Perceptions of sustainability

Engineering Director
Senior Strategist

The growing need for sustainable products

Amid ever-growing concerns about climate change and the environment, more and more companies and consumers are realizing sustainability is more than just a buzzword and are embracing it as a core value.

At the same time, according to a recent Smart Design survey, many people are still confused about what sustainability means, including the pros and cons of different materials, and how to recycle different packages (Yes, leave the bottle cap on when you put it in the bin). How can brand leaders and designers clear up widespread misunderstanding about sustainability—and, along with consumers, help create a world of products that are more eco-friendly?

The third Smart Salon of 2021, Perceptions of Sustainability, brought together three experts in the field with corporate, nonprofit and academic backgrounds. In our conversation, we discussed the importance of thinking long term about sustainability, why collaboration is critical to achieve sustainable goals, and how to promote recycling.

Watch the entire session featuring (clockwise from the left) Smart Design host Katherine Eisenberg with Carolina Leonhardt, Kelly Cramer, Charlie Paradise, and Scott Boylston.

Consumer Packaging Myths

Perceptions of sustainability

Four insights for brands

Get our quick thought-starter guide
Consumer Packaging Myths

Perceptions of sustainability

Four insights for brands

Get our quick thought-starter guide

Our Panelists

Scott Boylston worked in the cosmetic packaging industry for more than a decade and is currently graduate coordinator at the Design for Sustainability Program at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Kelly Cramer is a director at GreenBlue, an environmental nonprofit concerned with sustainable materials management who leads the organization’s How2Recycle initiative, a standardized on-packaging labeling system for packaging recycling.

Carolina Leonhardt is sustainability manager at Clif Bar & Company. Carolina manages sustainability initiatives, communications and employee engagement within the areas of climate and energy, zero waste, sustainable sourcing and natural resource conservation.

Here are the key takeaways from the evening’s conversations:

Seek a broad range of solutions

Sustainability is a complex topic “with many layers of thinking about how we manage and value materials as a society and how we consume things,” Kelly Cramer acknowledged, adding that packaging, in particular, is “now connected to the sale of all products on Earth.” Recycling is one of many approaches and a turnkey solution that companies can embrace, she continues, but “it’s not going to fix all the problems.”

Carolina Leonhardt agrees. Although packaging is a smaller part of the carbon footprint, it’s very tangible for consumers, and Clif Bar’s development of a compostable wrapper is therefore important, along with sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices. But “there’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution,” she admitted. “Getting a technically compostable wrapper out to market, while a major feat, is really only half the battle.”

Help people see the big picture—and recycle the right way

An array of sustainability messages and recycling instructions are actually leaving many consumers in doubt. As such, Leonhardt believes it is up to the companies themselves to inform consumers about their products and what to do with the packaging, as “they are the first step and the most critical part, and we want to connect all the dots for them.”

Scott Boylston also wants to change people’s mindsets and perceptions. “An apple core and a pen cap are literally nothing alike,” he pointed out by way of example. “Yet in our minds, they’re both labeled as garbage and must be eliminated. We have to dive into the way we think about the value of such things.”

To empower people to get behind recycling, Cramer urges brands and retailers to both create sustainable packaging goals and use the How2Recycle label on packaging. Her advice to consumers is to get involved and prevent contamination by learning about their local programs rather than “wish-cycling,” or “assuming that elves will take care of every little piece of everything [they] own.”

Be open about sustainability initiatives and practices

Boylston—who jokingly refers to sustainability as the “S” word—thinks it’s important to make complex sustainability concepts and solutions more accessible. Otherwise, shifting rules and regulations about common sustainability actions frustrate many people. “When something changes, they just want to throw their hands up. The conversation goes sideways fast.”

To counter the confusion, Cramer says that companies are “realizing how important it is to be transparent” about these issues, noting that there’s more scrutiny about packaging and recycling over the last few years. “Do they have the goal to transparently communicate recyclability to consumers?” she asks, as even the How2Recycle “not yet recyclable” label is valued by consumers as it empowers consumers to throw packages in the trash and prevents contamination in the recycling stream. If so, she recommends that brands commit resources to implementing these programs.

Overall, brands need to be honest and forthright about these issues, even if there are no solutions yet or the company encounters hiccups along the way, Leonhardt believes. “Authentic communication and messaging is so important,” she explained. “It shows that we are actively working toward something and sharing our progress with consumers.”

Overall, brands need to be honest and open and forthright about how they are tackling sustainability,” Leonhardt recommended. “It shows that you’re working toward something, even if there are challenges along the way.”

Collaborate to maximize impact

One thing all our panelists agreed on was that collaboration is key to growing sustainable practices. For example, Clif Bar fosters alliances with “all the parts of the system,” including municipalities, haulers, composters and other stakeholders. “We learn and engage with them and show up to advocate as a business,” Leonhardt noted.

For Cramer, How2Recycle is “essentially a collaboration success story—a rare instance within the circular economy of adoption at scale with an impact on packaging.” She recalled the start of the initiative in 2012 [CQ], when 12 companies came together to combat greenwashing. And today, the program is “issuing labels for over 224 products per day.”

Boylston and his students take on collaborative projects through the school’s SCADpro program. The partnership “allows us to work with companies and organizations across every single discipline.” Projects run the gamut from helping farmers in Nigeria safely transport tomatoes to figuring out how a beer importer could recycle glass to support resilient cities.

Conclusion

In order to reach sustainability goals, as Leonhardt suggested, companies must be bold and ambitious and think long term, because “it’s not going to happen overnight.” Yet, there’s good reason to be optimistic about making progress and achieving a more eco-friendly world. “We can create sensible policies,” added Boylston. “It’s not just the right thing to do—to be more mindful and purposeful—but also a massive business opportunity.”

Tools for now

Think big about sustainability solutions

Recycling, composting and sustainable packaging are all critical, but devise solutions in the broader context of the interconnected, circular economy. Consider how we manage and value materials and how, as a society, we consume things.

Make sure people are on board with eco-friendly practices

Give consumers accurate, consistent information and instructions to avoid confusion. And encourage them to find out more about how to recycle as local programs differ widely.

Talk about your brand’s sustainability bona fides

Honesty and transparency help companies build trust with consumers. Show them you’re working toward long-term sustainable goals—even if there are bumps along the way.

Forming partnerships and alliances will help get you there

Collaboration is needed to grow sustainable practices across the entire system and between industries. Working together will promote bolder, more ambitious solutions and greater impact.

Glossary

Sustainability

A complex and multifaceted term, sustainability refers to the capacity for Earth’s biosphere and human civilization to co-exist, and the ecological, economic, political and cultural policies to meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations.

Circular economy

A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Compostable

A material that will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost (e.g., soil-conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner (i.e., in approximately the same time as the materials with which it is composted) in an appropriate composting facility, or in a home compost pile or device.

Degradable (including biodegradable)

The entire item will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal. For most packaging however, customary disposal includes landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities which do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound than they actually are, with the goal of deceiving consumers.

Wish-cycling

the practice of tossing items in the recycling bin with the hopes they will be recycled but not knowing for sure (also known as “aspirational“ recycling).

Industrial composters

Large-scale composting facilities capable of handling a very high volume of organic waste, as opposed to private or home composting of organic waste from one household or facility. These facilities provide an ideal composting environment with appropriate heat and moisture, enabling the composting of materials that would not break down otherwise.

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