Sustainability as a guiding principle - a conversation with Greif

WBCSD member company Greif is a global leader in industrial packaging products and services strategically positioned with nearly 300 operating locations situated across over 40 countries.   

Sustainability is one of Greif’s guiding principles: in 2019 the company was awarded Gold Rating in sustainability performance by EcoVadis for the second consecutive year, as well as an A-score for environmental leadership by the non-profit organization CDP.

We spoke with Aysu Katun, director of sustainability at Greif about some of the initiatives behind this success.

Published: 19 Dec 2019
Type: Member Spotlight

“The packaging industry has a key role to play in sustainability. From the sourcing of raw materials to disposal or recycling, every stage of the packaging lifecycle can make a valuable contribution to sustainable resource management and waste reduction.

As a global industrial packaging manufacturer Greif has an obligation to understand and work to minimize its environmental impact. Our sustainability program and 2025 goals detail strategies to address the various aspects of our environmental footprint across the business and supply chain in order to create sustainable value for our customers, stakeholders and the environment.

Implementing sustainable business practices

Internal processes and procedures are also an important consideration.  With regards to our own internal business practices we have been tracking and reporting our progress on our energy and emissions goals since 2007. Our current goal, which is our third goal, is to achieve a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production by the end of our 2020 financial year from 2014 baseline year. In the short term, we also aim to increase the percentage of energy that we source from renewables, such as biomass, wind and solar, to 25 percent. (This figure currently stands at 22 percent).

Waste management focused on waste minimization and increasing recycling and reuse rates is a challenge but also a key priority for Greif around the world. 35 of our facilities around the world have achieved a ‘Zero Waste to Landfill’ (ZWTL) status. Our goal is to divert 90 percent of waste from landfills from all Greif legacy facilities worldwide by the end of 2025 with the ultimate goal being to reach ZWTL.

Evaluating packaging sustainability from start to finish

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) studies, conducted through a third party on all of our major product lines starting in 2009-10 found that the majority of our environmental impact comes from two main sources – raw materials and end of life. These findings have shaped our innovation strategy over the last 10 years.  We have focused on dematerialisation—producing products that are lighter weight, utilise less virgin raw materials and incorporate more recycled content—and green material substitution—identifying safer materials to produce our products, including bio-based materials—while continuing to meet performance requirements.

The LCA findings, along with customer requests on the need for recycling/reconditioning services, also resulted in Greif developing the EarthMinded™ Life Cycle Services (LCS) program. In 2018 the EarthMinded LCS network reconditioned close to 3.3 million containers and recycled another 849,498 containers. The acquisition of Caraustar Industries, a recycled materials and paper products company, in 2019 underlines our ongoing commitment to recycling.

As the global waste crisis continues to grow and regulations around waste and circular economy increase, reconditioning and recycling services will be increasingly important. Our reconditioning business plays a key role in our circular economy program and helps us and our customers achieve waste reduction targets, keep packaging products from going to landfills and reduce the demand on natural resources.

Collaboration is key to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Agreed upon unanimously by the United Nations in September 2015, the SDGs set out a framework of 17 Goals to tackle the world’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges in the lead-up to 2030. Business has a critical role to play in the realization of these ambitions as a source of finance, an engine of economic growth and employment, and a driver of innovation. The SDGs also provide a framework to support business in managing risks and identifying potentially historic market opportunities.

While ultimately it is governments who are being asked to deliver the SDGs, the simple fact is that this critical agenda cannot be realized without effective engagement by the private sector.

For Greif, it is clear that collaborative work with customers and suppliers is the only way to develop real sustainable value throughout the entire packaging lifecycle. In 2010, five years before the adoption of the SDGs, we developed the Greif Green Tool - a flexible calculator that uses independent lifecycle data of Greif industrial packaging products - designed to assist customers in making informed decisions about which industrial packaging best suits their products and to achieve their sustainability goals. Recent updates to the Greif Green Tool include enhanced analysis to allow detailed modeling, plant specific analysis and improved classification of Greif’s sustainable products and processes. Based on the results of the analysis we are able to make recommendations to our customers on how they can best reduce their carbon impact from packaging.

A testament to our work with our customers is the recent “Supplier Sustainability Award” presented to Greif from one of its customers, Solvay, a chemical company based in Belgium. Greif was recognized by Solvay for its achievements in sustainability and its ability to help customers achieve their sustainability goals.

Key learnings:

Commitment and belief in sustainability has to come from the top. The CEO and senior leaders of an organization are the driving force behind delivering real sustainable change. If a company is serious about embedding sustainability into its operations, then sustainability needs to be integrated into each key corporate function such as innovation, operations and risk management.  At Greif, we have also found that aligning sustainability to a strategic business unit is more effective in embedding and operationalizing sustainability to the company than having a separate sustainability department. When we started our program, the sustainability department was a separate function, for the last three years – even though it’s still a corporate function - it has been led by the senior vice president of one of our SBUs which has helped to accelerate our sustainability efforts.

We also have global teams for our material sustainability topics (such as waste reduction, sustainable procurement and labor practices) with members from each region and each business unit to operationalize sustainability throughout the organization.

The way forward

Limited waste and carbon emissions regulations and incentives can slow down the progress that can be made on sustainability by corporations. We are seeing that in regions where there are more governmental regulations and/or incentives, we are able to make significant progress in waste reduction, recycling and reuse, and emissions reductions. Collaboration between corporations, NGOs and governments can accelerate the progress that is much needed. WBCSD plays a key role in making these connections and creating a platform where organizations work together to identify the most pressing challenges and the solutions needed to accelerate their efforts.

Additionally, companies are challenged with balancing their commercial targets with sustainability goals, which can make progress slow. Sustainability has to create value for the business. Our sustainability projects have to compete with other Capex projects for funding and usually, the return on investment for sustainability projects is longer.

However, this also signals that there are opportunities to further embed sustainability into our organizations and a need to think about creating value not only in the short term but also in the long term.

Collaboration with other forward-thinking companies and industry sectors is extremely valuable. Working with WBCSD gives us the opportunity to learn from others and also share our own experiences with companies that are facing similar challenges to help accelerate our collective sustainability efforts. As a member company of the WBCSD, Greif also greatly benefits from insights into the latest knowledge on sustainability, sustainability tools and peer collaboration across the value chain.

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