A recent article in Packaging Digest, "Food for thought," divulged that one of the world's largest packaged food suppliers, ConAgra, has shifted its position from one of compliance with environmental programs and sustainable packaging initiatives to one that is proactive. This shift is noteworthy and very important.

ConAgra's position has far-reaching implications for the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) industry, just as Wal-Mart's sustainability initiatives have.
As the article so aptly states: "Selling its products to consumers, restaurants and other institutions through three business groups–Consumer, Commercial and International–ConAgra generates a vast quantity of packaging." Exactly.
On the consumer side, ConAgra's brands are prolific and generate considerable volume in supermarkets. Some ConAgra brands include: Healthy Choice, Hunt's, Pam, LaChoy, Swiss Miss, Wesson, Hebrew National, Banquet and Orville Redenbacher's among many others. The company offers approximately 4000 SKUS of packaged consumer food products and has a presence in virtually every food category.
In the article, we learn that ConAgra had instituted an environmental system from its HQ in Omaha Nebraska well over a decade ago. It is implemented in each of its manufacturing plants around the globe. According to Gail Tavill, VP of sustainable development research at ConAgra: ". . .a sustainable developments award program was put in place (around 1992) to recognize the good work going on in manufacturing and research and development on water, energy, waste, good packaging design and good marketing around environmental issues".
Additional important points that emerged from Packaging Digest's interview with Ms. Tavill:
ConAgra has repackaged many of its existing products to be more environmentally friendly. Innovations include: new, easier to recycle lightweight plastics, and the use of recycled packaging materials, for example.
The sustainable packaging scorecard and the packaging Sustainable Value Networks at Wal-Mart have helped drive more of ConAgra's packaging decisions. (No surprise there–Wal-Mart's initiatives have had a huge impact on its 60,000+ suppliers.)
ConAgra is trying to follow the Sustainable Packaging Coalition's guidelines for new products and packaging development. This has been the focus over the past year as the company seeks to build sustainability in "from the beginning" of new product lifecycles. www.sustainablepackaging.org.
ROI is an important consideration. Ms. Tavill: "We also look for where we can drive the biggest impact for the lowest investment. It really comes down to where is our biggest return on investment? That ROI could be a financial ROI or it could be an intangible ROI, but we're always looking for where we can get the biggest bang for our buck and tie that to our brand strategy. There needs to be an ROI. Some of it may be intangible, but there's a benefit to intangibles around brand recognition and believability."
ConAgra is very open to suppliers' ideas about ways to make their packaging more sustainable. The company also has begun training its packaging engineers about sustainability, what it means in regard to packaging and the guidelines they should follow for sustainable packaging.
Great quote: "We're not being shy about looking under rocks. We're looking internally, externally, backwards and forward in our supply chain."
What do you think of ConAgra's approach to sustainable packaging? Do you think this new approach by large companies like ConAgra and Wal-Mart will have a strong effect across the manufacturing and retail supply chain?
Are you, as a consumer first and marketer second, influenced to purchase products from manufacturers that make a commitment to sustainable manufacturing and packaging measures?
Would you be willing to pay a little more for sustainable products and packaging?
It seems that many consumers are confused or unclear about sustainability. What do you think manufacturers can/should do to educate the public about sustainable products and packaging?
I'd love to hear from you.

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Ted Mininni is president and creative director of Design Force, a leading brand-design consultancy.

LinkedIn: Ted Mininni