with customer engagement in mind."
Throughout the event, the participants broke up into pre-arranged one-to-one business meetings. This aspect of the forum was vibrant, with cards changing hands and partnerships being initiated. As the meetings developed, other, more-focused presentations were given on topics ranging from bioplastic streams, oxibiogradiable plastics, product safety and packaging delivery.
Elsewhere, Harry Epstein from HAVI Global spoke at length on the benefits of a holistic end-to-end business, whilst Dick de Koning of Budelpack Poortvliet and Jean Baptiste Reubens of Kraft Foods presented on the power of collaboration between brand owner and co-packer.
Despite the pressures of a major downturn, commercial survival alone does not dominate the industry's agenda. While other businesses hoard cash, brand owners, retailers and packaging converters continue to invest in research and development and strive to find ways of solving the social and ecological issues with which they are imbued. The 2012 PACE forum, with its focus on the environment and business strategy, provided an excellent opportunity to tackle these collective issues in an interactive, informal and sociable way.
Upcoming PACE events:
PACE USA, 23-25 May 2012, Miami, US
PACE Asia, 6-8 November 2012, Shanghai, China
PACE Europe, 13-15 February 2013, Prague, Czech Republic
This article was first published in our sister publication Packaging & Converting Intelligence.