Defining sustainability and circularity for tape-related companies

Afera’s digital 63rd Annual Conference is addressing the challenge of how we will drive the sustainability efforts, goals and achievements of both the Industry and individual companies forward. The time of COVID-19 has only accelerated the need for this. As an industry collective, we feel it is important to remember that the challenge of sustainability is not something that many people or companies can take on individually. Sustainability is typically a collaborative effort within your company’s entire value chain. Working together produces tangible results.

Definition and scope

The first session of the Conference focussed on context. Strategy professional Kavitha Ravikumar set the scene by providing “A primer to current views and trends in sustainability,” allowing us to think about the definition of sustainability and to determine what is within our scope individually, as companies and industry-wide.

More than laying a groundwork on what sustainability has meant from the points of view of industry and academics, Ms. Ravikumar addressed what it looks like to the common person, “because that is the starting point of where sustainability became important to us in the Industry—where your customers started saying, ‘What is in your product?’, ‘Do we want to buy it or not?’” In this sense, she said, it became a marketing problem, and then it became a supply chain problem. “We have seen this evolution over the past few years, and we still get told that people are not going to buy sustainable,” Ms. Ravikumar explained. “True, especially with the current Crisis, there will be price pressure.”

The ideas of sustainability and sustainable development form

She reviewed the intergenerational views of sustainability, citing the final episode of BBC’s Blue Planet II by David Attenborough as triggering the war on plastics. Young activist Greta Thunberg and global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion have also brought sustainability to the fore, and as common consumers, 50% of growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainably marketed products, according to NYU Stern’s Centre for Sustainable Business research into sales of consumer packaged goods in the U.S.

In 2015, the United Nations launched its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future by 2030.” They are very broad, ranging from eradicating poverty to forming partnerships, with everything in between. According to Ms. Ravikumar, “they are very similar to those laid out in the Brundtland Report and very nicely capture what sustainable development means as a whole.” Sustainability, by the way, is something that basically balances economic, environmental and social factors in equal harmony, while sustainable development is a pathway to that sustainability.

Circularity and materiality

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017, the initial idea that one way we can achieve sustainability is through circularity—and for the tape industry this means circularity of materials—was formed. Working towards a circular economy was also addressed for companies in Cradle to Cradle, which cues in on quality materials and “going the materiality way”.

And then the currently very popular Ellen MacArthur Foundation model takes this a step further by saying that the 2 nutrient metabolisms of technical and biological interact. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is trying to redefine growth by designing out waste and pollution, keeping materials in use, and saying we must regenerate natural systems. Their focus on materiality means eliminating waste and reusing and recirculating products, and then extraction and waste decreases, because you are utilising what is already in the economy.

Sustainable investing is about materiality, “which is close to our current business,” Afera President Evert Smit said

“Sustainable investing—capital allocation—has started focusing on materiality,” shared Ms. Ravikumar. “According to a Harvard Business Review study, a lot of the time, companies that focus on material issues came to outperform those who don’t.” For the purposes of sustainability in manufacturing, materiality is literally about the circulation of materials—including chemicals—how we utilise them, which ones we extract, how they are processed and where they go. Investors look at companies that are sharing information on how they are concentrating on making their material extraction, processing and energy-use more sustainable.

There has been a sharp increase in sustainable investments from 2010 to 2018, and recent trends include a belief that environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria can have a practical purpose beyond ethical concerns, discouraging investors from supporting companies whose practices could signal risk factors. Sustainability is also seen as a complex, “wicked problem” because it involves the relationships between the economic, environmental and social dimensions and the presence of multiple heterogeneous stakeholders. Ms. Ravikumar also discussed the Planetary Boundaries Framework, Doughnut Economics, and moving from outcomes to impact.

Should tape related-companies try to tackle everything or start small?

Pragmatically speaking, sustainability challenges are huge and hard to cope with, especially in covering all units and teams within an organisation. How do tape companies start sustainability projects? And where do they begin on such a huge thing? You need to start somewhere, so look at creating your own working definition, and look into learning a bit more within your own company. After looking internally, perhaps you do not need to launch a multi-year study but spend some time on trying to understand what is feasible as a beginning—as Ms. Ravikumar calls it, “what is good enough for now.” And then you need to go back and test it, and if it does not work, go back and test it again.

“Regulations do come into play, and they are moving targets—they do not all appear at once,” she emphasised. “Customarily you know what legislation is coming into effect at least 6 months or a year in advance, so you are aware that there may have to be adjustment and change to your programme(s).”

Download the 15 October Session recording which includes K. Ravikumar’s presentation (Members only)
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