At SB’21 San Diego, innovators in the agriculture, electronics, food and plastics industries shared lessons learned from a variety of initiatives aimed at closing loops and optimizing value chains for a circular, regenerative future.
This is one of a series of posts filled with insights gained from dozens of industry leaders, practitioners and innovators on a variety of themes at SB’21 San Diego. Read more insights on product and business model innovation, brand storytelling, stakeholder engagement, regenerative leadership, regeneration and social impact metrics and more …
Rethinking the whole value chain of plastic
Image credit: Footprint
Kicking off day one of SB’21 San Diego, this panel featured a diverse line-up offering a 360-degree view of the current plastics landscape. Dave Ford, founder of the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network (OPLN), kicked off the morning by pointing out the challenges and opportunities in closing the loop in plastic value chains.
In 2020, the OPLN began creating unprecedented collaboration between seemingly disparate groups, catalyzing the Global Plastic Treaty Dialogues. Ford asserted the conviction that “tension equals progress,” a pattern he has witnessed through the successes of OLPN thus far.
Closed Loop Partners’ Paula Luu, project director at the Center for the Circular Economy, said that she and her research team realized that in the ideal scenario of eliminating all plastic packaging waste, only one-third of plastic pollution would be addressed.
“We need to be thinking about the solutions to drive circularity for all plastics in the economy,” Luu said.
She explained the importance of engaging both upstream and downstream solutions, with policy being applicable to both. Luu discussed the nascent solution of advanced recycling, also known as molecular or chemical recycling, promising for its ability to break plastic down into its most basic constituent parts to produce liquid or gas 'feedstocks', which can then be used to make virgin plastic. The Center for the Circular Economy will publish a report next month, offering insights on the risks and benefits of the technology.
Paloma Lopez, co-founder of Future Fit Foods, stressed the importance of design and thinking systemically about the challenges towards circularity. She reframed the principles of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” to “reduce, reuse, and return” — a concept FFF is exploring through its packaging take-back program. Lopez emphasized the need to gauge consumer participation, improve prototypes, and learn from current supply chain challenges.
As she pointed out, Millennials are excited about sustainability but aren’t confident in their ability to recycle properly. Packaging take-back (aka extended producer responsibility) is one way to respond to the current needs of the market while building loyalty through an ongoing relationship, versus a once-off transaction. Future Fit Foods’ vision is to eventually use packaging that is edible and backyard compostable.
Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Director of Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, emphasized holistic solutions. “We can’t fix one thing without thinking about how it affects everything else,” he said.
Multivariable systems require striking a balance when finding solutions and still maintaining company values. Wooster said Dow strikes this balance by manufacturing circular polymers and advancing projects that serve the company’s objectives towards circularity. He highlighted Recycling for Change, a program in Brazil that educates cooperatives to understand their own work processes in order to drive efficiency. The program empowers workers to continuously improve their productivity, leading to a more viable and sustainable income in the long term. Recognizing that not every company in the world is in the position to coordinate progress on closing the loop, Dow sees coordination as a key responsibility.
In balancing goals to lower carbon emissions while maintaining growth, Dow recently announced plans to build the world’s first zero-carbon, large-scale plastics plant in Canada. In planning for the future and a lower carbon footprint, Wooster explains new facilities are expected to last 40-60 years.
Susan Koehler, Chief Marketing Officer at Footprint, shared her inspiration to create an alternative to plastic and polystyrene foam. Today, Footprint’s plastic and foam alternatives protect foods at grocery stores across the country. Koehler emphasized the importance of collaborations in driving innovation, such as Footprint’s work with Conagra in engineering alternative packaging materials. She concluded that consumers will lead the transition to plastics that are healthier for people and the planet — Footprint’s next developments will include B2C offerings.
From Dirt to Shirt: Providing data, transparency and supply chain assurances
Image credit: David Mark/Pixabay
One of the most pressing issues on the retail side of the apparel business is relaying an increased amount of transparency and sourcing information in response to climate and consumer demand. This is potentially the most urgent with the world’s most used textile: cotton.
A Tuesday lunchtime panel featured two leaders in the US cotton trade who attempted to shed some light on the issue, along with a progress update on the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.
“Sustainability revolves around being economically sustainable,” said generational California farmer Aaron Barcellos, whose farm produces cotton in addition to a range of other crops.
He described some of the economic and regulatory challenges around domestic cotton production, but also explained how the Cotton Trust Protocol allows him to be more transparent as a producer and to connect further with brands and retailers.
National Cotton Council President and CEO Gary Adams highlighted the specifics of the protocol, which launched last year. The multi-step process verifies growing data through the entire production process from around 300 growers worldwide — from farm to shelf — and offers more data that brands can show consumers about the origins of their products.
He added that to independently verify the data, 5-8 percent of farmers will receive a random visit from a third-party group that verifies the inputs through analysis of their on-site practices. The goal is to educate each member of the process — farmer, fabric mill, supplier, retailer and consumer — about what goes into a cotton product and potential paths for sustainable improvement.
Barcellos wrapped the panel by explaining some of the surprising benefits that a transparency-based system such as the Trust Protocol can provide for cotton growers across the 17 states that produce it domestically.
“Our value is in keeping our farm going generation to generation,” he said, “and the Trust Protocol is a good tool that can help us do that.”
Beyond net zero: How Nestlé, Dole, Unilever are boosting sustainability impacts
L-R: John Hanselman, Lara Ramdin, Emily Johannes | Image credit: Christian Yonkers
Most companies have committed to some form of science-based sustainability targets, but few consider what it means to be a net-positive business. A Tuesday SB’21 session covered how Nestlé, Dole Sunshine Company, Unilever, and Vanguard Renewables are going beyond “do no harm” to promote net benefit for people and the planet.
In the last decade, Nestlé has shifted from a do-no-harm to a do-net-good approach. The company aims for carbon neutrality across its value chain by 2050, with interim milestones focusing on regeneration a-scale — the latter being driven by supply chain engagement.
When Vanguard Renewables developed a way to turn food waste into renewable fuels and fertilizers, it thought the world would come crashing down its doors. It didn’t.
Vanguard founder and CEO John Hanselman discovered the need to build relationships with partners to help build a robust proof of concept and scale his company’s innovative solutions. Vanguard — along with Unilever, Starbucks, and Dairy Farmers of America — created the Farm Powered Strategic Alliance (FPSA) to boost food waste recycling and expand renewable energy production through methane collection.
Niki King, Head of Sustainability at Unilever, praised the FPSA for putting its bold words into action, and highlighted the role collaborations play in effectively tackling climate change and honing competition.
These are journeys that aren't necessarily new, said Emily Johannes, Senior Manager of Sustainable Sourcing at Nestlé. What is new is an urgency to respond regeneratively to the pandemic, racial injustice, and the climate crisis.
Dole Sunshine, a 170-year-old company, is only two years into its sustainability journey. But its goals are audacious: Beyond carbon neutrality, zero food waste, fossil-free packaging and providing nutritious food to one billion people.
For Dole, sustainability means being honest about shortcomings, mistakes, and rebranding for the sake of doing right. It recognizes it lacks internal capabilities to meet goals, requiring support from alliances and partnerships: “We recognize that we can’t do it on our own,” said Chief Innovation Officer Lara Ramdin.
Regeneration infuses a net-positive outlook on all aspects of ESG, bringing roadmaps and complex supply chains together to see the essence of what it means to regenerate in a unique context: What works for cocoa doesn’t work with coffee, but positive efforts in principles-based approaches lead to net good.
Turning rubbish into profit is one principles-based approach every regenerative brand can get behind. For Vanguard, learning to extract multiple resources from a single waste stream is key in achieving net positivity.
Dole and Nestlé agree — finding ways to use their own industrial waste and processes to create net-positive resources, such as water recycling in Nestlé plants or using pineapple leaf fibers to create faux leather.
But regenerative ideas don’t scale on their own: As Hanselman pointed out, regenerative concepts and practices won’t become KPIs without coming of age in alliances and pre-competitive partnerships.
A new framework for socially responsible ocean-bound plastic supply chains
Interface's Net Effect carpet tiles are made from upcycled ocean plastic | Image credit: Interface
There’s plenty of talk about reducing plastic usage across almost every industry, but few truly transparent and detailed methods of getting there in a meaningful, long-term way.
So, when Lonely Whale CEO Dune Ives conceived a new framework for socially responsible ocean-bound plastic supply chains, it signaled a serious commitment from several major participating companies to a long-term plastic reduction and improvement strategy.
“This environmental situation we’re in is all of our problem,” Ives said, noting the need for serious and swift action.
Company leaders within the NextWave Plastics cooperative (totaling 24 companies across 19 countries) worked together to come up with a six-point plan set to reduce the amount of plastic entering the oceans, but also creating real ways to remove plastic already there and create usable pathways for those tasked with collecting the waste.
The vision includes:
Freely chosen employment
Fair and predictable payment
Beneficial health and safety conditions
Prioritizing child welfare
Strong business ethics, traceability and documentation
Support for marginalized populations
“The people are what make up the supply chain,” said Dell Technologies Global Head of Sustainability Page Motes, one of three other panelists on the pre-recorded panel.
Motes noted how this framework required Dell to re-examine its own supply chain and evolve the way it sourced and distributed plastics for its products.
“As the supply became more prevalent and using it in greater increments, we saw economies of scale kick in,” she added.
Several companies already have more progressive plastic policies in place and this framework is meant to take the learnings of those companies that have already taken the leap and provide applicability to businesses of all sizes.
Interface Director of Technical Sustainability Mikhail Davis provided some context around the breadth and depth of work it took to get to this point, and how far we still have to go: “(The goal is) to get to the point where we’re doing social good locally with our raw materials,” he said. “You have to figure out how to get yourself on the path (towards that).”
VP of Sustainability Strategy and Partnerships at CPI Card Group, Terra Grantham, brought more of a financial perspective and outlined work CPI has done with social good initiative First Mile (fka Thread), helping families in Haiti make a living from plastic recycling and converting those proceeds into a better standard of living.
Above all, the framework signals plenty of potential for a roadmap to reducing plastic’s impact across business, the environment and society.
“Come on the journey with us!” Motes said.
A more sustainable food supply starts with better breeding
Image credit: Alexandre Farms/Facebook
To nourish 10 billion people by 2050, we need real innovation to meet the demand while reducing the impact on our planet. Elena Rice, R&D Chief Scientific Officer at Genus PLC, feels that the topic of animal breeding technology is missing from the sustainable food production dialogue. Major transformations in the genomic industry over the past two decades have tremendously improved animal health, leading to increased production and decreased input.
On Wednesday afternoon, Rice highlighted the many interconnected benefits of better animal breeding — including the eradication of animal disease and antibiotic use, a decrease in the animal deaths due to disease; and by default, a reduction in the number of animals that would enter into the food chain in the first place. While these results directly impact farmers of all sizes through increased productivity, they also have environmental advantages such as a reduction in carbon emissions, resource use and waste.
Despite the many benefits mentioned, Rice stresses the challenge of bringing new animal breeding technologies into the marketplace. Overcoming this challenge depends on technology acceptance by society. There’s a lot of opportunity for animal breeding to be a solution for sustainable animal protein for those who want it. “Productivity is at the heart of sustainable food production,” she said.
Rice reminded us that everything starts with genetics. Various forms of selective breeding have been used since the dawn of human society — and are distinct from genetically modified organisms (GMO). In this practice, animal traits are measured, and the best animals are used as parent-animals. This provides livestock farmers with a generation of animals that are better able to thrive in their unique geographic conditions. Furthermore, Rice explained that genetic selection is the best response to illnesses that currently cannot be effectively prevented or treated by traditional veterinary medicines or vaccination.
JoDee Haala, Director of Public Affairs of Christensen Farms, highlighted the positive impact of animal breeding through its role in supporting family-owned and -operated farms to help build back small communities. Haala explained how science and technology have helped Christensen Farms drastically increase yield and productivity, particularly in Minnesota’s harsh climate. In some places, farms already need to provide extra infrastructure to create a controlled environment just for animals to grow. Haala describes animal breeding as “doing more with less, using science and technology.”
Meanwhile, the cows at Blake Alexandre’s Alexandre Family Farms are slightly different than other cows. Aside from selectively breeding for hearty and durable cows that thrive in Northern California’s climate, Alexandre also determined to breed the A1 beta casein gene out of the cows. The result was the reintroduction of A2/A2 milk, a milk that is natural for human digestion. Alexandre Family Farms became the world’s first producer of organic A2/A2 milk.
In the journey towards a more sustainable future, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. At a time when a lot of small farmers are coming out of a difficult commodity cycle, new approaches to animal breeding pose an appealing option to explore ways to distinguish your brand’s quality and performance.