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Anne Tate Bedarf, Director, Packaging & Plastics Sustainability, Colgate-Palmolive

In this exclusive interview, Anne Tate Bedarf a trailblazing woman in the packaging industry shares her inspiring journey, from childhood experiences to becoming an influential leader in sustainability.

Anne Bedarf

Tell us about your background and how you got into the packaging industry.

It started with a love of nature and animals, having a big backyard where I could explore the stream and little woodland patch. Also, a trash obsession started when my second grade teacher had us put our trash for a week onto the floor. I can literally see that classroom in my mind! Zero waste drives my professional and personal life. We don’t have home trash pickup.

My education has focused on environmental science, ecology, and community planning, and I started as an environmental consultant where I worked on everything from hazardous material to wetlands delineation. After graduate school doing field explorations in Nicaragua, I worked for the local government where we managed a recycling center and landfill. [It was] invaluable to witness the flow of waste and interact with the public.

I have helped music festivals, including the annual Farm Aid festival, organize for zero waste. The interactions with people are quite eye-opening. There are many misconceptions around recycling that events bring to light.

I then moved to the non-profit GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, where for nine years I helped direct the Essentials of Sustainable Packaging course, the How2Recycle Label program, and the composting body of work prior to joining Colgate-Palmolive.

What is the most rewarding part of your job today?

The knowledge that I am able to make impactful change at a company that values purpose, well-being, family, and diversity, and has the scale necessary to invest in things like the recyclable tube. Our corporate purpose statement — “we are a caring, innovative, growth company that is reimagining a healthier future for all people, their pets, and our planet” — guides all that we do.

What are some of the challenges that you have faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

I’ve had people — not always male — explain things to me that I know well, and I’m always fascinated by those assumptions. I’ve never been harassed but have definitely been dismissed to the point of tears. I’ve had a male boss many years ago apologize for his behavior, which felt like progress. Being direct about negative experiences takes courage and is necessary.

What is required for more women to advance in this industry?

I think we have to think in terms of better representation of women in positions of leadership and decision-making authority, and to root out unconscious bias. That means a stronger pipeline of talented women entering the field. We need to be aware of bias in recruiting, interviewing, and collaborating. We need to ensure every team is well-represented. Normalize stay-at-home dads and treat family support as essential care. Colgate has a program where you can take a few hours off for your child’s first day at school. How amazing is that?

I am encouraged by the progress the industry is making. Over the past decade I have seen tremendous growth in this industry as far as how women are treated and listened to, and how male colleagues have stepped up as leaders, mentors, allies and teammates.

What do you think are some of the key factors that have contributed to your success in the industry?

Tenaciousness. I don’t consider “no” to be a final answer. Also empathy. I always try to see things from somebody else’s view and how it might affect them. During development of the How2Recycle Label, I was told multiple times that it couldn’t be done, but I refused to let perfection rule over progress.

Eternal curiousness has helped me learn — you don’t know what you don’t know! And talking to people not only helps you gain knowledge but leads to valuable relationships. There are people in the packaging and materials industry I’ve known for 15 years or more, and we continue to talk and collaborate today.

Finally, the discipline to think through a literal life cycle of a product or material. Where is it sourced, how is it used, and where and how is it disposed of? It’s important to consider the impact of everything we do, buy, or dispose of.

What has been the most important skill you’ve developed as you advanced your career?

I’ve focused on three that have served me well: systems thinking, communication, and facilitation. Systems thinking is a mindset that helps not only with life cycle analysis, but also with identifying connections, both physical and emotional. 

Regarding communication, it’s important to get your voice heard in a direct and succinct way, and it’s also important for all stakeholders to feel heard through an engaging process. I had training through the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute for Environmental Negotiation which was life-changing.

Getting feedback from peers on communication style and content can be hard but ultimately is incredibly valuable.

Has there been a woman in your life who has inspired or mentored you? Who was she and what did you learn from her?

For sure, there are many, and of course my mom Betsy Neilson. The VNRLI group I mentioned is led by Tanya Denckla Cobb, who pioneered a food systems focus at the University of Virginia that I was lucky to be a part of while I pursued a second master’s degree in the department of urban and environmental planning. She taught me so much about how to approach potential collaborators and how to facilitate effectively so that all voices are heard.

Then there are the Ann(e)s - Anne Johnson, who directed the Sustainable Packaging Coalition for many years, hired me and taught me so much about sustainability as it applies to packaging, as well as helping to build many lasting relationships with people in the packaging industry. I’m also incredibly lucky at this time to be on Ann Tracy’s team. She is Colgate-Palmolive’s chief sustainability officer with a wealth of experience, knowledge and kindness. She gives me the confidence to keep going, to speak up, and to be courageous — one of Colgate’s official values.

What advice would you give to young women who are considering a career in packaging?

Definitely do a hands-on internship, or several, to see what you really enjoy. At Colgate we really invest in our interns and many of them have come back post-graduation, so keeping up those connections can lead to great things. Think hard also about intangibles such as flexibility on work location, which can impact your day-to-day life more than you’d think.

These days there are many specialty areas within packaging — materials, life cycle analyses, classic packaging engineering, design, policy, public communications, and of course sustainability. Product design also is closely linked. Figure out what you enjoy then focus your training on that topic. I personally think sustainability will underlie all business models as well as the product/package interplay, and recommend everyone have solid background there.

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