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Keeping on top--staying ahead

The packaging scene has always been complex and technically challenging. But now that the endlessly complex and sometimes contradictory requirements of sustainability have landed in our laps, packaged goods companies and the suppliers they rely on have it tougher than ever.
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FILED IN:  Sustainability  > Strategy
     

Targets and “score cards” are everywhere. ASDA, Wal-Mart’s U.K. operation, is analyzing the consequences of eliminating portion packaging on a range of different fresh fruit and vegetable types. WRAP (www.wrap.org.uk), the UK Government-backed packaging advice organization, is offering an on-line service to producers on elimination of excess packaging (www.envirowise.gov.uk/howmuchair). Millions of Euros are being invested annually in applied packaging research to facilitate development of new materials and systems aimed at meeting the sometimes conflicting needs to cost effectively protect and enhance consumer products while meeting the challenges of packaging sustainability and environmental acceptability. No wonder packaging has become such an easy target for environmental campaigners.

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Attracting young talent

 One of the key challenges for all involved in packaging, whether as a specifier/user or as a converting manufacturer, is keeping on top of things and knowing where solutions lie. This comes down to having access to the know-how and expertise of skilled personnel, which leads us to an important question: How can the packaging industry sell itself as a vital and interesting career choice and how can it keep bright people once it has attracted them?

It’s a troubling subject. Consider how few universities and colleges have specialist packaging faculties/departments that have a holistic approach to all the developments and issues relating to packaging. The largest of the packaging converters such as Alcan, Amcor, Crown, O-I, and Rexam maintain in-house R&D departments, but even these tend to be material or process specific. This makes good business sense because focused development, whether incremental or step-changing, usually provides a better payback and meets the customer’s immediate need for improvements. But in times of new challenges and new urgencies, when we are facing a growing wave of environmental demands on business in general and packaging in particular, making good business sense and meeting immediately identifiable customer needs may not be enough. In times such as these, a new breed of packaging professionals must be developed, so that key knowledge and skill sets can help all stake holders in the packaging value chain sort out the complexities of climate change and packaging’s true role in it.

Life-cycle analysis is no walk in the park. It’s an involved process requiring unique skills. Is the packaging industry seeing to it that such skills are being nourished?

Currently many consumer goods manufacturers expect their packaging suppliers to provide innovative ideas and to keep them abreast of materials developments. In turn these packaging suppliers lean heavily on their materials suppliers for new developments. In other instances, the large global consumer goods companies such as P&G, Unilever, and Nestle instigate product packaging developments with selected suppliers. These large corporations have the resources to employ qualified and broadly trained packaging technologists and enough packaging demand to make these development programs attractive to their suppliers. They also have a broad view of the packaging options available to them. This is increasingly important, as major retail chains, consumers, and government increase the pressure to minimize packaging volumes and to increase the percentage of genuinely sustainable materials used.
However, small and medium-sized consumer goods makers often do not have these resources and have to rely on their packaging suppliers to keep them in touch with materials developments. Most of these will act in good faith, but necessarily they have their particular focus and interest.

We must be fully aware of all of the potential options

The challenge for all small and medium-sized players throughout the packaging value chain is to be fully aware of the options. There are a number of ways that this can be done:

• Provide professional development opportunities for personnel, including attending specialist conferences and gaining applied packaging qualifications run by packaging institutes
• Attend trade shows and the conference programs that go with them
• Bring in industry and technology-wide expertise for specific projects
• Establish recruiting policies that seek to hire bright minds
• Develop career programs that can demonstrate the longer-term opportunities for packaging professionals

In any time of great change and challenge, the opportunities for success and failure are equally immense. The packaging profession faces this situation today. The winners will be companies that can adapt and move forward effectively, the ones that have the right people on their team.

Barry Goldberg is president of TAPPA Group International, an international marketing consulting firm.

David Johnson is managing director of Strategic Development and Effective Business Support, a UK marketing consultancy that is TAPPA’s European affiliate. TAPPA can be reached at [email protected].

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