By Andy Beth Miller
Legendary musician Jack Johnson has a song titled “The 3 R’s,” which is a catchy little kid-focused tune that teaches youth how to be more sustainable in their daily lives. The song’s infectious lyrics, like the repetitive chorus, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” act as a simple road map for children, really driving home the importance of sustainability practices, starting at home.
Another verse lilts, “If you’re going to the market to buy some juice, you’ve got to bring your own bags and you learn to reduce. And if your brother or your sister’s got some cool clothes, you could try them on before you buy some more of those.” Sounds simple, right? As I hum the tune, which really gets stuck in your head, I meet Miriam Brafman, Founder and CEO of Packlane, whose professional advice immediately strikes a discordant chord to Johnson’s jolly melody. But, before you go getting upset, Brafman is actually here to help and enlighten, not to bash a nursery rhyme-sounding ditty. Apparently, sustainability, especially in the realm of procurement, is not always as easy as ABC or 123.
Such awareness could be a tough pill to swallow for most, but when this truth bomb comes from the CEO of Packlane, a packaging manufacturing and sourcing company that combines in-house vertically integrated packaging manufacturing with a network of factory partners, thus making itself an infinitely scalable packaging supply chain and one-stop-shop, you listen.
I was indeed listening, and what I most wanted to know now was an echo of the paraphrased lyrics of another blast from the past songstress, Avril Lavigne, who fired off the burning question in all of our minds, “Why’s it gotta be so complicated?” While these particular lyrics may be referencing life and love, my question was aimed specifically at sustainability in procurement. And from that moment onward, the conversation that ensued was an informative discussion of just that. Specifically, the reasonings behind the myriad complexities that plague it.
But, before that, let’s start at the beginning, and just what brought Brafman into the procurement arena in the first place. “I became interested in the procurement field a few years ago in 2015, when I founded Packlane,” she explained. “I came from a graphic design and software engineering background and didn’t know a single thing about the procurement field, but had to quickly get up to speed and found it fascinating because of the business strategy behind it. It’s a very appealing combination of resourcefulness, negotiation, and technical expertise that offers an abundance of challenges and opportunities for progress.”
After hearing this, I couldn’t help but follow up with the query, “Is achieving sustainability an example of such progress?” To which, Brafman instantly schooled me on the real deal, which involved a case of mistaken identity, as I would soon discover that “perfect sustainability” in procurement is a real unicorn of sorts, or perhaps even as elusive as Moby Dick’s white whale. But, I’ll let Brafman explain this herself: “I think whenever you are manufacturing or sourcing physical products for consumption, you are never truly sustainable, so it (sustainability) tends to be a bit of a misnomer.”
She went on to explain that, “Even brands that pioneered this supreme sustainability approach to conducting business/procurement, like Patagonia, have had to resort to brand campaigns that plea for customers to not purchase their products period, because reducing overall consumption is the only path to true sustainability. So, with that said, I think dematerialization and making goods in a ‘less harmful’ way is essentially what feasible sustainability means, which is a slightly awkward place to be quite frankly.”
Feeling a bit awkward myself, now that my rosecolored glasses regarding sustainability had been removed… Okay, they were smashed… I tentatively waded into the waters of searching for a proactive way to approach this monolith. “So, now what?” I asked Brafman, the helplessness and frustration telltale in my upraised hands. Luckily, Brafman came prepared, and she immediately pointed to the importance of identifying the current obstacles that are negatively affecting sustainability practices today, a streamlined list of which follows:
*Recycling infrastructure is lacking.
According to Brafman, “Many cities do not have basic recycling infrastructure, so basic packaging materials (like cardboard boxes) that in theory should be recyclable, cannot be recycled if the end consumer does not have a way to responsibly dispose of the material. Many types of packaging that are frequently used still do not have easy recyclability, so they end up in the landfill.”
*Most packaging buyers are still looking at cost as the number one criteria.
“This is especially true in regards to sourcing packaging, said Brafman, “because it’s part of their Cost of Goods. As a result, new materials and low-carbon alternatives to production have a very high barrier to entry, due to how cheap, inexpensive, and easily available the more harmful options (like plastics) are.”
*Packaging alternatives that are marketed as eco-friendly, such as compostable mailers, still have roughly the same impact and footprint as conventional packaging options.
“For this reason,” said Brafman, “we have yet to truly invent the solutions we need to fight the environmental damage caused by packaging waste.”
Speaking of plastics, Brafman did not hold back her disdain, explaining that, “Plastics are the most ubiquitous and one of the most environmentally harmful packaging materials on the planet, and the leakage into the oceans is expected to grow very quickly over the next decades due to how superblyengineered plastic containers are, combined with the lack of recycling infrastructure across the world to contain the leakage.” She then shared that another reason for the plethora of plastics seemingly overrunning the world is that “it is much easier to procure packaging made from plastics due to their cost competitiveness and functional efficacy when compared with alternatives.”
Brafman then pointed out yet one more moneymotivated elephant in the room, “With existing infrastructure and availability of options, many companies are unwilling to make the necessary compromises and trade-offs that come with more sustainable packaging. For example, eliminating a clamshell that gives the consumer a transparent window into a product container, or doing away with the plastic enclosure that makes it possible to keep berries fresh as they get transported from one continent to another.”
At this point in our interview, I am unsure whether Brafman noticed my slumped shoulders or bowed head first, but she quickly noted the discouragement threatening to overwhelm, so kindly elaborated upon the following approach to embracing a more feasible idea of sustainability, one with far less unrealistic expectations. “From a procurement standpoint, in the packaging industry specifically, this means having the technical expertise to identify and eliminate harmful chemicals and raw materials from the supply chain. The packaging supply chain is typically composed of inks, raw materials like papers, coatings, and plastics, the large power-hungry machines that are required to manufacture and print a run of packaging, and the shipping transportation required for the packaging to reach the final destination. Each one of these has a different carbon footprint, so the reality is that to create less harmful packaging, you have to reduce each of these contributors in uniquely different and often challenging ways.”
”There is a reluctance to bring procurement into all conversations (decisions in a business), yet they can be so much more than only a source of savings, providing things like Innovation, risk mitigation, sustainability, support on Merger and Acquisition, new business opportunities and more.
Brafman also suggested reducing the overall amount of plastic-encased products that we use, then pointed to bio-materials as being the future. According to her, bio-materials are a good step in the right direction, as they are designed with many of the same qualities as conventional plastics. At the same time, they can be sustainably sourced at the beginning of their lives and composted at the end of their lives.”
When asked about role models that she sees blazing the trail in exhibiting some of these best practices, Brafman does not hesitate to hail a handful, “My role models include: Andrew Gibbs, who is the Founder and Editor in Chief of ‘The Dieline.’ He’s dedicated his career and editorial influence to working with organizations like A Plastic Planet that seek to promote a plastic-free packaging supply chain.”
She then pointed to a big player in today’s market. “Patagonia is an obvious leader when it comes to sustainable supply chain practices. They published a fascinating study on how they sought to eliminate plastic bags from their packaging supply chain and the challenges they faced (https://www.patagonia.com/ blog/2014/07/patagonias-plastic-packaging-a-study-onthe- challenges-of-garment-delivery/).”
Lastly, she praised Amazon, extolling what the super successful company is doing with regards to their in-house Packaging Lab, which involves “enforcing stricter requirements on merchants to use less wasteful packaging and eliminating excess packaging waste through frustration-free packaging,” all of which, Brafman shared, “can have obviously large and powerful implications due to the sheer scale and influence as a packaging buyer.”
After hearing how much of an uphill battle aiming toward sustainability in procurement can be, for those of us left wondering, why bother? Perhaps iconic crooner Louis Armstrong sang it best. It’s a “wonderful world,” and we want to do our best to take care of it.