Make it easy on ourselves

Dick SearleI’m looking forward to tomorrow, February 29th, at the NEC, Birmingham, when the easyFairs organisation opens up another Packaging Innovations show.

It’s a clear and simple show, well designed and confidently presented, that has stuck to its colours over the years and does the industry much service. Just after high noon I shall follow Recoup onto the seminar podium and will talk about the current notions of extended producer responsibility, EPR. Oh yes, the EPR idea has its own acronym now…

The great thing about an acronym is that it already implies and assumes a familiar and proven body of know-how, method and science. Experienced folk, however, will be alert to the presence of an anxious and not-so-subtle agenda trying to get legitimate.

If EPR is trying to become part of common parlance I am glad, since the only place left for ‘producer responsibility’ to go is one that closes the loop on the behaviour and responsibility of the consumer.

Indeed why consumer responsibility in these matters has gone AWOL for so long is a little bit mysterious. We may as well ask the question positively. What is consumer responsibility? The silence is rather deafening eh?

Basically, consumers/voters have always needed their politicians and leaders to promise ever more goods and services. Politicians have always wanted to do so, whatever the reality. It’s the model we have clung to for some time now – and the system is now seriously challenged and overheating in a number of well known areas.

In the meantime poor old packaging – not product and not the cause of growth, but merely symptom and reminder – continues (less and less I am happy to report) to be regularly dragged out and blamed as the totem of this consumption.

Take one simple step back and it’s obvious that these consumer delivery systems of ours are the least of our global problems. How about unlimited consumption? population growth? political systems in freefall? limited resources? unsustainable human and social behaviours? (including litter) – these are the problems that require mature and balanced reasoning and social leadership.

My Feb 29th NEC address will not stray far at all from the central questions of responsibility; namely who is responsible and how and why. The truth is that for some time policymakers and legislators have been pretending with one eye that consumers are not part of the picture.

This is denial, plain and simple. It helps to create a distorted and inaccurate picture. Consumers – via price, competition and choice – are the prime movers of economies and producers. Anyone in any market place can see that.

We are therefore all long overdue a realistic and holistic view of the total picture; one that starts from the position that responsibility is a shared activity for producers and consumers alike. The benefit and outcomes from that kind of joined-up thinking could make it all so much easier on ourselves.

The Packaging Federation looks forward to helping make it happen.

Many thanks again

Dick Searle


The wrong loop…

Dick SearleLast week I promised more on the Government’s recent consultation about the UK’s material recycling targets. Indeed, these are issues that will run and run and will deserve our regular attention in this column.

My focus this week is the assumption within the legislature that the ‘products’ of the packaging sector, however defined, should always contain a measure of recycled materials. Where general resource efficiency and cost effectiveness apply – we agree.

In fact, for decades these recycling practices have been applied in packaging, largely unsung and unnoticed. The reason? It just makes good business sense to reuse and recycle; from the days of the door step milk bottle to paper and board industries to metals and cans, to utility plastics goods where consumer safety is not compromised.

The recycling model works in all cases where the supply and cost of recycled materials allows them to be factored back into a product, any product, which can then be sold to the consumer at a competitive price. The recyclate and the consumer products sink or swim in a free market in the usual way. Let’s be clear, anything else is doomed.

Today of course, the ancillary aim is to replace the general stock of virgin or new materials with second life materials in products. No problem whatsoever with that.

However, in keeping an eye on this aim it is not possible, practical or even helpful to make a number of ‘end-use’ sectors responsible for the job – least of all packaging which is not an end use sector at all but a part of all manufactured goods.

All manufacturing – construction; automotive; white and brown goods, healthcare; food and drink – has a self-interested role to play in resource efficiency. More than ever we need to step back and take a holistic view of waste and recycling within the whole economy. In this sense SIC coded divisions within it – and their related recycling targets – are artificial and unhelpful.

There is of course one organic driver to the whole – and that is the consumer. Consumers decide and drive our market economies. They also determine the real appetite for recycled content products by voting with their wallets. And while the consumer appetite for green style products was always a minority interest, it is clear now that even that demand has waned in the last 2/3 years.

Supermarkets have shown us the picture – based on obvious reasons of price, recession and affordability. Green products – often premium price with recyclate content or messages – are now stocked less. General and supermarketing talk of carbon footprinting and labeling of packaging and products has now largely disappeared – at least in the UK.  Practical considerations, and the huge costs involved, are reasserting themselves.

Our Government – and the wider European framework – should take note. I suggest that new strategies and a new mind set is needed.

Until things change, let’s assume the following:

Consumers, to date at least, cannot be relied upon in any way to drive or guarantee resource efficiency or the uptake of recycled materials other than through usual market forces and conditions.

Producers and manufacturers should not be made to create artificial markets or bear costs for recyclate where it is uncompetitive and unwanted.

We need a fresh and holistic view about resource efficiency in and across all manufacturing and all supply chains.

That would be a start. And we’re certainly ready to play our full part.

Thanks again

Dick Searle

Recycle more but consume less?

Dick SearleSo. The Government’s consultation about the UK’s material recycling targets is at an end – and the politicians and civil servants are now preparing again to tell UK manufacturing what it expects of us in terms of recycling.

It’s really not my place to dive into all of the consequences and the material details… wherein the devil lurks. However, I surely will have more than one or two things to say about what happened along the way and what may yet happen.

Consider this aspect for starters: As part of The Packaging Federation submission we noted the part of the Government consultation that said that ‘survey after survey shows that consumers believe packaging is a big environmental problem.’

Oh dear. It’s always a shame when the realm of facts is abandoned for the world of beliefs. In our evidence we simply noted that ‘Packaging is a solution as it saves far more waste than it creates and conserves far more.’

I’ll say it again. Packaging is not product. People buy and consume products not packaging. Packaging is merely the delivery system through which the product moves to reach consumers.

And what about those consumers, their beliefs and the politicians that serve them? For example, does the Government – any government – and its politicians ever have anything critical to say about the level of consumption of goods in this country?

What government today would ever presume to get elected by promising consumers less? – fewer goods? less choice? less consumption? It’s not really a runner is it?

Consumers, by and large, want more and more. At least they believe they do. Governments needing to get elected want to go on promising more and more. They also believe they cannot afford to do otherwise. Until that cycle is ever broken our political model will not change.

The truth is that consumers themselves are the origin and cause of ever-increasing consumption. The material evidence of product delivery solutions merely serves to remind consumers how much they consume. They may not like it, but it’s a fact – however embarrasing and inconvenient.

Many thanks again

Dick Searle

Getting real – why our manufacturers and environmentalists need to work together

Dick SearleBack in the late 1980’s, you may recall the first wave of a perceived need for environmental-friendly products. The new dawn began creeping over the horizon for marketing managers everywhere.

The first reaction for many companies was a twinge of commercial fear and a worry for the status quo. Many others, however, began licking their lips at the prospect of mining the new situation in order to create wider profit margin.

It was commonplace – every week – to attend product launches at which a new environmental solution – usually launched against a hapless  ‘unenvironmental’ situation or industry- was being unveiled. Quite apart from the actual merits of the product itself, the understanding was that all green products were a class apart and needed to be priced as such.

I now forget the rationale – but to those who lived through counter culture ideas of 50’s and 60’s the idea that an alternative world needed to be more costly than Main Street seemed laughable.

However, the last laugh may yet be still on us. The premium-price green product strategy is slipping but the mind set still lingers. Worse still, the green marketing schtick continues to imply that somehow we live in a two-tier material world; the ordinary one – just getting by – and then the virtuous more expensive one, where everything could be greener – we just have to pay more.

It’s time, once again, to get real. Thankfully – and quite apart from the wider green movement now not knowing its own direction or beliefs – some governments, manufacturers and strategists are beginning to think straight.

Matthias Machnig, for one. He is the minister for economics for Thuringia, one of the regional states which makes up the Federal Republic of Germany. He has credentials in both industrial and environmental policy and he recently argues that industrial policy cannot be a policy on its own but must be integrated with environmental policy.

After all, taking a little thought, it is clear that good manufacturing already integrates and gives good environmental performance into its operations and products. How could it not? Why – in a competitive, regulated, visible and transparent market economy – would any manufacturer make an unenvironmental product?  It’s not good business.

Another fundamental question to ask is: How does a free market regulate itself?   The plain answer is the consumer. Choice and pricing are clearly part of the answer and social contract; command and control and subsidy are generally not.

Therefore, the greatest discipline – for manufacturers and most environmentalists together – is effectively to engage the first cog in the economic wheel, namely the customer/consumer on whom the whole system turns. Our politicians seem to be very far detached from this truth and from us, their customers at this moment, but that’s another story.

In the UK we seem to have a political culture that has bought into the idea of a separate, special and alternative environmental industry; one that has been set apart and often subsidised in order to create new environmental technology for new environmental markets.

This was mistaken. Moreover, it won’t work. In fact, the opposite direction needs to be encouraged for prosperity’s sake. Our environmentalists need to take a leaf out of Germany’s book and get fully engaged with UK manufacturing and vica versa. Our UK industrialists and manufacturers need to embrace the open, questioning and innovative dynamic of the environmental movement. UK Government needs to help both sides work together.

Great environmental solutions are part of great manufacturing. Great manufacturing is disciplined to give customers and society the goods and services they want and need at optimum cost. Our policy and strategy should have the two working together as closely and profitably as possible.

Thanks again

Dick Searle