Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker
Tom Mclaughlin

Woolworths’ green packaging path

Tom McLaughlin

IT would probably be a big surprise to the many people who know him, but Tom McLaughlin’s boyhood dream was to study all the religions of the world and to sit on top of the proverbial mountain top and dispense wisdom to whoever needed it. However, his long-held ambition came to a sudden halt when he learnt what mountain top philosophers were paid. In the blink of an eye, Tom became a capitalist, but with a conscience. Throughout his long tenure as Woolworths’ head of foods packaging, he retained moral compass. Tom has been an ardent advocate of many causes, one of which has subsequently become his career: environmental sustainability.

In the wilderness as a passionate but lonely ‘greenie’ for years, all Tom’s pushing, lobbying and lecturing on what is now globally viewed as a business imperative has eventually come to fruition. At last, someone with real clout – Tom’s ultimate boss at Woolworths, CEO Simon Susman – has taken up the call and recently outlined the group’s ‘Good Business Journey’, a new corporate strategy with sustainability one of its watchwords. Obviously, packaging plays a key part of this.

Brenda Neall interviewed Tom, the retailer’s new foods technical manager for environmental sustainability, on these initiatives, what they will entail and how Woolworths is going about realising these with its many packaging suppliers.

BN: Tom, you’re clearly a man of strong convictions, what piqued your environmental concerns?

TM: I simply hate waste. It’s just in my blood, I guess. As the eldest of nine children, growing up frugally in Ireland, there was no room to squander anything. Sustainability has subsequently become a deep and absorbing interest of mine, and I’m involved in many of our environmental initiatives, from both corporate and social responsibility perspectives. I’m also doing an MPhil in Sustainability at Stellenbosch University.

On an unashamed emotional level, I’m a nature lover. I’ve long been aware that the world can’t keep operating as it is; that the unexpected consequences of industrialisation and human activity are impinging on the planet at global and molecular levels and this is very evident in global climate change, the loss of biodiversity, pollution, environmental degradation and so on. We simply can’t ignore these signs any longer.

With Woolworth’s announcement of its Good Business Journey, you must feel pleased that all your past soap-boxing efforts are vindicated?

It’s great to finally catch the bus that I’ve been barking at for years, but I’m on an even more challenging ride now putting it all into action within our five-year time-frame.

What prompted Simon Susman’s big step onto the Good Business Journey?

It has several facets, with transformation the first priority. On the environmental side, sustainability, green issues, carbon footprints and the like have all moved into the business mainstream, and popular awareness has been greatly inspired recently by Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and major media coverage being given these topics.

As Simon said at the time of its launch, sustainable growth can only be achieved through paying greater attention to the world around us than we have in the past – so that the links between economic growth, transformation, poverty alleviation, the environment and climate change can either form a vicious or a virtuous circle. And we aim to be part of the latter. Our customers, suppliers and the country at large expect it of us.

Woolworths is a leader and we raise the bar for others. I think Simon has shown remarkable leadership with the Good Business Journey. Government can legislate, Mrs Housewife can complain, but it’s capitalists who make the world spin. To my mind, capitalism caused the problems and now, for its own survival, it has to play a role in resolving them.

The Good Business Journey is a very broad initiative, but what does it mean for Woolworths packaging?

Nearly all supermarket packaging is designed to be discarded after one use, and this has to change. We’re not looking at rocket science here, but to reduce, recycle or compost all packaging from source through to customer.

Specific targets are a one third reduction of packaging in clothing and a 20% reduction in food packaging; to eliminate excess packaging; to restrict packaging materials to those that can and are being recycled locally; to include polymer symbols on plastic packages to help customers and recyclers in identification; to incorporate recycled material into packaging wherever possible to close the life-cycle loop; and to introduce compostable packaging (so that nature can do most of the recycling for us).

The barriers to recycling are still immense, so another element down the line will be a major national initiative to make the collection part of the recycling process easier for customers.

That sounds like quite an ask?

It’s going to be a tough task, undoubtedly. It will demand new mindsets. We have got to design our packaging with the environment in mind. Where we source sustainable packaging materials from and how we are going to dispose of them at the end of their life is as important as the usual issues of branding, selling, shelf-space requirements and so on. We’re focused on reducing our packaging to the essential requirements of product protection, promotion and information.

How are you getting this message out to your suppliers?

We’ve briefed packaging companies, outlined our needs, and challenged them to come up with solutions, to think differently. We have shown many of them ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Those who ren’t hard at work getting greener, need to get going! And the pressure is not only going to come from Woolworths.

Are you following Wal-Mart’s lead and implementing a green scorecard for your packaging?

We haven’t done it officially. Their packaging scorecard is multi-faceted. It not only looks at the optimum use of packaging materials in the package but it looks at the sustainability of the raw materials used, the carbon footprint of the production processes and the availability of recycling facilities for consumers.

The Wal-Mart initiative is an interesting and admirable one, and where it leads, others will follow. There’s a multiplier effect, too, that will inspire thousands of companies and millions of customers around the globe.

What’s your take on the various local environmental packaging initiatives?

We are way behind where we should be. We have not woken up to the environmental shifts that are taking place in the world. One could say we’re sleepwalking – its business as usual for most especially those in the plastics industry with one exception and that is PETCO. Their idea of managing their own future is laudable. I wish the others would follow suit and not be negative and wait for the government to impose laws and levies. Ultimately, we need to create a body like WRAP in the UK. WRAP works in partnership with business, local authorities and consumers to be more efficient in their use of materials and recycle more things more often. In doing this they minimise landfill, reduce carbon emissions and improve the environment.

You mention earlier closing the life-cycle loop. What exactly do you mean by this?

It encompasses the entire life cycle of packaging and must be addressed if sustainable packaging is to become a reality. The definition is ambitious and comprehensive, but one of the key strategies is design, as this is the point where we can prevent waste, optimise the use of resources, select safer materials and plan for the recyclability of packaging. However, even the most well designed packaging will not meet the sustainability test if there are not effective systems to recover the value of the materials. Building effective, closed-loop recycling and composting systems for packaging materials will be one of the biggest challenges in creating of a truly sustainable packaging industry, but one from which everyone stands to gain.

What’s your worst green packaging sin?

I see excessive packaging as a sin and I hate packaging that cannot be recycled. Landfills are toxic cemeteries where waste accumulates. In nature there is no waste.

The packaging of the future? What are your thoughts on this?

To the Woolworths customer packaging waste is symbolic of the disconnect that has taken place between her and the natural environment. She expects all of us involved in packaging production to resolve this problem plus we have to optimise the packaging we produce so that we prevent product waste.

The packaging materials of the future – and here I am thinking in terms of 20 years time – will come from locally available renewable resources rather than oil. The used packaging will be easy to recycle/compost. And lastly, the packaging of the future will be made with renewable energy. No more oil or coal.

What’s your current bedside reading?

I have several books going, but I’m fascinated by two. One is called ‘The Art of Possibility’. It’s a wise, uplifting and insightful manual for turning life’s obstacles into possibilities. The other is called ‘When the Rivers Run Dry’. The title is self-explanatory and it is NOT fiction.

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media magazine, July 2007

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