Corporations Change in Response to Consumer Demand
By Elizabeth Lenhard
The Titan Farms peach carrier looks like a charming wood crate but is actually recyclable paperboard. Source: WestRock
Consumers long ago issued a mandate to their products’ manufacturers: Go green or go home.
Those sellers listened. Sustainability has become so mainstream that we see partiers in TV commercials drinking Coors Seltzer “for the rivers.” (Or, to be more precise, for the donation Coors makes to restore 500 gallons of river water for every 12-pack sold).
HelloFresh’s meal kits arrive with both cooking instructions and the announcement, “This meal is brought to you carbon neutral.”
Procter & Gamble has a tab on its website called “Our Impact,” and on the Coca-Cola Company’s home page, only two of the six total elements pertain to beverages. The others? They envision “a world without waste,” supporting communities for “a better shared future,” and a culture that values diversity and inclusion.
Of course, when you look at the websites of forestry industry corporations like Georgia-Pacific, International Paper and WestRock, the sustainability tabs are entire chapters. They’re practically books.
“There is a significant trend toward sustainability in our industry,” said WestRock CEO Steve Voorhees on an American Forestry Conference panel in July. “I see that gaining additional momentum, particularly as a result of recent events. Our supply chains will become more and more circular, and our industry is in a remarkable position to be able to take advantage of that.”
After years of scientific and market research, investment and staffing, corporations have outgrown simple statements about planting trees and reducing emissions. Today’s sustainability policies are all about specificity, nuance and intersectionality. And this is meeting consumers where they are.
“A big aha moment for us was seeing that, finally, consumers are really under- standing that solving our social issues and environmental challenges are completely intertwined,” said Etienne White, vice president at the Sustainable Brands offshoot Brands for Good.
White noted that the true definition of sustainability doesn’t just pertain to climate and environment, but also to social issues.
“Seventy-six percent of consumers believe solving environmental issues will require solving social issues and vice versa,” she said.
That’s why, when Brands for Good identified nine behaviors consumers can change to live more sustainably, it included directives like eating more plants and buying more durable products, as well as supporting women and girls and buying fair trade.
“In terms of a forest focus,” White said, “I think consumers are pretty educated on the need to be purchasing from trustworthy sources when it comes to wood and paper products. But many of our nine behaviors also touch on forests in ways you might not necessarily think. We have a section on buying products that protect habitat stewardship. And the part about buying durable products? Well, wood furniture is a durable product made from a renewable resource. Another behavior is ‘Go Circular.’ That can be choosing a product made from recycled material that you then recycle.”
One of WestRock’s recent innovations is the development of recyclable paperboard gift cards.
Companies Innovate to Accommodate Consumer Preferences
Such holistic thinking has led to some very specific creativity on the part of companies.
A report about recent innovations released by WestRock, for instance, includes recyclable paperboard gift cards that can replace PVC ones, a paperboard “CanCollar” that replaces the dreaded plastic six-pack rings, and a pandemic-friendly takeout food box that can be sealed against tampering during delivery.
Regarding yet another new invention — a peach carrier that looks like a charming wood crate but is actually recyclable paperboard — the report emphasizes its origin with a headline: “Consumers Demand Natural, Sustainable Solution.”
The carton, the report goes on to say, was requested by Titan Farms when the company learned that its plastic packaging was “deterring millennial shoppers. They were voting with their wallets for non-single-use plastic alternative packaging.”
Such productive symbiosis between companies and their consumers is becoming more commonplace. Companies are customizing their innovations for clients who are setting the bar ever higher. And clients are reaching for new heights because of the sophisticated solutions manufacturers are offering.
All of this is forming a movement that not even COVID-19 can stem. In fact, the global pandemic and its ubiquitous effects have only strengthened consumers’ sustainability values, said Brandi Colander, WestRock’s chief sustainability officer. The company conducted a lightning-fast study called the WestRock COVID Pulse “to understand how a rapidly changing landscape may affect consumer perceptions, attitudes and behaviors in regard to packaging.” Among the findings: • In September 2020, 68% of consumers linked brand trust to environmentally friendly packaging, up seven percentage points from November 2019. • In September 2020, 68% of consumers said easily recyclable or compostable packaging impacted overall satisfaction with products, up seven percentage points from November 2019. • And finally, in September 2020, 53% of consumers derived overall satisfaction from packaging with new or innovative features/functions, up, you guessed it, seven percentage points from November 2019.
For many companies, that inventiveness tends to come from both customers and manufacturers.
“Clients are asking for particular solutions, because we’re saying, ‘Bring us your biggest challenges. We want a shot at solving them,’” Colander said. “And WestRock is also going to them, saying, ‘We think this is an area where we can help and scale it for you.’ We have automated solutions, for instance, that help you pack the right-sized box, no matter what’s in it. Particularly as more people are getting products mailed to them, we know nothing is more annoying than getting a tiny item in a big box.”
Another common denominator in consumer-driven innovation is trees. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware — as those in the forestry community have long understood — that managing forests and harvesting trees is the definition of good environmental stewardship, not its antithesis. They’re learning about concepts like carbon sequestration, the circular economy and chain of custody. And they are driving the seemingly subtle (but actually far-reaching) changes explored in the following case studies, which illustrate how forestry companies are partnering with other industries on sustainable innovations.
Georgia-Pacific + Closed Loop Partners
Mixed paper at the Muskogee, Oklahoma recycling facility.
At first glance, Georgia-Pacific’s September 2020 recycling news seemed small. Two of the Atlanta-based corporation’s mills — one in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the other in Muskogee, Oklahoma — had begun accepting polyethylene-coated, single-use cups. The goal was to separate the PE coating from cellulose that could be repurposed, rather than dumped in a landfill.
But take a closer look at the partnerships that spawned this recycling innovation, and you’ll realize that its potential is very, very large.
The players, in addition to Georgia- Pacific, are the Foodservice Packaging Institute and Closed Loop Partners, a New York investment firm that focuses on building the circular economy. The cup-recycling initiative — dubbed NextGen Cup — came from a Closed Loop entity called the NextGen Consortium, which was created to address single-use food packaging waste.
NextGen Consortium’s founding partners? Starbucks and McDonald’s.
Now we’re talking about a whole lot of cups.
“There has always been a hygiene benefit to single-use cups, but also a growing concern about their lack of recyclability. The investments we’ve made at our mills in Wisconsin and Oklahoma have opened the door to address that recyclability concern,” says Georgia-Pacific’s vice president for sustainability, John Mulcahy.
This first, technological step happening in GP’s Wisconsin and Oklahoma plants will likely be a model for others in the industry to follow. Of course, actually getting the cups into the recycling stream will require cultural change within municipalities, purveyors of single-use cups and, ultimately, consumers accustomed to tossing their empty drink containers in the trash.
But Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, said the effort is a worthy one.
“Globally, 250 billion hot and cold fiber cups are distributed each year,” Daly said. “While many cups are potentially recyclable, the vast majority still end up in landfills because of inconsistencies in recycling collection or infrastructure and customer confusion, wasting valuable resources. This signals a huge opportunity to redirect waste and maximize the value of materials already flowing through our supply chains.”
The impact can be so big, Daly said, that it’s worth pursuing even if it’s got an expiration date. And this PE-separating innovation does have one. In fact, it was created as a mere placeholder while Georgia-Pacific and Closed Loop work on developing the real prize — a “next-generation paper cup” in which the polyethylene coating will be replaced by recyclable and/or compostable material.
“While we are very enthusiastic about the sustainability attributes of next- generation cups that have replaced the PE coating,” Daly explained, “these cups will take time to scale and will co-exist with PE-coated cups in the near term. It’s important to create pathways for the recovery of all fiber cups, whether PE-coated or next generation.”
In other words, recycling PE-lined cups is a microsolution paving the way for a bigger one. This is the way of sustainability efforts these days — they are pointed and always bent on reinventing themselves. But on a scale as large as this one, their impact can still be huge.
International Paper + Raw Protein Companies
Left: JuneShine’s paperboard box packaging replaces plastic six-pack holders. Top: The paperboard CanCollar; one of WestRock’s many new innovations.
International Paper’s solution for a group of anonymous raw protein companies defies our usual way of thinking about sustainability. (Raw protein, by the way, is the industry term for meat.)
Washing and reusing a container — even if it is a plastic one made from fossil fuels — must surely be preferable to using a single-use, corrugated one, right?
The answer by several different metrics is actually a resounding nope.
The Memphis, Tennessee-based packaging, pulp and paper company developed the corrugated containers at the behest of “many of our customers who wanted a renewable, recyclable alternative to Returnable Plastic Container trays used for distributing raw protein between protein producers and retail locations,” explained International Paper’s chief sustainability officer, Sophie Beckham.
One reason for this request was to improve food safety. Returnable Plastic Containers (RPCs), even after washing, can be a source of cross-contamination. But all other aspects of this innovation earn sustainability points, as outlined by a case study shared by International Paper: • Corrugated raw protein containers are renewable, recyclable and compostable. • Unlike RPCs, corrugated packaging needn’t be returned to its source for washing and re-filling. That means fewer emissions from freight trucks. Eliminating washing cuts down on water usage as well. • The corrugated containers also have less volume and weight than RPCs, requiring 70% less freight space. “For every trailer of corrugated trays unloaded,” the case study reports, “producers would have to unload 3.5 trucks of RPCs to move an equal amount of packaged raw protein.”
Not incidentally, these sustainable improvements also amount to financial savings. “Back-hauling RPCs can incur over $1 million in costs for shipping, handling and washing,” the study notes. “Due to the increased efficiency in using customized corrugated trays in the raw protein segment, we can infer that the cost savings to customers is even greater.”
In other words, in addition to fiber sourcing and recyclability, design matters to sustainability efforts.
As Beckham wrote in a GreenBiz op-ed in August of 2020, “Improving the circularity of the value chain begins in the forest with the stewardship of our raw materials, and relies on the sustainable design, production and end use of the fiber-based products we create.”
WestRock + JuneShine
Sustainability was baked into JuneShine’s mission statement from day one. The fact that the emphatically outdoorsy, San Diego-based hard kombucha maker is only three years old probably has a lot to do with that.
“We feel like it’s our duty to take this initiative,” said Josh Lichtman, JuneShine’s director of development and hospitality. He points to the company’s evolving list of sustainability goals, including powering its brewery with 100% renewable energy and incorporating regenerative agriculture into both the business and products.
“More and more,” Lichtman added, “I think companies are moving in that direction. The consumers are driving it. And sometimes, it doesn’t even add additional cost to do the right thing, so it starts be become the norm.”
One goal JuneShine recently met: beginning to phase plastic from its supply chain by replacing its old six- pack holders with paperboard boxes made by the Atlanta-based packaging company WestRock. “JuneShine was very specific with their needs and goals,” observes Courtney James, WestRock’s corporate communications manager. “They came to us because we are a partner and a collaborator, not just a box supplier. As a partner, we do everything from placing research and development teams in customers’ facilities to giving companies a direct line to our director of sustainability.”
A result of this relationship, what WestRock calls “listening hard,” led the company to facilitate a collaboration between JuneShine and the National Forest Foundation. It means that when your kombucha arrives in a box that says “This box plants trees,” the statement is certifiably true.
JuneShine makes no bones about the fact that a dispassionate packaging supplier wouldn’t have passed muster. They wanted a relationship, one in which both client and manufacturer were incentivized to literally think outside the box.
As JuneShine's director of marketing, Annie Atwell, put in a 2019 interview with WestRock's David Hayslette, "We spent a lot of time with the WestRock [Global Reporting Initiative] report, and we were impressed with the depth of knowledge and commitment to sustainability — from responsible forestry to supply chain. When we met with you, we felt you really listened to our goals. You seemed to understand us.”
When it comes to sustainability these days, many consumers will accept nothing less than such understanding. ■ Elizabeth Lenhard, a freelance features journalist, frequently writes about Southern food and culture. She lives and works in Decatur, Georgia.
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com