Can collaborative innovation solve the food industry's climate impact challenge?

Climate change, food safety, a growing global population – how can the food & beverage and packaging industries address these major challenges? Collaborative innovation is key, says Laurence Mott, Executive Vice President of Development and Engineering at Tetra Pak. “All of us in the industry need to work together to deliver a product for a sustainable tomorrow,” he says.

The challenges are clear: the global food supply chain system is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions; a third of all food is lost or wasted somewhere in the supply chain; fossil fuel-based materials need to be phased out; and significant improvements are needed to the way packaging is dealt with after use.

It is perhaps no surprise that Laurence Mott, who is the head of research and development at Tetra Pak, believes in the power of innovation for tackling these challenges. But he is also more than aware that the company – despite the €1bn-plus it invests in packaging R&D alone every three years – can’t do it alone.

“It's relatively easy to make a completely sustainable package, but you have to make it safe,” he says. “And if you can’t make it at scale, you can't minimise food waste, and you can't serve a global population. In order to bring those three things together, it takes very strong collaboration.”

Collaboration across the supply chain

For Tetra Pak, that collaboration takes many forms: the company works with academic researchers, with cutting-edge start-ups, with suppliers such as paperboard manufacturers, as well as the company’s customers – food and beverage brands – on developing packaging solutions that have the smallest possible impact on the environment.

“The old notion of a linear supply chain is gone,” says Mott. “We need to work in an ecosystem, in close partnerships with our development partners, who also are our suppliers. And at the same time, we need to work in close collaboration with our customers. It’s a very, very big challenge to do it all simultaneously.”

What Mott calls a ‘development ecosystem’ starts typically in academia, where Tetra Pak invests in technical know-how, capabilities and competence-building. “As we move through the development process, we need to bring on board more and more partners,” he says.

“And we've done that together with our traditional supply chain, but also bringing in start-up companies, who've helped us with some fantastically innovative ideas. We also have a very close dialogue right through this process with our customers – they're the ones who ultimately serve this to consumers.”

Consumers driving industry transformation

Indeed, it is these consumers who are one of the strong driving factors behind this push for innovation, as they are increasingly demanding sustainable products. As revealed in this year’s edition of the Tetra Pak Index report, (hyperlink) consumers remain deeply concerned about the environment – even in the midst of a pandemic – and want food and beverage brands to use sustainable packaging.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity that consumers are so interested in sustainable products,” says Mott. “It’s creating a huge pull through the value chain, and I would say it is driving a complete transformation of the packaging industry. Our packaging material is made from renewable resources and now we have this fantastic opportunity to innovate further, provide something which is 100% renewable, 100% recyclable and fits this low-carbon circular economy.”

Tetra Pak’s founder, Dr Ruben Rausing, once said that “a package should save more than it costs”. While at the time he meant this from a financial perspective, Mott says that Rausing’s statement can equally be viewed today from a sustainability perspective.

“It rings truer today, perhaps, than it has ever done,” he says. “Not that we should just be saving the product that is within the package, but that we should be ensuring that the package has the absolute minimal impact on the environment.”

Mott says that while Tetra Pak has made good progress with this to date, a huge future challenge for the company will be to make sure that the packaging materials, filling machines and processing equipment it produces can fit a low-carbon circular economy.

We understand that the package should save more than it costs,” he says. “And it’s something that remains a guiding light through this innovation journey and the industry transformation we are driving.



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