A few weeks ago, I read “Moving to Higher Ground: Rising Sea Level and the Path Forward,” by John Englander, a renowned oceanographer, multi-book author, speaker, and expert on climate change and sea level rise. Unlike all the cold, hard facts about preserving our environment, one sentence in this book took my breath away, resonating deeply like nothing else.
Essentially, the author said that the shape of all the continents on earth will change—forever.
Coastal Cities Across the World Will Vanish
Coastal areas like Miami, New York, Boston, Hong Kong, Manila, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Venice and more, will vanish, submerged under water due to the impact of rising sea level. “SLR will profoundly affect more than 10,000 coastal communities as soon as 2050, both in the U.S. and around the world.” This means that a child born in 2021 will be just 29 years old when they experience these profound impacts. Even more sobering, Englander claims that it’s already too late for us—even if we significantly improved our efforts—to prevent such a catastrophe.
Let all that sink in for a minute. (No pun intended.)
Sadly, it’s not a question of if, but when. Even if we dramatically reduce carbon emissions, this is still going to happen.
Go ahead. Take a medium-tipped magic marker and a map and on the inside of the map, follow the outline of any continent to produce a new version of the map that leaves current coastlines outside of the new line—submerged under ocean water. Are any of your favorite vacation destinations gone? What about the coastal towns where your families and friends currently live?
Its Insidious Process Masks Its Urgency
The worst part is that it’s such an insidious process. Sea levels are already rising globally. Some sources claim that globally, sea levels have risen roughly eight inches since the beginning of the 20th century and more than two inches in the last 20 years alone. This makes it difficult for people to grasp rising sea levels as an urgent issue.
It’s much easier for people to process natural disasters that are “temporary” in the sense that earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires have a clear and definite starting and stopping period. Homes and towns are destroyed, people die, it gets cleaned up and we move on, the imminent threat is no longer imminent.
On the other hand, the impact of rising sea levels is cumulative. We may not notice the two-inch rise every 20 years, but soon, the way of life as we know it will be impacted by smaller economic measures along to path to catastrophe. Flood insurance will rise in coastal areas, property values will sink, family estates won’t be able to be passed down to future generations, tourism will decline, even accounting methods will change.
The Responsibility for Businesses and Consumers is Equal
Consumers and businesses share an equal measure in preserving our planet—consumers because their purchase behavior drives the production of consumer products, and businesses because their massive scale has a colossal impact on the volume of waste created and carbon emitted.
While it varies from region to region, for decades, most consumers have paid lip service to environmental sustainability; saying one thing (“Yes, in theory they support protecting the environment) but doing another (“Not if it costs me more money or a loss of convenience.”) However, the proverbial tide is shifting among consumers; younger generations are walking the talk, willing to make sacrifices in this area that earlier generations have not.
Many businesses have worked hard to ensure that the products they develop are as sustainable as they can be—given all the complex variables associated with product development supply chains, regulations, and the expectations of investors. But the job is half done. Now it’s time for all businesses to turn their attention to making the packaging of their products and their marketing of them, environmentally sustainable as well. Those who are ahead of the others will be on the right side of history—and more successful.
So, where can companies start or take the next step to accelerate their environmental sustainability actions?
1. Integrate Environmental Sustainability Into All Your Brand Thinking
Environmental sustainability must be part of every project brief. This ranges from defining a brand’s purpose to creating its expression across media, producing its assets for printing or digital activation, and transforming the processes that bring them to life for the consumer. It’s time to move beyond product and examine the workflows, materials and processes that deliver your products to market. Challenge obvious assumptions and rethink your brand’s place in a more sustainable world. If you started from scratch without any legacy restrictions, would you define, package or market your brand differently in an increasingly eco-conscious world? Use this as an opportunity to energize your creative teams in sustainability innovation exercises.
2. Rethink Your Structural Packaging Forms & Materials
Take advantage of new advances in substrates and materials. Evaluate your brand’s structural forms across regions. Is there an opportunity to rationalize the forms in the entire portfolio and standardize where possible? Go even further. Look outside your own industry. Form a cooperative group of engineers with expertise in many different sub-fields like pharmaceutical, agricultural, aerospace, energy, biomedical, thermal, industrial, optical, etc. to synthesize knowledge, insights, and creative thinking about how to solve very complex problems around packaging forms, materials, printing, and waste. Surely, if mankind is now capable of using 3D printing technology to print everything from tiny houses to human organs, we can find innovative new ways to create new packaging forms and materials.
3. Rethink Retail Spaces
Retailers also need to rethink their space—especially grocery stores which have relied on the same store format for 105 years since Piggly Wiggly opened in 1916. From rethinking store formats, arrangements and displays to reducing the use of unsustainable materials in the construction and operations of stores to conserving energy and donating leftover food to local charities, opportunities to act more sustainably abound. Consider finding new ways to spotlight products with the most environmentally friendly packaging. Test ideas like reserving a few parking spaces closest to store entrances for electric vehicles. Create new ways to reward consumers for eco-friendly behaviors, beyond plastic bag substitutes. Convert some cashiers to roam stores as “Sustainability Guides.”
4. Create Sustainable Packaging Design
Ask the questions that seem crazy. What happens to a brand when the package design uses no ink? How can a completely tactile experience communicate your brand? Can packaging wrappers be turned into apparel? What’s the best design strategy for a zero-plastic product?
Consider practical opportunities as well: Print packaging using extended color gamut practices to create fixed color sets across your brand(s) to eliminate the need for custom spot colors. Doing this across all regions, printers and SKUs can significantly reduce the use, impact, and cost of ink. Ask yourself where you can convert pack printing from gravure to flexo to reduce ink as well as carbon emissions. Re-design your labels to put environmental sustainability claims and recycling information on the principal display panel to help eco-conscious consumers make more informed choices.
5. Implement Digimarc Watermarking/Codes
This is an easy one. Whenever you re-design a package, implement Digimarc coding. Not only can it help revolutionize plastic sorting rates and accuracy during recycling, but it also adds a critical layer in anti-counterfeiting strategies and supports brand traceability. Make this too, part of every design brief for new product introductions and pack refreshes. Leverage the ability of coding to activate a digital connection between your brand and the consumer. Suddenly, your packaging, whose physical dimensionality restricts your communication opportunities opens a digital world, unrestricted in its ability to deepen communication and engagement with consumers. Drive consumers to digital content that informs, educates, and even inspires them to act more sustainably.
6. Reduce Digital Litter When Marketing Digitally
Many people—especially consumers—are pretty unaware of the concept of digital litter or digital pollution. It’s a relatively new concept and one that does not yet benefit from the decades of exposure to and awareness of physical pollution and its impact on the environment, first spotlighted in April 1970 with the formation of Earth Day. According to an article authored by the Environmental Justice Coalition, “The world’s digital carbon footprint is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Each internet search, song played, video streamed, message sent, route planned via GPS, cashless payment, and social media scroll contributes to growing energy consumption, global demand for electricity, and rising CO2 emissions.” To make this more concrete, consider this: From emails alone, the average person in the developed world adds 136kg of CO2 emissions to their carbon footprint annually, the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a car. Globally, the world’s email usage generates as much carbon dioxide as adding 7 million cars to the roads.”
7. Streamline Packaging and Marketing Workflows
You can take the farm-to-table concept and apply it to the processes of how companies can go from packaging to marketing and beyond more sustainably. Both are essentially about “purity of process,” and a streamlined process at that. By removing “junk steps” from processes, those that have been bolted on to packaging and marketing workflows over the years to address immediate issues, brands can reverse this sprawl to improve speed to market, quality, and sustainability. Examining your workflows more holistically today can help reduce your brand’s carbon footprint, simplify the process of going to market and amplify your brand’s purpose.
8. Engage in Strategic Partnerships to Accelerate Sustainability
Never has it been more important to reach out externally to other partners—even competitors—to leverage unique expertise to co-create mutually beneficial sustainable solutions to preserve the planet we all occupy. Take a parallel path—challenge your current vendors to challenge you—to strategically help you create a path forward, while exploring strategic relationships with experts outside your industry. Cross pollinate the thinking of people who have been faced with discovering solutions to seemingly impossible challenges in vastly different fields. What can biotechnology experts bring to the sustainable packaging conversation? What unique expertise can aerospace engineers add? What role could Urban Planners & Growers play in rethinking the packaging status quo? How can Human Factors Psychologists frame a new vision for sustainable packaging based on their understanding of human needs and changing behaviors?
There’s no escaping that the bold challenges of environmental sustainability and of life as we know it today requires taking brave actions now. The impact of packaging waste and digital pollution is a rising tide all its own and must be addressed with courage, clarity, and deep collaboration across silos of all kinds starting now.
Lastly, while we’re at it, let’s stop using the phrase “boil the ocean,” as a metaphor for undertaking an impossible task. Because, in reality, that’s exactly what we’re doing to the planet now.
You can purchase “Moving to Higher Ground: Rising Sea Level and the Path Forward” here or from other sources.
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About Patti Soldavini
Patti Soldavini is a futurist who has pushed the boundaries of marketing and creativity to connect brands with consumers, using leading edge technology to drive results. For the past 25 years on both the agency and client sides of the business across the entertainment, retail and pharmaceutical industries, she has served in marketing leadership positions for the New York Cable Marketing Co-op and IQVIA (formerly IMS Health) and in creative leadership positions for Home Shopping Network and Anthem Worldwide prior to joining SGK. She is passionate about the intersection of creativity, technology and psychology.