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

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

Once more unto the breach…

Dick SearleIt was my great pleasure to be in Stratford upon Avon this month. Something of the Bard must have been in the air because the messages given and the audience receiving it provided a very good fit indeed.

The occasion was the environment seminar of the Foodservice Packaging Assocation, a member trade association of The Packaging Federation. The turnout was very healthy and the sessions were well structured and well organised. All credit to Martin Kersh, FSPA secretary, and FSPA chairman Neil Whittall of Huhtamaki UK for presiding over things.

As I walked to the podium to make The Packaging Federation presentation – the last presentation of the conference – it was clear to me that we were going to enjoy ourselves.  As you might expect, I generally work off a standard powerpoint module to introduce myself, the PF and packaging issues. However, the material is always structured for topicality and ad libbing and I try to make it fresh and new every time.

My Stratford audience certainly thought so – and was sympathetic and appreciative. Sometimes it just takes a thought or the right word to dislodge and articulate the truths that are self-evident. Those who know me will realise that preaching to the converted is something that I try to avoid. However, encouraging our own industry simply to know its strengths and to act upon them is for me a 101 requirement. It’s also a task that, for the sake of reason and common sense, is absolutely necessary.

And oftentimes we simply need a little fun and ‘kiddology’ to get the ball rolling and see the world straight again.  For example – ‘How much packaging do we sell to consumers?’ I am often fond of asking companies. The correct answer is none, of courseConsumers buy products. Packaging is simply the delivery system that brings those products to market.

Thanks to Simon Twilley and PackTV, who were present at the FPA event, these and other messages are now preserved and available over the internet. Simon’s PackTV gives our sector a regular and interesting diet of news and features in a handy format that is designed for our YouTube age.

Some of you will have seen me in this mode and setting. The message is familiar but I make no apology for that. A variety of media formats and offerings are key to keeping our message alive with all. Please do check out Simon’s site at where you’ll find me under his recent FPA coverage. Enjoy!

Many thanks again

Dick Searle

In shopping sympathy…

The recent Packaging News conference on retailing and packaging did much to show what works and what’s good about the current state-of-the-retail-art. Issues of production selection and point-of-sale choice were especially interesting.

For those of us currently embroiled in the Xmas shopping experience – and perhaps looking this year to take the armchair route out – check this link to a cautionary video tale.

This little piece is actually a healthy reminder of the true purpose of retailing. Systems, options and information technology although they present options and choices – are not shopping. Our day-to-day commercial dealings still need the human touch and are likely to do so for time to come.

Thanks again

Dick Searle