The time to act is now: Three key takeaways from The Sustainable Retail Summit 2021

More than 400 business leaders participated virtually and physically in The Sustainable Retail Summit, hosted by The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) in Paris, France, on October 13-14, 2021. This year’s theme, “The Evolving Face of Sustainability: Acting Today to Shape Tomorrow,” was a clarion call to consumer goods leaders, retailers and others to accelerate the pace of sustainability initiatives.

As the pandemic enters its second year, business leaders are grappling with pressing challenges, including ongoing supply chain snarls, resulting in expensive, un-optimised logistics; higher fossil fuel use due to energy shortages; and a global spike in single-use plastics. Despite these issues, leaders remain optimistic that they can drive systemic change.

PA sustainability and retail experts Kim McCann and Tom Day presented on Day 1, sharing insights into How to Pivot Your Business to Achieve Sustainable Success.

As our team attended sessions, we heard three key themes that industry organisations are addressing to drive innovation faster and further and make an impact now.

1. To rethink plastics and packaging, start with your strategy.

The CGF highlighted nine Golden Design Rules for Optimal Plastics Design, Production and Recycling; recommendations that address 90 per cent of the plastic packaging on the market. The design rules – launched in July 2021 by the CGF’s Plastic Waste Coalition – point to a need for brands to develop an end-to-end products and packaging strategy, aligning business goals, applications and materials to increase value. That’s critical because 70 per cent of product lifecycle costs and environmental footprint are determined during design, and most products aren’t designed for reuse.

Brands can reduce the environmental impact of plastic-based products and packaging by designing them for reuse, refill, recycling or composting. However, they need to consider global perspectives and priorities. Trends in the Western world, such as reducing packaging sizes to create single-serve portions, have destroyed recycling incentives in markets like Asia.

Organisation teams want to analyse product design options to achieve the ideal balance of cost, carbon and circularity impacts (3Cs). A leading telecommunications company has used our 3C Edge methodology to rethink an IT product that’s deployed across the UK. The company is exploring three options that could deliver significant costs savings, while reducing hundreds of tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions as well as maximizing the device’s circularity potential.

PulPac, a Swedish R&D and IP company, wants to transform the packaging industry. They’ve developed an innovative production method that can replace single-use plastic at a lower cost. The fast production makes the method cost effective and the material, generic pulp from cellulose, makes it sustainable.

One organisation that has successfully implemented a closed loop returns system is Dunnet Bay Distillers. The Scottish distillery packages its Rock Rose Gin in a four-layer laminate pouch, which can be flattened after use, returned via conventional mail and refilled for reuse. As Dunnet Bay’s program demonstrates, brands typically work with partners, such as logistics and recycling providers, to develop and maintain closed loop systems that promote packaging reuse.

2. It’s time to treat excess food as surplus, not waste.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 931 million tonnes of food, or 17 per cent of the world’s global annual production, goes to waste each year. That loss is intolerable, given that food scarcity issues are still present in almost every country. In addition, food loss includes the waste of global feedstocks, water, livestock and fertiliser used in agriculture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that food loss and waste caused eight to 10 per cent of the emissions of gasses responsible for global warming between 2010 and 2016.

Food surpluses provide an opportunity for brands to create more value. They can think creatively about how to recover and reuse waste, work with partners to implement new technologies and practices, track waste flows and design waste out. That’s a process that many large agriculture and food producers have already started.

There has been significant innovation in this space. Rubicon, a technology company, provides software that organisations can use to track global waste flows. With these insights organisations can create a baseline of their food waste production and measure progress towards reducing it over time.

3. Making sustainability part of your brand’s mission will unlock ingenuity.

Finally, the challenges the world faces are getting more urgent with each passing year and are too complex to solve alone. Brand leaders know that they’re not just solving problems for their own organisations, but for the next generation – and the ones beyond.

Organisations must make sustainability a core part of their purpose, not just a stand-alone initiative. Global brands such as Unilever have already proven how to create incredible market value by using sustainability to innovate, reduce risks, recruit the best talent and drive transformational change.

Brands also must increase collaboration, sharing their best ideas and innovations via industry coalitions and information sharing forums, so that others can adopt them, too. By so doing, they not only break down barriers, but seed hope that global change isn’t just possible – it’s happening now.


As speakers and participants at the Summit stressed, the time is now to drive forward with sustainability. Brands and their partners must rethink products and packaging to reduce waste, treat waste streams like food as a valuable input for creating new products and lead with purpose. By so doing, they will win the hearts and minds of shareholders, partners and consumers alike.

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