Protecting the environment ‘one bite at a time’: Lessons from the 2024 Quad Sustainability Symposium

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May 22, 2024 (press release) –

As General Manager of Packaging for Quad, Smith Lankford regularly travels outside his home base in South Carolina to far-away places both inside and outside the United States. These experiences, he told attendees at the 2024 Quad Sustainability Symposium on May 9, have given him a unique perspective on the different ways the world deals with its trash.

The island of Oahu, for instance, has been investing in high-tech waste-to-energy facilities, while big beverage brands in the European Union are building new production lines to replace plastics with resource-efficient returnable glass bottles. In contrast, Lankford has also witnessed municipalities building ever-higher landfill mounds and nations allowing citizens to burn their own trash streams.

In his eyes, the patchwork of approaches leads to one overarching conclusion: “We have a global problem. But we don’t have a global solution, and I’m not sure we can get to a global solution,” he told the more than 60 marketers, industry leaders and academics at the symposium.

But rather than despairing, Lankford said it’s helpful to consider the old folk proverb: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

“That’s how the world needs to address this: one bite at a time,” Lankford told attendees. “And there’s also this: hope. You can sit aside and say, ‘This doesn’t affect me’ and be negative about it, or you can have hope. And out of hope comes action. That’s what we need to take from this — to create action so that bite by bite we make a difference in how we change the world.”

Lankford’s observations highlighted a day of presentations and workshops on emerging research, new technology and other developments in the field of sustainability, showcasing Quad’s long-standing commitment to excellence in environmental stewardship dating back to its founding in 1971.

Among the key insights from the symposium:

Brands need to place a premium on authenticity when it comes to sustainability initiatives

Consumers today are speaking loudly about the importance of sustainability in the products they buy. Brands need to craft messages and highlight actions that are real and transparent, said Jamie McGarry, Quad’s Head of Consumer Packaged Goods Strategy. “Gone are the days of when this information was just a topic for an ESG report,” McGarry said. “It is important to consumers in making their decisions. They are actively seeking out this information and actively asking the questions.” Two of the most common consumer questions, according to McGarry: “‘How bad is this product for environment?’ and ‘Is this brand telling the truth about their claims?’”

Emerging environmental regulation is reshaping sustainability in business

Paul Nowak, Executive Director of GreenBlue, a solutions-based environmental membership organization, discussed two areas of increasing interest to policy makers: extended producer responsibility and truth in labeling. (These laws and proposed regulations require vigilance across various business functions, including marketing.) “When you encounter a claim that says, ‘This is infinitely recyclable,’” Nowak said, “ask yourself, ‘Could I explain that to someone in one sentence with third-party data?’ If you cannot, you probably shouldn’t be saying it.”

Humanity is at the heart of sustainability

Much attention gets paid to the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle. But sustainability also has a critical human component, Adam Hobler, VP of Global Marketing at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, a Quad client, told the symposium audience. While pursuing various sustainability programs and initiatives, such as clean water in the vanilla-growing regions of Madagascar, Nielsen-Massey also places a premium on building long-term relationships with farmers, suppliers, employees and customers — their key stakeholder groups. The company, Hobler says, uses the Golden Rule as its guide and attributes much of its 120 years of success “to keeping people at the heart of the system. It’s easy to focus on the numbers… but that’s a very short-term play.”

Packaging and display design matter in sustainability

Kelly Burt, Quad’s VP of Business Development, and Tom Solomon, Quad’s Director of Design and Innovation, discussed the role of in-store signage and packaging in shaping consumer perceptions and purchasing decisions. The pair shared findings from a recent Quad study, published in the April issue of the trade journal Sustainability, that looked at different approaches to color-coding, iconography, wording and other elements of in-store recycling displays and how they can increase customer awareness of product recyclability. “People spend an average of 10 seconds or less reading labels on packaging,” Burt said. “So, this is where it’s really important that the message is understood in that short amount of time.”

No matter the scope of your sustainability strategies, your programs need the backing of senior leaders. “If you don’t have that, it’s going to be difficult to campaign for a lot of these sustainability improvements,” said Ashley Drew, Sustainability Manager at UPM Raflatac, a global supplier of label materials. Drew spoke on a panel with Keenan Sullivan, Packaging Solutions Strategist at Quad, who said he sees positive signs that business leaders are getting the message and recognizing sustainability as “more than just a side action.” Notes Sullivan: “They know you are going to have to be sustainable to be profitable.”

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Jason Irving
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