The Dangers of Collaboration Duplicity

The expansive number of collaborative efforts would appear to signal global investments in sustainability on the surface. But taking a look inside the Institutes, think tanks, working groups, and strategic partnerships reveals an astonishing amount of duplicity amongst mission statements. So why are there so many efforts to address the same issue using the same thinking? Critics believe this duplicity to be attributed to dissatisfaction with current efforts, the desire to take a different approach, or that the organization may serve a different purpose than that which is stated. With a great deal of the meetings occurring behind closed doors, suspicion runs high as to whether these industry groups are there to be proactive or obstructive.

The announcement of Ameripen, an Institute formed by large US-based corporations to address the crossroads of packaging and the environment. This is the latest duplication in sustainability collaboration. The goal of Ameripen, or the American Institution for Packaging and the Environment, is to help shape public policy on packaging and the environment, with the intent of being “material neutral”. A term, they do not define on their website nor in their literature. The leaders have expressed a desire to transform thinking from Cradle to Grave toward Cradle to Cradle, a concept that was introduced way back in 2002 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

The disconcerting part lies in the fact that the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has worked since 2005 in this very same field to provide a collaborative forum to leverage best practice and knowledge. Their work is not mentioned at all on Ameripen’s site or materials. A curious omission given that SPC has done the most public work in this arena after Wal-mart’s new supplier sustainability index was enforced with packaging restrictions. Also of interest since two companies are on the Founding Members list of both organizations. The structures of the two organizations are similar in the sense that they are membership-based groups that work with industry leaders. The difference lies in the SPC’s base with GreenBlue, a credible sustainability non-profit, while Ameripen’s scant information points toward corporate leaders as the top-level decision-makers.

Some are praising Ameripen’s formation as a new form of social enterprise in which companies are working together to help shape the future of their own industries through business methodologies and proactive involvement in policy-making. Others are highly critical of Ameripen’s intentions to promote sustainable packaging. They fear the industry group will leverage its political arm to promote unnecessary leniency on regulation regarding packaging. Ameripen’s formation was announced just this week, so time will tell whether the Institution will provide additional information on its intentions and work. It is also possible that Ameripen’s focus on policy will help promote proactive approaches to packaging reduction, redesign, and even changes in transportation and storage. Since the SPC does not deal primarily in the policy-making arena, Ameripen’s work has the potential to compliment the SPC’s extensive past efforts. Yet there was no recognition of the SPC’s work in the press releases or literature. Time will tell whether these two industry organizations will compete against one another, or leverage one another’s respective priorities toward sustainable packaging.

Ameripen was founded by The Coca Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, ConAgra Foods, Dow Chemical Co., Dupont Packaging & Industrial Polymers, Kellogg Company, MeadWestvaco (MWV), Proctor & Gamble, Sealed Air Corporation, and Tetra Pak Inc.  The Sustainable Packaging Coalition was founded by Priority Metrics, Aveda/The Estee Lauder Companies, Cargill Dow LLC (now NatureWorks), The Dow Chemical Company, EvCo Research, MeadWestvaco (MWV), Nike, Starbucks Coffee Company, and Unilever.

Artwork by Jennifer Davis at Tiny Showcase.