Tristanne Davis, Senior Manager, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, looks at how setting corporate sustainability goals can help demonstrate your company's commitment to addressing the climate crisis.
Brands, retailers and even some packaging suppliers are making headlines by setting sustainable packaging goals to achieve by 2025 and 2030. Collective goals like the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and UK Plastics Pact are also picking up steam. More than ever, it is critical for companies to demonstrate via publicly stated goals that they are proactively taking action to tackle critical environmental issues or else companies risk losing their social license to use packaging materials, in particular, plastic.
Goals must propel you from intention to action
Setting sustainable packaging goals is a way to demonstrate that your company is proactively addressing environmental challenges. This helps companies get ahead of legislation, respond to concerns by the NGO community, respond to changing consumer and marketplace preferences, and can help put a company on the path towards implementation and impact. Goals of course, should be more than just words. The best goals are tied to a clear call to action. Despite growing momentum around sustainable packaging, many of the goals we see being set today do not come across as actionable.
Goals versus ‘Statements of Support’
A Goal is an actual commitment to work towards achieving a specific sustainability outcome. The key word here is commitment. An ideal goal includes these elements that help give it some ‘teeth’: a target date, a target achievement, a metric, and a baseline measurement to measure progress against.
Statements of support, by contrast, are signals about the types of changes your company seeks to make, but without the elements of an actual commitment. A way to tell if something is a statement of support versus a goal include use of phrasing like “we strive to,” “we encourage” or “we give preference to.”
“By 2025, our plastic packaging will contain an average of 50% recycled content by weight.”
Statement of Support
“As part of our dedicated commitment to sustainable packaging, we encourage all our suppliers to increase the use of recycled materials, when available.”
Statements often lack a specific target or a clear call to action. They lack details on things like metrics or dates, which is self limiting since there is not a clear path to implementation. It is of course better to have a statement of support than nothing. However, goals are better since they more effectively propel you towards action.
Goals should be tied to specific, desired outcomes
When setting goals, it is good practice to start by considering, ‘What is the job your are hiring the goal to do?’ Tying a goal to a desired outcome helps give credibility to goals from an external viewpoint as well as make them implementable and importantly, exciting for the company’s employees to take on.
This idea can be better understood by looking at the packaging life cycle:
- Sourcing goals express intent on where the material comes from. Your desired outcome may be to decrease dependence on fossil fuel inputs or reduce risk in sourcing.
- Optimization goals express intent on how a package is designed and how it flows through the system. Your desired goals may be to increase efficiency and reduce supply chain emissions.
- Recovery goals express intent on what happens to a package at its end of life. Your intention may be to ensure your packaging fits into the circular economy.
Companies can and should have multiple goals that holistically address sustainable packaging across its life cycle impact categories. However, it’s important also to recognize that there are different desired outcomes between sourcing goals versus optimization and recovery goals.
Despite good intentions, a surprising number of goals are worded in a way that comes off as confusing because they are not tied to specific, desired outcomes. Some goals express multiple sustainability outcomes in the same sentence. We have coined these types of goals “catch-all’ goals. These goals can be tricky.
For example, consider the goal “Use biobased or biodegradable packaging.” Biobased and biodegradable represent two distinct concepts that do not work towards achieving the same outcome. Using biobased materials is a strategy to reduce environmental burdens at the beginning of the life cycle with the desired outcome of responsible sourcing. Using biodegradable materials is a strategy to address what happens at the end of the life cycle with the desired outcome of effective recovery (although typically compostable is the preferred term). These concepts do not work in tandem to achieve one desired outcome and do not belong together in a goal. If you do combine distinct objectives in one sentence, it is advisable to use ‘and’ so as not to suggest a false tradeoff, and to add some additional detail to the sentence to make the distinction clear.
By contrast, goals like “make all packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable” are not confusing because all of these options relate to the desired outcome of recovery. This goal gives flexibility and provides a range of options to achieve a specific desired intent.
Some of these considerations are simply questions of grammar, but these choices are critical in making your intentions and commitments clear. Tying goals to a specific outcome means you can more easily create KPIs and measure your progress. This measurability is critical for meeting your goals since it enables you to track your progress.
These considerations among many others will be addressed at SPC’s upcoming event SPC Engage in London. We will address not only setting good goals, but also how to implement them, moving us from aspiration to impact.