Plastic not-so fantastic

Plastic’s fall from grace has been dramatic and the change in the public mood swift. David Attenborough has highlighted very effectively the impact that plastic has, affecting birds, animals and fish, leaving its mark on every corner of our planet from mountain top to ocean floor. It’s made people think again about something that, not so long ago, was a marvel of modern convenience.

Public concern for the environment has grown at such a pace that retailers both online and bricks and mortar are going to have to address the issue of reducing plastic. Retailers and their marketeers have no option but to take note and act.

Low-packaging retail though is hardly something new though. I recall as a young boy working in my mother’s corner shop, getting up early every Saturday morning to cut butter from a huge slab and weigh it into blocks that people wanted to buy, scooping the flour and sugar from huge tubs into paper bags. Many people would no doubt like to return to those simpler days when we made do and mended and we wasted less. The trouble is that time moves forwards not backwards.

Back in Jane Austen’s day, if you lived in the middle of London there were ten penny-post deliveries per day! It was quite possible to send several letters and receive several replies in twenty four hours. The speed of communications was surprisingly modern. But if something happened to wipe out email and phones tomorrow could we go back to the penny post? Of course not. The infrastructure isn’t there.

So, just as it was technology that turned us all into plastic consumers in the first place, it will be technology that replaces it. But it’ll also need the infrastructure to support it. And who will it be who gets picked to sort out that infrastructure? My money is on the poor old long-suffering supply chain professional.

From a supply chain point of view, if we’re going to radically re-think packaging we need to identify the new units of movement that we are going to have to deal with. We’ll have to factor in the increased perishability of items that are no longer gas flushed and last no longer than their natural life. Planners will need to be far more vigilant and their forecasts more accurate if wastage is not going to become the next major worldwide problem.

Will there be a trade off? If we remove the packaging and shorten product life, increasing wastage, is that good for the environment? We have to be pragmatic and not rush to embrace the first available option that will just cause further issues down the road. It makes little sense to talk about sustainability and then pick a ‘solution’ that isn’t sustainable.

There is cause for optimism. We have come a long, long way in supply chain efficiency in recent years. The general public rarely, if ever, stops to think about the extent to which pollution, waste and the inefficient use of resources have been reduced by supply chain professionals since the start of the supermarket shopping revolution of the sixties.  Plastic packaging played its part in that revolution. However the hero of one age has become the villain of another.

Now we look to AI, machine learning and better supply chain technology. It’s driving even more efficiency, further cutting wastage and reducing the environmental impact of lorries running half-empty round the country. However the same technology has also made possible online retail, and online has some questions to answer about the amount of single-use packaging it consumes, the higher road miles for every item delivered to consumers and growing levels of returns of unwanted goods. wairt

Will the public’s conscience move it to use online shopping and home delivery less or to stop ordering two or three items for each one they need only send the unwanted ones back? We will have to see. What is certain is that supply-chain planners are already working on how to handle this new world and have already made huge strides.

Waitrose has already launched a trial of loose non-packaged foods in a few stores (back to my old days, these things always come round again) and I am sure we will see many more initiatives. But what is certain is that we’ll need to get even better in future to ensure we do not destroy the world we have created. 

Andrew Blatherwick is chairman emeritus of retail planning and replenishment solutions company RELEX Solutions. He has held leadership roles in numerous other retail technology companies and had a distinguished career in retail at Boots and Iceland.