How investor activism impacts the sustainability of packaging | items


As you sow, a non-profit organization that uses shareholder advocacy to improve the social and environmental practices of publicly traded companies, has recently forced major brand owners to change their packaging sustainability strategies. From McDonald’s to Mondelez, more and more companies are bowing to pressure from investors to be leaders in their space.

We spoke to the senior vice president of the organization, Conrad MacKerron to learn more about the changes made so far and his vision for the future.

In terms of how companies within the packaging value chain and key brand owners are currently operating, what are some of the key areas of interest for your business?

Concerned about low recycling rates for beverage containers and packaging in the US, for two decades we have been urging companies to take more responsibility for making packaging more recyclable and supporting efforts to collect and recycle more packaging.

More recently, this is reflected in efforts focused on the global plastic pollution crisis. We have formed a coalition of investors to engage companies on plastic pollution, the Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance, with more than 50 members with $2.5 trillion in assets under management. We believe that companies using plastic packaging should do the following:

  • Make plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable as much as possible
  • Report the annual use of plastic packaging
  • Set goals to reduce plastic consumption
  • Development of alternatives to plastic for packaging purposes, especially for disposable packaging
  • Recognize responsibility and play a significant role in funding and facilitating the collection and recycling or composting of packaging in markets where they operate (ie producer responsibility).
  • Supporting public policies to reduce plastic waste and increase producer responsibility
  • Accelerate the exploration of technology and innovation potential to deliver solutions.

In February, As You Sow helped convince Kraft Heinz to set targets to reduce virgin plastic. How did this action come about?

We submitted a shareholder proposal to the company for 2022, asking them to set a goal to reduce the use of plastic in packaging. In dialogue with the company, it stated that it was working on such a reduction target, but was still researching the scope. In exchange for a public commitment to set a target later this year or early next year, we agreed to withdraw our proposal.

Can you give us some insight into similar initiatives that As You Sow has been involved with in the area of ​​packaging sustainability?

The process with Kraft Heinz is the same path we took in similar conversations with five major consumer goods companies in 2021 – Keurig Dr. Pepper, Mondelez International, PepsiCo, Target Corp. and Walmart. They have all agreed to set plastic reduction targets in exchange for withdrawing our proposals.

We have had numerous previous successful engagements on sustainability in packaging with major brands.

Starbucks Corp. agreed to move away from single-use beverage cups and encourage customers and employees to accept reusable and refillable alternatives for its beverages. If successful, this will revolutionize take-away beverage delivery.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s Corp. Ending the use of harmful polystyrene (Styrofoam) beverage cups and packaging worldwide and removing 1 billion foam cups from the market. YUM! Brands has also agreed to phase out polystyrene packaging globally by 2022.

Colgate-Palmolive, KraftHeinz, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble and Unilever have all agreed to make their plastic packaging more or fully recyclable.

We have also mandated manufacturers of plastic pellets used to make plastic packaging to publicly report on all releases of pellets, which are a growing source of microplastic solutions in waterways. To date, ExxonMobil Chemical, Chevron Phillips Chemical, Dow Chemical and Westlake Chemical have agreed to report.

Broadly speaking, which major companies/brands are currently doing it right? Are there any that you admire for the way they deal with the sustainability of packaging?

No brand does everything right. Most are very busy. This is reflected in the original research we conduct. We exhibited Original research reports 2020 and 2021 rankings of 50 major consumer goods companies on packaging sustainability, our 2020 Waste and Opportunity Report, and our 2021 Corporate Plastic Pollution Scorecard. Both reports assessed company performance. You can check these rankings to see which companies performed best.

The problems are compounded by the fact that many of the challenges are system issues and not just a matter of changing an organization’s individual policies. For example, companies can make their packaging recyclable, but unless they encourage and fund strong recycling programs, the recyclable packaging will be discarded and sent to landfill.

That’s why when you look at our scorecards mentioned above, we rate them both on individual actions and on a willingness to work with competitors, governments, recyclers and other stakeholders to improve reuse and recycling systems wherever they operate.

Looking ahead – what’s next for As You Sow? Are there growing areas of focus for your organization?

As well as focusing on the sustainability of packaging for consumer brands, we have recently stepped forward to engage petrochemical companies that make the resins used in plastic packaging. We ask ExxonMobil and Phillips 66 to focus on the possibility that they may need to change their business models as global plastic bans and related policies dampen future demand for plastic packaging. We would also like them to plan to switch production from virgin resins to recycled resins made from post-consumer plastics.


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