April 7, 2011
By Maureen Azzato
More than 2,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club buyers and product suppliers gather next week at the company’s 6th annual Sustainable Packaging Expo with a singular objective -- to find the newest and smartest innovations in sustainable packaging and merchandising.
More than 200 exhibitors will showcase their new innovations in sustainable packaging design during the expo April 13-14 at the John Q. Hammons Convention in Rogers, Ariz., a few miles from the retail giant’s corporate headquarters.
In the past, the event focused predominantly on U.S. packagers and buyers, but was expanded this year to include more international guests, Ron Sasine, senior director of packaging procurement for Walmart, and Amy Zettlemoyer-Lazar, senior director of packaging and supplier diversity for Sam’s Club, told Green Retail Decision during an exclusive interview.
To be an exhibitor at this event, packagers must meet the Federal Trade Commission’s general guidelines of sustainable packaging and “present a success story to us,” said Zettlemoyer-Lazar, so that buyer are sure to see cutting edge ideas. “They have to come to us with a more sustainable design or a more sustainable material or concept than industry average, and we request to see that in the form of a graph that illustrates the differences between the old and the new, using the (Walmart sustainability) scorecard modeling software,” she said. “We’re looking for packaging suppliers that can help us and our suppliers become more sustainable.”
In addition to sustainability, Walmart and Sam’s Club buyers are looking for packaging that merchandise products better and are easier to set up and take down. One success story is the The Cube, a company that developed a smart corner-to-post frame system, which Sam’s Club has been using for a few years in the bakery department.
“They have exhibited for several years and two years ago made the connection with our bakery buyers and commercialized their items through Sam’s Club,” Sasine said. “It took them a couple of years of attending and listening and gaining feedback, and making changes to their concept. Over time it became an even better concept. It’s not a widespread application, but the application makes sense for that item in that category. They’ve also been able to make connections with other buyers and other suppliers and have had a couple of other wins now over the past two years,” he said, noting that the Cube system uses less total paper fiber than the retailer was using before.
Delivering Change to the Shelf
Aware that innovation often comes from smaller companies who may not be able to afford to exhibit at some of the large packaging shows, Walmart and Sam’s Club have kept their fees “very modest,” Sasine said. “The expo provides a really interesting mix of large global packaging companies and very small -- and some start-up companies --to show their innovations side by side.”
With sustainable packaging front and center at Walmart and Sam’s Club, Sasine is pleased with the strides the supplier community is making. “We are constantly having this topic addressed with us across all facets of our business, from baked goods to dry groceries to frozen food. Everybody is interested. Companies want to know how they can make their packaging more sustainable,” Sasine said. “Now the challenge is for everybody who understands what needs to be done to begin to push forward and deliver change to the shelf.”
Zettlemoyer-Lazar agrees that the “low hanging fruit in the packaging area” over the past six years has been successfully tackled by predominately removing excess materials. “Now we have to go deeper and the conversations are becoming a little more complicated, more technical,” she said. “Now it’s not just about removing material or using less of something; it’s making sure we’re using better materials or spending time understanding the different chemistry of materials. These conversations are happening, but it takes a little bit more time and more players to make those changes.”
Since 2006 when Walmart and Sam’s Club rolled out the Sustainability Scorecard, it has been rolled out in Canada, Mexico and China and other countries, according to Zettlemoyer-Lazar.
In this year’s global responsibility and sustainability report, Walmart will report a double-digit increase in the number of items entered into the scorecard, Sasine said, but he would not revel the specific number before the report is released. “I can tell you that approximately 340,000 items had been entered in the scorecard as of the end of calendar year 2009, and what we’ll be reporting this year is a very significant increase in those numbers,” with a large percentage of the growth coming from non-U.S. operations, he noted.
Both Sasine and Zettlemoyer-Lazar describe the Sustainability Scorecard as a work in progress as Walmart participates in numerous global projects to streamline and improve metrics.
“We’ve participated in the global packaging project and are part of the Sustainability Consortium. The scorecard itself is not done,” Sasine said. “It is the first thing that was out there in the U.S. market and we’re continuing to work globally to make improvements and to make sure that we are in lockstep with other discussions that are taking place.”
And what’s the main sustainable packaging agenda item on Walmart’s plate this coming year? “The largest single effort internally is the release of reporting data for each of our individual buyers that will guide them in assessing and evaluating the greenhouse gas emissions impact of their own category and the different products they sell in that category,” Sasine said. “This will give them the ability to look product by product, supplier by supplier and understand where they are operating at industry average, where they have superior options and where they have inferior options…and how they can move their category as a whole towards a more sustainable profile.”
This type of “critical reporting” will transform the scorecard from “being a repository of data into a driver of decision making,” Sasine said.
This and other related topics about sustainable packaging, materials and decisions-making tools will be addressed during the expo’s workshops, training and educational sessions.
“It’s just an excellent way for our suppliers to get in contact with what Walmart and the packaging industry can do,” Sasine said. “To be able to do it in an environment where people are surrounded by the Walmart way of doing business, the Walmart buyers and the people who directly make decisions about products that go on our shelves -- that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”