With the world becoming increasingly impatient for a great sustainability reset, last week’s inaugural Rethinking Materials Virtual Summit did a pretty decent job at starting to shape the agenda for innovation in plastics and packaging over the next five or so years. As a delegate and plenary session host, I got up close and personal with the mood of the event – and can report an almost evangelistic spirit tempered with a pragmatic desire to start delivering wins. As an industry, we’re ready to make things happen.

Innovating for the triple bottom line

Big themes predominated: from the imperative of moving the needle and getting bio-based material into our supply chains in the first place, to practical issues like scaling up, circular approaches and investment and partnership strategies. Well over 500 attendees met up online over two fascinating days of debate. With a good mix of major consumer brands and retailers, producers, converters, manufacturers, technology providers, regulators, start-ups and investors, the insight was well-informed, and well-balanced. I’m going to take the opportunity of this article to share some key points of interest.

Early on, I joined my colleague Robin Ferraby for a feisty opening roundtable that helped set the scene for the proceedings. It was big picture stuff – advocating action on the plastics waste issue and challenging the responses of brands across food and drink, retail, packaging, fashion and textiles, personal care and beyond. Robin’s expertise is in collaborating with clients on innovative consumer services that blend the physical and digital realms. Understandably, he was quick to pick up on a thread in the discussion that focused on a certain short-sightedness displayed by some businesses in the consumer space.

There is a well-intentioned tendency to swap out a legacy material early in the supply chain. This sparks a cost trickle that eventually makes its way down to the consumer; but crucially the consumer has no visibility of the intervention. The feeling in the virtual room was that many companies are too focused on the numbers game – the drive to reach targets, rid the ocean of single use plastic and reduce the amount of non-biodegradable materials in the world.

That’s all well and good and laudable of course but it’s missing a trick. As Robin says, the sustainability imperative provides an opportunity for brands to integrate it with much more holistic strategic positioning – and totally new value-oriented propositions that are not just about sustainability.

It’s an argument that rings true. If a business has a particular view of sustainability that is mired in a numbers game and reactive due diligence, it can be difficult to repivot to the excitement of new consumer offerings and powerful product differentiation. But the opportunities are certainly there.

Right now, for example, we’re working with beauty brands on product+ service innovation. Concepts such as in-store product refill stations score well in the sustainability stakes but become much more powerful when combined with data-driven recommendations informing rich, personalised experiences. Such approaches are more complex and carry more cost, of course, they respond to consumer pull. The consumer wants to invest in sustainability, so the industry needs to give them something of real value to invest in.

Displacing legacy materials, one step at a time 

Moving on now to day two, when I chaired a ‘scaling up’ session focused on early adopters and new routes to market. A couple of real gems jumped out, both worth filing away for future reference. The first is based on the old adage: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One slice at a time’. The actual question we discussed was how to go about fronting up to the huge task of displacing all the petrochemical based legacy packaging materials. The consensus answer was that you don’t do it all in one go.

Sweeping changes aren’t going to happen overnight, the challenge is obviously far too great for that, so the smart approach is to look for niche applications. Actually, make that focused applications that can light the way to the future. Think in terms of technical applications such as water barrier solutions or packaging for high value items that can bear the added cost. Both examples play to the strategy of breaking the challenge down into manageable chunks. Once you start scoring some wins, incremental progress becomes more attainable.

The second piece of insight I’d like to share came courtesy of panel member Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, the circular shopping disrupter delivering branded products to the doorstep in refillable packing. The service goes by the name of Loop. Early in the creative process, Tom and his team had to plot the journey they wanted to follow in terms of funders and industry collaborators.

The route they took might seem counterintuitive. Tom explained that they deliberately didn’t go with the smaller, more adaptable and perhaps more amenable early adopter companies, even though forging supplier relationships there might have been easier. Their strategy was to aim high and launch with a great deal of credibility and a feeling they had serious players behind them.

Launching with the big guns

The play led to them launching with big guns like Nestlé and others. This meant it took them longer to get off the ground but once they did the relationships were much more valuable for them. They had many more customers buying their dream than they would have done that if they’d launched with smaller, less well known brands.

I think that’s a nice observation that’s widely applicable. If you’re trying to do something very new and disruptive, it generally requires a very high burden of credibility. So, when you’re choosing who to work with that’s a really important consideration. It’s not always the shiny new thing that counts – sometimes it’s the heft of big brand presence that can work for you. Having big hitters on your side can help overcome a lot of inertia and help make things happen.

All in all then, a cracking start for Rethinking Materials – the Cambridge Consultants team is certainly looking forward to contribute to the event in the coming years. Meanwhile, do check out our take on the challenge – Innovating for the triple bottom line – and please reach out to me if we can help shape your sustainability focused solutions. It would be great to hear from you.

James Hallinan
Head of Business Development, Bioinnovation

James specialises in bioinnovation and early-stage technology commercialisation across life sciences and healthcare

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