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From Purpose to Action: Building a Sustainable Future Together
Store Shelves of the Future:
Packaging for a Circular Economy

We recently gathered leaders from McKinsey, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive to ponder what consumer products and their packaging will look like in 2035 and beyond.

Whether gathered around a boardroom table or browsing the aisles of a local neighborhood supermarket, our experiences provide clues and insights into the future of sustainability and commerce.

In fact, our grocery stores can be indicators of many larger trends in our economic landscape. Bare shelves suggest supply chain fragmentation, closed checkout lanes hint at labor issues, and an abundance of healthy snacks show greater health consciousness by our food brands. Most recently, rising prices reveal dramatic inflation. Grocery stores can serve as future-forward maps for sustainable transitions in consumer packaged goods (CPG).

While discussions at Davos have predicated trends for the coming year, Dow and Fast Company recently gathered leaders from McKinsey, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive to ponder what our grocery stores will look like in 2035 and beyond. At our Sustainability Next Summit, leaders discussed how to fulfill consumer desires for recyclable product packaging in a way that supports scale and the need to balance consumer convenience.

As Dow’s Chief Sustainability Officer, I am guided by customer-centric collaboration that allows us to deliver innovation and ingenuity — pushing our industry to the forefront of low-carbon, circular solutions. Through conversations we heard from leaders at our Sustainability Next Summit, as well as at other forums such as Davos and UN COPs for climate, I have continued to hear themes of collaboration, meeting customers where they are and phasing in reuse — which will help the CPG sector and beyond to not only map the future, but also shape it, in real time, starting today.

From cooperation to competition and back again

The circular packaging solutions that wind up on store shelves will require input from the entire industrial ecosystem. Optimizing for sustainability requires behind-the-scenes collaboration to solve innovation challenges in materials, design and supply chain management. In the interest of uniformity and broader infrastructure transformation, this often means competitors working together.

Thankfully, many CPG and packaging companies — including Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive — are working together to create scale and consistency through coalitions and trade associations such as the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). Additionally, Colgate-Palmolive participates in CGF’s Plastic Waste Coalition of Action, which is focused on the development of nine “golden design rules” that will allow companies to pre-competitively align on packaging development. As a result, future innovation will have design for recyclability embedded into development DNA and will make it easier for consumers to reuse and recycle.

Meeting consumers where they are

The biggest determinant of success is the ability of the industry to bridge the “say-do” gap. Studies show that upwards of 65 percent of consumers want to live more sustainably, including buying from sustainable brands; yet only 20-30 percent act on this desire.

In today’s recycling system, there’s no shortage of confusion about what can and can’t be recycled, where and how materials should be disposed of and which products and packaging are made sustainably. For this reason, I believe transparency will be the future of the sustainable shelf and key to closing the say-do gap.

Disposal instructions and material origins may soon be as prominent on packaging as brand logos. We should expect shoppers to examine labels before mindlessly dropping items in their carts. Whether directly visible on packaging or accessible through a QR code, this information will be invaluable to consumers looking for more sustainable brands.

The phasing in of reuse

This integration of packaging transparency won’t be the only noticeable shift to store shelves. Another that I am particularly excited to see is greater investment in solutions that encourage reuse. Many products and packaging of the future will not only be recyclable and made of recycled materials, but also reusable.

Take Colgate’s Keep Toothbrush as an example: Consumers buy aluminum toothbrush bases and buy replacements for only the heads of the brushes, as needed. Products such as these divert waste from landfills and are not reliant on widespread implementation of advanced recycling to do so. Plus, the simplicity for consumers tackles the issue of inaction.

Visualizing shelves of the future

As I’ve said before, the future will — in many ways — be different than what we see today; Sustainability Next Summit panelists all agreed that our shelves will be transformed over the next 10-15 years. And, while it may take years for the trickle-down effect to rewrite the shopping experience, I find it encouraging to see companies joining us in the collective journey toward a circular, sustainable world.

View all panels from the Sustainability Next Summit here.

Everyone has a role to play in creating a more sustainable world: Dow is taking action to address the full scale of challenges, collaborating with partners to improve the industry’s processes and through innovation to help communities become more sustainable.

Reducing Carbon Emissions
Learn how reusable and recyclable packaging can help close the loop.

Design for Recyclability
Dow is creating sustainable solutions for food packaging