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Where Sustainability Meets Branding

By Robert Bittner

July 7, 2023

A growing number of boxmakers are making sustainability synonymous with their products as well as their business

From woodlands management to milling and converting, the boxmaking industry has proved itself to be potentially sustainable at nearly every point in the manufacturing process. But sustainability is not just about the box or the display. Many AICC members are taking sustainability to the next level, making it an integral part of what distinguishes their brand. In some cases, sustainability is an all-encompassing philosophy behind how they manage every aspect of their business.

Strengthening Connections

“Sustainability means so much to me and our company,” says Cory Connors, director of sustainable packaging at Orora Packaging Solutions (OPS) and one of the industry’s leading sustainability spokespeople. “We’ve been at the forefront of innovative, sustainable packaging for decades, and we remain committed to leading the industry in this space because it’s the right thing to do. We are dedicated to making packaging that is reusable, recyclable, compostable, with the lowest impact possible on the environment, because we’re passionate about making a difference and helping our customers drive toward net zero.”
When it comes to the packaging itself, Connors continues, “we strive to use the highest level of post-consumer or post-industrial recycled material whenever possible, while maintaining quality to ensure that the product stays protected throughout the supply chain and delivers that impactful experience that differentiates their brand in the marketplace.” Keith E. Thomas, director of strategic initiatives and business development at Michigan City Paper Box, says, “We’ve been producing a sustainable product prior to ‘sustainability’ being a key goal of some of the major retailers. It’s always been that way for us, and now it’s gaining greater traction with customers.” Michigan City Paper Box’s expertise is rigid boxes, typically used for jewelry and other presentations. “If you want to service some of the big brands and the big retailers, you need to have a focus on sustainability,” Thomas says. “Some of the opportunities we’re being given now from some of the big jewelry manufacturers and distributors are specifically requiring 100% recycled materials.” Those customers are also asking for certification pages on the raw materials involved so they can better support sustainability claims to their own customers. The more manufacturers can strengthen the connections between their own products and services—your “brand”—and customers’ desire to support sustainable paper-based packaging, the better.
“Our message is that a paper box is the most sustainable project packaging in the world,” says Bryan Hollenbach, executive vice president of Green Bay Packaging Inc. “Future buyers are very focused on the environment and sustainability. Those of us in this industry need to be addressing that. It’s not only right for the environment; it’s the best way to grow your business. If you get it right, it gives you another strong selling point when you’re in front of the customer.” Part of “getting it right” is making sure your brand message is actually connecting with its intended audience.

A Core Message

The Paper and Packaging Board is an industry-funded organization whose goal is to help build widespread preference for paper and paper packaging, representing the corrugated and paperboard sectors, as well as printing and writing papers. “Sustainability is our core messaging focus,” says Sarah Meiburg, the board’s senior director of industry outreach. “We believe—and promote—that paper and paper-based packaging is good for the environment and the planet, and we want consumers and customers to understand our sustainability story.” The organization’s latest initiative is called “Box to Nature,” a program that delivers on-box messaging directed at improving the consumer-residential recycling rate, which for corrugated is estimated around 40%. “By contrast, on the commercial side, it’s closer to 90%,” Meiburg states.
“Box to Nature” educates consumers to empty, flatten, and recycle their boxes through an on-box graphic. A scannable QR code provides additional recycling information. “It gives the companies that want to participate the ability to offer their customers a recycling message that is consumer-friendly, educational, and directly connects the brand to sustainability messaging,” Meiburg says. Green Bay Packaging has been a financial supporter of the Paper and Packaging Board from its inception, according to Hollenbach. So, when the board was seeking packaging companies to present the “Box to Nature” message to their customers, “we were involved in that very early on,” he says. “When we’re meeting with customers, we also present the campaign and try to get them to buy into the concept of adding the ‘Box to Nature’ logo on their boxes.” While not every company is willing to give up such valuable real estate, notes Hollenbach, “customers that are more environmentally conscious and looking for ways to make an overall impact are very open to it.” Some may dismiss the value of on-box messaging; Hollenbach says he believes it’s important to highlight sustainability whenever and wherever possible. “The industry has opportunities to improve the [recycling] message to end consumers, i.e., residential,” he says. “We need to increase the recycling rate at this level by getting the message out, making it a priority, and ultimately expanding the resources they have to recycle. Sometimes the best way to do that is through a panel on the box to remind people that, ‘Hey, this is sustainable. This product is not something that should be thrown away in a landfill.’” On-box messaging is just one way to highlight a brand’s support for sustainability. Companies are continuing to find innovative ways to highlight sustainability for their target markets.

From Sales Tools to TikTok

Michigan City Paper Box’s sales are made up of a combination of about 50% stocked product that people purchase from the company’s printed catalog and 50% custom orders. That makes the catalog a significant sales tool for the brand as well as an opportunity to connect that brand to sustainability. To ensure the company’s catalog reflects its values, says Thomas, “we produce our printed catalog on a similar substrate to our boxes, using paper made from 100% recycled material produced from hydroelectric power.” This approach puts an actual example of the company’s commitment in customers’ hands. OPS has taken a similarly innovative approach to further link its brand with sustainability. This spring, the company launched a new magazine called Sustainably Packaged. “It’s an educational and inspirational resource that explores sustainability trends and challenges and offers inspiration and insight on how customers can make improvements in their packaging and operations to execute their sustainability goals,” Connors explains. In today’s media climate, print and digital catalogs and publications may reach only a limited segment of the market. Younger buyers are used to acquiring information in other ways. That realization led Connors to take a decidedly unexpected step: “About three years ago, I started making TikTok videos about sustainable packaging,” he says. “A lot of people said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you wasting your time with this?’ Well, you might be surprised,” he adds. “TikTok videos are usually only around 20 seconds long. In that time, I could talk about sustainable packaging materials and help people understand what can be recycled, what can’t, and what they can try in their own businesses. Because this was around the time the pandemic hit, suddenly hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people were starting their own businesses in their homes. They needed packaging materials to ship their products. My TikTok page became very popular with these small business owners because they didn’t know what to do about packaging, and they couldn’t afford to hire consultants. I was able to provide a lot of the information they were looking for so they could package their products securely and sustainably.” The popularity of his TikTok videos encouraged Connors to develop the Sustainable Packaging podcast, which he hosts. In the two years he has been podcasting, he has released over 200 episodes, which have been downloaded more than 40,000 times. Each episode includes a prominent mention of Orora’s support. “It shows that there are people out there who are very interested in being sustainable and learning about how to be a better steward of the environment—even with the small things in their daily life, like recycling or not buying something that isn’t packaged correctly,” he says.

Sustainable Business

Finally, a growing number of manufacturers are looking beyond the box when it comes to embracing sustainability—evaluating everything from equipment purchases to hiring practices and succession planning in terms of its potential environmental impact as well as its overall impact on the long-term future of the company. “Sustainable packaging is really just a start for us,” Thomas acknowledges. “The next challenge is for our plants to become carbon neutral. We’re going to go through the process of measuring our carbon footprint and seeing what it would take to offset that and achieve carbon neutrality. We think that’s the next logical step in being a sustainable manufacturer.” “Sustainability plays a role in everything we do,” says Hollenbach, “from how we recruit employees to our capital investments and in our discussions with customers. It includes a focus on the environment, but we also look beyond that. Sustainability is also about making the right decisions to sustain our company for the years ahead. For example, three years ago we made the largest investment in our history: building the new Green Bay Mill, a net-zero water mill. It is the only net-zero water mill in the United States, and I believe one of only two in the world. We did that, frankly, because it was the right thing for the company today, and it’s the right thing for the environment for the future.” That message resonates with current employees and helps to attract future employees, Hollenbach points out. “They respect the fact that corrugated packaging itself is a very sustainable product. But they also respect the fact that we put our money where our mouth is, setting specific, companywide goals for environmental improvements across box plants, paper mills, woodlands, and so on. For example, one of our goals is to attain zero landfill for all of our box plants. We apply accountability and resources toward those goals. As a result, it’s something that employees get pretty excited about.” Connors says he believes it’s critical for companies to consider the future and how your business can thrive in a sustainable way. “We can all look at the way we’re working and living to find ways to make beneficial improvements,” he says. “For example, think about the way that you set up equipment to run materials in advance, and see if it’s possible to eliminate that 10% waste produced before you start to work on the order. With circular design thinking and maintaining a focus on sustainability in every action, I believe we can also impact the bottom line.”

An Ongoing Education

While sustainability is no longer a topic of interest for a limited few, many customers still will not be aware of the innovations and advantages coming from boxmakers unless they’re told. Hollenbach, for example, says the life cycle of paper boxes needs to be talked about much more. “A corrugated box can be reused seven-plus times, and it can be recycled into the very same product and used again,” he says. “The fact that it can be reused and then recycled is, I think, a much better story than you’ll find with some other packaging substrates that our customers are using.” Meiburg adds, “Anything we can do as an industry to help consumers understand the great story that is paper packaging will be beneficial. The better job we do at educating them, the more they’re going to prefer paper packaging.”
  Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.

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