What does sustainability mean in a sector as diverse as the packaging industry?

Society, economy and environment undoubtedly have symbiotic relationships, but defining them is complex. Last week, Anthesis and ThePackHub co-hosted an event at the beautiful Birmingham Botanical Gardens to help representatives from across the packaging sector to better understand what sustainability means to their businesses, and how to embrace it through strategy and business practices in order to reap the benefits.

The choice of conference venue was co-incidental, but as I walked through the fabulous flowers in the hot-house on my way in, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how appropriate the name ‘Anthesis’ is (Anthesis is the Greek word for the point in a plant’s lifecycle when it is at its most productive). The heady smell of flowers, their stunning colours and vibrancy, combined with a room that was buzzing with chatter as the delegates introduced themselves in round table discussions which summarised where they each were on their corporate sustainability journey.

Through an impressive line-up of international speakers – including demonstrations of packaging good practice from Australia and Israel – the delegates were engaged in interactive debates and knowledge sharing sessions which addressed diverse topics; from LCA assessments for packaging innovation, to recycling innovations for hard-to manage-packaging formats, and from print management options, to consumer engagement.

While the packaging sector is clearly very diverse, some common themes came through during the day. It’s obvious that sustainability is now a mainstream business consideration, with R&D departments, packaging technologists and finance directors being expected to embrace it to support the corporate CSR managers and their teams. The result is an increasing demand for better internal communications of strategy, vision and key performance indicators to enable front line technical staff to make sure that their daily activities are contributing to the corporate objectives and direction of travel. Another strong theme was the recognition that cross supply chain collaboration, and engagement with stakeholders beyond the normal business supply chain (such as waste collection, recycling and reprocessing sectors) will be essential to meet many of the waste-related sustainability targets being set by packaging businesses, and to support the achievement of the UK’s recycling targets under the Producer Responsibility Obligations.

The idea that industry can come up with a single, meaningful definition of sustainable packaging has long since been consigned to history! The outcomes of the session suggested that defining sustainability within the sustainable packaging sector typically incorporates three strands of activity:

  • Environmental – saves more resources than it uses (raw materials, energy and water)
  • Economical – reduces costs of distribution and merchandising, while at the same time maintaining or growing sales and profitability
  • Social – meets consumers’ expectations by providing product protection, safety, handling and information, and is manufactured meeting minimum labour standards.

Thanks to all those who attended the event at the Botanical Gardens and for sharing their own CSR progress. It was a powerful reminder that sustainability is indeed blooming!

By Debbie Hitchen, Associate Director at Anthesis Group. Contact Debbie at

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