Q&A: Westrock’s Brandi Colander discusses sustainability in supply chain

DSN talks to Westrock's chief sustainability officer about how the company partners with manufacturers to meet consumer demands for sustainability.
David Salazar
Managing Editor
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As one of the country's largest packaging companies, Westrock, based in Atlanta, works to keep in touch with what consumers are demanding from packaging — and overwhelmingly, they want sustainability. Drug Store News spoke to Brandi Colander, chief sustainability officer at Westrock, about the shift toward sustainable packaging, how it works with companies to achieve their sustainability goals and how retailers can collaborate with manufacturers to deliver on consumer and supplier needs. 

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DSN: How has the COVID pandemic affected shoppers’ views on sustainability?
Brandi Colander: Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers’ shopping behaviors have changed significantly. E-commerce spending is up 44%, from $598 billion in 2019 to $861 billion in 2020 [according to Digital Commerce 360]. That means consumers are receiving and interacting with more packaging. Our WestRock Pulse Packaging Survey, which gauged consumer attitudes during the pandemic, found 82 percent of consumers want brands to balance safety and concern for the environment when designing product packaging. In fact, we saw notable increases from previous data in the demand for packaging that is easily reused, easily identifiable as environmentally friendly and easily recycled. As we interact with packaging more on our front porches and in our kitchens, we are becoming more conscious of the importance of sustainability. I’m really encouraged by that and expect consumers to continue to demand more sustainable packaging.

DSN: What changes are manufacturers making to drive their sustainability agendas?BC: Customers are coming to WestRock, asking us to develop a vision and plan to create packaging solutions that support their sustainability goals. Innovative fiber-based packaging is just one element of working toward a more circular economy.

In addition to creating solutions, it’s also important that we share insights with our customers – and their customers – about the benefits of fiber-based packaging and the process of recycling. Fibers can only be recycled five to seven times before they simply drop out of the papermaking process, so we need to incorporate virgin (new) fibers to increase the longevity of fiber cycles in packaging. Virgin fiber plays a pivotal role in promoting greater sustainability and performance.

“Sustainability is all about partnership. We can only advance the circular economy if we work together: brands, retailers, NGOs and packaging partners.”

DSN: Is there a conflict between the need to be more efficient and the desire to be more sustainable?
BC: We don’t see these two imperatives as being in conflict at all. It’s actually the opposite – we’re seeing that retailers are investing in packaging solutions that deliver both efficiency and sustainability. For example, automated machinery like WestRock’s BoxSizer enables customers to produce right-sized e-commerce packaging on demand. It does this with folding, not cutting, so no material is wasted. Packaging that is right-sized, eliminates void fill, reduces dimensional weight – these are all solutions that inherently help retailers and brands create more efficiencies while also meeting their sustainability goals. 

DSN: How can retailers play a stronger role in encouraging more progress in sustainability from their manufacturer suppliers?
BC: Sustainability is all about partnership. We can only advance the circular economy if we work together: brands, retailers, NGOs and packaging partners. Consumers want to make sustainable choices. It’s up to us to make that easy for them.

One thing retailers could do to encourage progress is to collaborate with brands to set goals and develop scorecards for sustainability. Retailers could also play a major role in helping to educate brands and consumers about the need for virgin fiber and the importance of sustainable forestry.

If we have a stake in the outcome, that sends a strong signal of commitment and inherent accountability. And if we invest in sustainable solutions together, we can reach our goals and do so at greater scale and with a far greater impact.