April was Earth Month — a dramatic expansion from the single day (April 22) created in 1970 by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) to place environmental issues on the national agenda. In the years since, those issues have taken hold, legislatively (think Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, creation of the EPA), and, increasingly, in consumers’ purchase decisions.
Today consumers expect brands to demonstrate they share their personal values on environmental and social issues — and to back up those values with clear action. Research released in September 2022 by the data analytics and market intelligence firm IRI/NPD and the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business found that this consumer attitude is gaining strength. According to the study:
- 93% of consumers have maintained or increased their sustainable purchase habits in the past year
- 77% of consumers believe sustainability is important when selecting products to buy, up 8% from 2021
- 27% of shoppers — including 32% of Gen Z and Millennials — seek out retailers that carry sustainable products
These self-reported consumer preferences are backed up by financial performance, according to a new joint study by McKinsey and NielsenIQ. The study analyzed five years of U.S. sales data (2017 to June 2022), covering 600,000 individual product SKUs representing $400 billion in annual retail revenues. It found that products making environmental, social and government (ESG)-related claims averaged 28% cumulative growth during that five-year- period, compared to 20% growth for products that made no such claims.
In addition, the study’s authors said that the analysis revealed:
- Products making ESG-related claims generated outsize growth in 11 out of 15 food categories, and three out of four personal care categories, but only two out of nine beverage categories
- A wide range of consumers across incomes, life stages, ages, races and geographies are buying products bearing ESG-related labels, “suggesting that the appeal is making genuine headway with broad swaths of America”
The McKinsey-NielsenIQ report cautioned that it is “paramount” that companies back any ESG-related claims with genuine actions or they would risk reputational damage and erosion of consumer trust.
With this in mind, we thought it worth revisiting the leading sustainable practice pillars that emerged at the seventh annual Quad Packaging Sustainability Symposium late last year. The event brought together leading retailers and brand owners, sustainability influencers/educators, and Quad experts for a wide-ranging discussion of sustainable packaging opportunities and best practices.
The following themes stood out.
- Sustainability is complex.
What is sustainability? How is it measured? These are important questions with differing answers. The definition sits in the gray space. Its meaning can vary depending on people’s background, education, position and other factors.
This signifies two things for brands: First, it’s crucial for brand teams to work together to clearly define what their sustainability goals are and how progress will be measured. Will your brand prioritize reducing emissions? Will you look to use less water or other natural resources? Will you measure success by how recyclable the packaging is, or by how effectively recycled materials can be used in the packaging? There are many valid answers to the question of priorities, each unique to a specific brand.
Second, it’s crucial to bring a broad range of team members to the table when determining strategic priorities. The participants in this conversation should represent not only the product’s full journey. They must reflect diversity — in social identity, race, ethnicity, cultural background and other factors. When diverse perspectives are missing from the sustainability conversation, the concerns of critical stakeholder communities — and true opportunities — can be overlooked.
- 2. Sustainability needs to be embedded in business success.
While defining goals and opening discussions across the organization are important starting points, these actions are just that — a beginning. They need to be reinforced. This can take a variety of forms, such as company-wide recognition for brand leaders who step up to move their products onto a sustainability path. Companies can go a step further and incorporate sustainability achievements into brand leaders’ performance reviews and rewards.
These are cues to all employees, especially those involved with, or whose job responsibilities have been affected by, sustainability. It signals that their work is important and valued, and that plays a key role in a business’s success.
Recent research demonstrates this is particularly true when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, as well as forging a relationship with consumers. In addition to the previously cited McKinsey/Nielsen IQ analysis and the IRI/NPD-NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business about the impact on consumers’ purchase behavior, a 2021 global study by IBM found that 70% of employees said sustainability programs make employers more appealing.
- 3. Sustainability practices and education go hand in hand.
Sustainability can support profit and growth, keep a brand competitive in a world where consumers increasingly expect corporate environmental conscientiousness, and strengthen consumer loyalty. But for all this to occur, sustainability efforts must be communicated.
Education also helps consumers do their part in the full sustainability cycle of reuse and recycling. It does no good for a package to be recyclable if a consumer doesn’t know what to do with it. Programs like How2Recycle offer resources and labeling tools to help brands accomplish these important education elements.
- 4. Sustainability starts now.
When it comes to sustainability, there’s no time like the present. Even if a brand leader is unsure of what can be accomplished or what the real impact of their efforts might be, those who start today will still have accomplished more five years down the road than those who continue to let uncertainty hold them back.
Leaders do not have to be sustainability experts to get the process started, nor do they need to have all of the answers. All they need is to bring a diverse team together and begin the conversation. Ask questions. Consider what sustainability means for the team and the brand. Identify what experts and support can be engaged to further define opportunities and solutions.
One theme that emerged from the Quad Packaging Sustainability Symposium sessions is that we all have a shared goal when it comes to sustainable packaging, and we can only accomplish that goal when we work together.
Sustainability and support of our environment has been a priority for Quad for decades, and Quad Packaging embraces that priority. As a Quad operating unit, Quad Packaging is responsible for pursuing environmental improvements relevant to our business and partnering with our clients on innovative solutions while also contributing to the advancement of company-wide Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) objectives. Environmental stewardship is embedded in Quad’s commitment to culture and social purpose. Quad shares its environment and social commitments — and progress on those commitments — in our annual ESG report.