Think global and act local – Scotland’s test case

Readers of this blog will surely know by now that I am all for a free economy and for non-restraint of trade: If, for example, some Scottish diners want to keep on reinventing local food traditions – deep-fried Mars bars at the local chippy – who am I, indeed who is anyone else to question the process.It’s a matter of consumer choice and consumer responsibility, another issue close to my heart.

But if, say, the Scottish Government should take up an enabling role; helping to trade-mark and export market the snack and define its proper specifications and then only permit Scottish-produced batter and Scottish-made Mars bars into the product mix – then we are clearly into some different territory.

Nearer to home, and back in July of this year I highlighted the Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of that country’s waste management; in particular, the suggestion of a differentiated Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system for Scotland. The deadline for this response is 28th September and the Packaging Federation has already made its contribution to the debate.

It is right and proper that Scotland is putting clarity, direction and energy behind its process of governance – including the governance of waste management. Certain parts of Westminster today could do much worse – both for the quality of the consultation and for the matters raised.

It is also good that Scotland – in tandem with many leading recyclers and industrialists – now sees resources where it used to see ‘waste’. However a differentiated PRN system for Scotland is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice.

I have no need to rehearse protectionist arguments here: My main point is that today’s challenges of resource efficiency and material flows are evidently a global challenge not a Scottish one. To think otherwise is to invite chaos. Much of what is sold in Scotland is manufactured elsewhere and vice versa; including the importing and exporting of waste from within and without the United Kingdom.

Consequently, action which may be taken to specifically safeguard resources for the Scottish economy will fly in the face of the on-the-ground realities of material usage. Such intervention will then result in additional costs to businesses within Scotland and will carry no net benefit to the overall Scottish economy. Action taken to maximise the efficiency of material usage and the reuse of material at “end of life” is to be wholly commended but only as part of a coordinated policy within the UK as a whole.

The Scottish Government may be nurturing an idea that a bespoke system of waste administration may differentiate Scotland in a positive manner and may earn it a top spot in the league of recycling nations. In truth, this is a chimera. There is no such advantage and no such league. The realities of resource management are increasingly global. ‘Muck and Brass’, as it used to be, generally succeeds in finding its own level. In today’s parlance, ‘closed loop’ schemes and carbon footprints don’t care about origin or destination as long as the lowest and optimal numbers are reached.

The Scottish Government has already taken considerable steps to facilitate increased collection rates and recycling quality. These should now be allowed to proceed without further costly changes to the system.

The Packaging Federation believes that recycling success will be driven by unlocking the value of collected materials and by engagement of Scottish consumers. The impact of these is many times greater than the non-existent benefits from changing the existing PRN system. We hope that the Scottish Government takes the same view.

Many thanks

Dick Searle

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Carbon footprint – it’s our consumption that matters most

Dick SearleYou may have noticed that there now tends to be less rather than more talk of carbon footprinting. Part of the reason may involve the usual squabbles over statistics, method and application – all expected when it comes to applying a relatively new science.

However, the truth of the matter is that the data itself presents an inconvenient story, offering politicians very little wriggle room at all.

Our Energy and Climate Change Select Committee MPs certainly thought so when last month they urged the Government to think again about the UK’s record in this matter. Their research showed that the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions – including our consumption of imported goods have risen by some 20% over the period 1990 to 2009. The official line would rather argue that the UK has dropped its emissions by 20%; thanks to ‘territorial’ based reporting on improvements in the infrastructure; transport, power generation and so forth.

However, the consumption-based figure – is the true answer. And moreover it feels in complete accord with the facts of the last twenty years; our rising population and the credit and consumption boom only recently stalled with the credit crunch.

Select committee chairman Tim Yeo correctly made the point that the UK now gets through more consumer goods than ever before, and that we can hardly blame China for that country’s enviromental performance when much of that pollution is created making products for us and other high-consumption economies.

Once again – conscious or unconscious – we can see the aversion in the political world to looking fairly and squarely at consumer behaviour and including it in the mix. More than ever we need joined up and holistic thinking in order to get the real figures up on the board and then deal with consequences and possible remedies.

One of these days our politicians will have to face their own market place and deliver the message to their voters/consumer that ‘less is more’. Call it austerity? Not quite – but the parallels with our current political wranglings in Europe are very interesting.

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

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

Fundamentals – not fundamentalism

Already the headlines are showing an interesting year: House prices are up not down; the service sector is on the rise not waning.

Christmas as usual has been duly enjoyed – despite the untimely and unseemly mid-December own-goal by Grant Shapps MP on how he thinks we should celebrate it.

Plot reversals, turnabouts and unbriefed politicians speaking out of turn are, of course, the perennial stuff of drama. And drama, like it or not, is increasingly the stuff of the media.

However, today’s infotainment often does less than nothing to help serious issues – and does nothing either for common sense or for common purposes such as our national recycling targets.

This month, Government and industry, as planned, are working closely together with each other in order to review and improve our current recycling practices and targets.

From where I sit, both parties are ready and equal for the task. Both are proving to be sensitive to the needs of the supply chain. Both are mostly refraining from ill-informed and ‘flaming’ comments. Both are conscious of the need to not impose further financial burdens on manufacturing margins that the UK can ill afford.

If I was in the hoping or wishing business for 2012 – sadly I’m not – I would ask that our industry and society could be granted a reprieve from headline grabbers and from fundamentalisms of various kinds.

Progress would then be much more assured. We could also deploy fundamentals in exactly the right way.

What are those fundamentals? Let me – without apology – restate them as follows.

  • Packaging is a net environmental benefit: It saves much more waste than it produces
  • Packaging conserves the resources and products that society wants
  • Packaging offers shoppers choice – a variety of goods and a variety of types of goods (brands) – all day, every day.

I am personally looking forward very much this month to helping Defra, BIS and their associates increase the resource efficiency of UK plc with these three simple truths in mind. I hope that they become the cornerstone for our joint continuing and effective work in this area through this year and beyond.

Happy New Year!

Dick Searle

The return of reduce…

Some twenty five years ago, the threefold mantra of Reduce – Reuse – Recycle was well-known and very strong. Funnily enough, as the credit boom of the 90s gathered pace the 3R’s fell from favour. Organic and recycled became synonymous with chic – and often commanded a premium price.

As readers of this column will know, I have become extremely aware of the incapacity of leaders – in politics, society and industry – to properly address matters of consumption. Unsurprisingly, ‘Reduce’ – the first element in the environmental triangle – has taken a back seat in the last twenty years or more.

‘Reduce’ is not a popular theme – and it doesn’t work for politicians: More than one UK MP has bluntly informed me that any politician who goes to the hustings with a voter-message of expect-less and consume-less is set for political hari-kari. I can see how that works for politicians – but for how much longer?

The global credit boom encouraged consumption, expansion and growth-of-a-kind. Indeed the UK’s greenhouse emissions as measured by consumption have actually increased some 30% in the period 1990-2006.

And the credit crunch has unsurprisingly thrown new shapes into the environmental movement. And lately the idea of waste prevention – while not the same as ‘reduce’ or lowered consumption – is currently gaining ground and fits the mood of the current times very well.

There is much to commend the waste prevention approach – especially if it manages to provide any kind of bridgehead or channel to develop consumer responsibility.

DEFRA, WRAP and UK local authorities have all lately combined together in order to help develop a range of social instruments that will give understanding of the benefits of waste production in tonnage, carbon and cost terms.

Indeed our old friend ‘Reduce’ gets a look in as one of the three primary ways – ‘those that prevent the acquisition of waste products by households avoiding their production entirely (eg reducing junk mail)’ Can’t say fairer than that. Other measures include Reuse’ and still others include systems such as home composting in various ways.

At the Packaging Federation we warmly welcome the return of ‘Reduce’ – it being no stranger to the best in packaging and the environmental practices. We look forward to assisting the DEFRA/WRAP work as it goes forward with suggestions and solutions.

Thanks again

Dick Searle

The grocer grossed…

Dick SearleI really like the thrust of the recent Sainsbury £1 billion sustainability ’20 by 20′ strategy. How could I not? It kicks off brightly and confidently with material from Anna Ford (chair of the company’s corporate responsibility committee) and a strong statement from CEO Justin King.

The Sainsbury’s plan is well researched and closely argued. It chimes perfectly with the company’s modest yet strong corporate identity. As a UK citizen, it gives me confidence that one of our leading high street companies is applying so much care, vision and common sense to its sustainable future and to important global issues such as the environment.

And, heck, the new document doesn’t even get to the packaging topic until point 12 (out of 20) in the grand scheme of things.

But to read the subsequent media coverage and reportage of the Sainsburys you might very much think otherwise: The packaging issue manages to make it into the first two paragraphs of most news reports, if not the intro paragraph in every story.

I’m thinking that if Justin King, Ken Morrison or Philip Clarke were in it just for laughs, they may as well wear a checkout bag or a vegetable sack over their heads every time they stepped forward for the media.

Never mind the serious issues of fair trade, deforestation, farming, fisheries, animal welfare, nutrition, fossil fuels, carbon footprint and other important topics that have priority space in this new document. Those things can continue to take a rest while the focus moves back again to packaging.

So let’s get this right – one more time.

  • Packaging is a net environmental benefit: It saves much more waste than it produces
  • Packaging conserves the resources and products that society wants
  • Packaging offers shoppers choice – variety of goods and variety of types of goods (brands) – all day, every day.

Let me assure you that having an issue with consumers, consumption, or with ‘what society wants’, or with the variety and choice of products that society currently enjoys will not be solved by scapegoating packaging.

On the contrary. Take a good look into emerging country marketplaces and the wasteage there. Check on the effectiveness of delivery systems in our own supply chains for measureable and science-based answers.

As the Sainsburys ’20 to 20′ document makes abundantly clear; our leading supermarkets are a vital and central plank of our economy, and contribute greatly to its health. I fail to see how we do these businesses real justice by continually pointing to the usual totemic scapegoat.

Thanks again

Dick Searle