All this talk about the economy, social media and mobile can make it easy for retailers to take their eye off another major industry trend: sustainability. In a wide-ranging Q&A, packaging expert Ken Saeckl, Chief Operating Officer at Gunther Mele and Co-Chairman of NRF’s Sustainable Retailing Consortium, provides an overview of trends in sustainability, how to overcome executives’ concerns about green projects, and what shoppers think about retailers’ efforts. (If you want to know more about shoppers’ thoughts on retail sustainability efforts, join a webinar on March 24 as they discuss new research.)
The moral of the story: perhaps, it is easy – and profitable – to be green.
In your opinion, what does the past, present, future of eco-friendly packaging look like for retailers? Where have we come from and where are we going next?
Eco-friendly packaging options have been developed mainly in response to consumer sentiment but also as a result of growing political involvement. I expect that the number of options will continue to grow while the retail marketplace determines which products can best serve the needs of being reliable as packaging, continue to provide the ability to project strong brand image and also meeting consumer expectations as they relate to environmental sustainability. As with any development cycle, some options will quickly fall out of favor, while others will assume a strong following.
As a packaging company, tell me how sustainability plays a role in your company’s product offerings.
In many cases there are not clear-cut answers as to what makes a product more environmentally–friendly than another. For example, in the plastic vs. paper bag debate, have critics considered the carbon footprint to not only manufacture the product, but also to recycle it? In other cases there are valid arguments to differing opinions. For this reason, at Gunther Mele, we do not limit ourselves to any particular packaging option; rather we are always prepared to discuss all options with retailers, to review all relevant facts as to a product’s make-up, its recycle-ability and reusability. We choose not to make decisions for retailers, rather to provide a range of options and the knowledge so that retailers can make their own informed choice that is right for their business.
You attended NRF’s Annual Convention earlier this year as a Co-Chairman of NRF’s Sustainable Retailing Consortium. What were the big trends or discussions this year that you experienced from the education and networking?
It was clear to me as I walked the show floor and had discussions with retailers that the economic challenges that we have been facing recently have done nothing to reduce the attention being paid to the issue of environmental sustainability. Many retailers have begun to understand that in addition to being viewed as a good corporate citizen, and to being viewed as responsive to consumer sentiment, there can be an increased element of profitability to a properly executed sustainability program.
A blog post we published a couple of weeks ago about how Moosejaw uses packaging as an extension of its brand got a lot of buzz. How do you think that packaging can help – or hurt – retailers’ branding efforts?
At Gunther Mele, we have been helping retailers build their brands through packaging for over 150 years! We believe that retail packaging should be a natural extension of a retailer’s brand image. Well designed packaging can be very impressionable to the consumer, while poorly designed or uncoordinated packaging sends no discernible message. Moosejaw has also excelled in that it is using its packaging to deliver a message to the consumer about how it recycles its cartons, and by generating some excitement in doing so.
What are the biggest concerns you think retail executives have over sustainability, and how can those hurdles be overcome?
If we are speaking about retailers that have not yet embarked on an environmental sustainability program, I think the largest hurdle to getting started is the perceived cost concern. There is always a concern that setting up a strategic program like this will entail a large cost outlay. The response to this concern was driven home in our recent Sustainability panel discussion held at NRF’s Annual Convention in January where the consensus viewpoint was that the retailer should just get started. Start slow, start small, but get started and you will quickly see the benefits which will enable you to overcome the perceived hurdles.
How have you seen the appetite for sustainability change among retailers over the past 5 years?
The appetite for sustainability has definitely grown over the past 5 years. Concerns that our economic challenges would cause retailers to reduce efforts in this area were misguided. The retailers moving full-steam ahead with their efforts have realized this need not be a cost center, rather that the multiple benefits of sustainability can include an increase to profitability.
Do you think consumers notice retailers’ efforts to become more eco-friendly?
Consumers, for the most part, notice the more obvious efforts being made by retailers. However, the Sustainable Retailing Consortium believes that retailers should ensure that all of their associates have full knowledge of the entire sustainability program and, furthermore, that retailers and their associates should at every opportunity spread the word to consumers. However, retailers must exercise caution when engaging in a communication program about sustainability to avoid claims of “greenwashing.” Consumers do not have any patience for retailers that make exaggerated claims of being green.
How does the economy play a part in retailers’ ability to continue sustainable practices?
In my opinion, the economy really does not play a part at all. Why would any retailer decide not to continue with a strategic business practice that has the ability to increase its brand value, improve its perception among consumers and increase its profitability – all while undertaking efforts that promote it as a good corporate citizen?
I’d like to get your take on this: Legislation recently passed by the D.C. City Council has area businesses (that sell food and/or alcohol) charging 5 cents per shopping bag in an effort to help the city become more eco-friendly and raise money for city environmental projects. Have you seen any effects on the packaging market as a whole when it comes to environmental public policy?
The main impact that environmental public policy has had to date is on the whole plastic bag debate. There currently are various conflicting regional laws across North America when it comes to the use of plastic bags. Several national retailers have commented to us that it is impossible for them to meet all of these various regional laws with one packaging program…their choice is to either design unique programs for different regions, which is very cost prohibitive, or to flout some of the regional laws with hopes of encouraging revisions to them. A cobweb of conflicting regional legislation is not the way to encourage compliance and achieve results.
What resources would you suggest for retailers looking to make their first move into sustainable practices?
Join NRF’s Sustainable Retailing Consortium! We are here to provide guidance to retailers, and we continue to build on the resources that we have available to retailers. Our resources include many working council groups which host topical conference calls, webinars, and sustainability sessions at NRF’s Annual Convention as well as a reservoir of relevant content on our web page. I also strongly suggest the use of our new SRC Retail Industry Sustainability Scorecard: A Self-Assessment Tool For Retailers which is also available on our web-site.
Your company provides packaging solutions for a variety of retail companies. What are some of your favorite products?
There really is no limit for retailers should they choose to offer a reusable bag for resale. We recently introduced our Flocked Trapezoid bag with an assortment of options that can be added by the retailer which provide for numerous ways to customize with brand identity. Options include customizable flock pattern, zippers, grommets, embroidered handles, printable patch, and one or more sewn in tags. Fully customizable, these just-released bags are already proving to be a huge hit with our customers!