Empowering start-ups can be a lever to meet sustainability goals at pace and scale

Tony Perrotta

By Tony Perrotta

As businesses and other organisations evolve to green their operations, the need for sustainable innovation continues to grow. In the packaging sector, that means finding alternative materials that can be reused and recycled easily and investing in processes that center on circularity and minimising resources.

For many packaging companies, innovating while maintaining typical business functions is a challenge. The industrial skills-gap has created an all-hands-on-deck situation in which skilled workers are operating at capacity, and organisations have less bandwidth for research and development (R&D). Incentives for innovation inside large firms tend to make these efforts a “side of desk” activity versus a concerted, well-resourced initiative. To meet their sustainability goals, packaging leaders need to consider looking outside their own organisations and finding strategic partners that will push key initiatives forward.

Start-ups are solving the innovation gap

When enterprises successfully partner with start-ups, they have an external playground for R&D without having to sacrifice ongoing work or having to increase headcount. Start-ups tend to bring a more agile mindset and creative vision to the business landscape because their survival depends on it. Meanwhile, established companies provide market experience, stability, equipment, and proof of market to take ideas to the next level. This support makes it more likely that the resulting products and processes will be commercially viable.

For packaging companies tasked with finding new materials that meet physical requirements, and addressing increasing legislations around plastic waste, start-ups should be leveraged to lessen the burden/risk of going it alone while offering new perspectives on potential solutions.

PulPac is one example of a start-up taking an unconventional approach to food packaging. Whereas most disposable food packaging is made of single-use plastic, PulPac creates durable packaging with dry-molded plant-based fibre. It’s a high-speed, low-cost, sustainable packaging solution. To bring this technology to market, PA Consulting partnered with PulPac to scale development, enabling the product to become a viable market alternative to single-use plastics.

TerraCycle is another example of a start-up making incredible strides in sustainability. The company has built a process centered on partnerships, in which TerraCycle serves as a go-between for consumers to send empty packaging back to brands for recycling or reuse. Other businesses can opt to become drop-off locations where customers can bring items to be recycled. The company has a range of offerings to appeal to everyday consumers, lifestyle brands, recyclers, and others.

How large enterprises and start-ups can find the right partners to go further, faster

As with any partnership, the keys to long-term success are shared values and clear communication.

Established companies should look for ways to support start-ups doing work that aligns to their vision of the future. Whether it’s design, engineering, or market research – leaders should identify areas of expertise that can fill important gaps for others. Many start-ups are on the cusp of world-changing innovation and will be needed to meet our global sustainability goals. Leaders that can find and solve for the missing links will end up on the frontlines of opportunity. Retail powerhouse Nike and food packaging giant Imperial Dade are a great example of how very different organisations can partner to solve global challenges. The brands are currently working together to find new plastic alternatives.

Many companies are even looking to competitors to advance their industries. Working with a competitor can grow a company’s customer base or provide greater access to necessary materials for production. Coopetition, the term used to describe cooperative actions between competitors, has gotten attention more recently as competitors pulled together to solve pandemic-related challenges over the past two years. Today, it remains a great opportunity to address resource scarcity as brands share materials, resources, and ideas.

As leaders seek out partnership opportunities, keep an open mind. As we’ve seen in practice, brands from disparate industries often have a lot to offer one another, as they face similar challenges. In the packaging sector, material science experts, equipment manufacturers, designers, recyclers, engineers, and a host of others all need to come together to meet sustainability goals. Be willing to cast aside preconceived notions about how businesses have previously operated, because collaboration and innovation at pandemic speed is the future.

About the authors

Tony Perrotta
Tony Perrotta PA sustainability expert Tony Perrotta is a sustainable materials and regenerative economy expert.

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