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Global brands open up about the challenges and opportunities of sustainable products.  

[traditional] suppliers have vested assets they want to use and anything that disrupts this becomes an inconvenience” – an attendee representing a global brand.

At the recent World Bio Markets conference in Amsterdam, writes Christophe Schilling, my company, Genomatica hosted a private roundtable discussion with brands. Our goals were to better understand how brands think about sustainability priorities; how familiar they are with the bio-economy; and to facilitate ongoing discussions that can help accelerate a transition to more sustainable products. A dozen firms participated, including many well-known consumer brands, some with sustainability at their core, others for whom this was a growing area of focus. We adhered to Chatham House Rules – where we don’t reveal who attended or said what – to encourage free discussion of potentially sensitive issues. So, whilst we can’t say who was there, we can share some key ideas and contribute to a broader conversation – which we’re doing here.

In short, the discussions highlighted that we have many fantastic opportunities, but also a lot more work to do! Here are seven key themes that came through loud and clear during our roundtable, plus ideas for how more people can get involved.

Key themes:

  1. We need simple, clear, relevant messages for consumers: Sustainability is a complex topic. It’s important for brands to be able to explain what they’re doing in a way that consumers can appreciate. (This also came across in many of the presentations by brands at the conference.) Some sustainability initiatives may have more direct impact on specific products; some reflect more on the character of the company or brand. Consumer interests may be served by highlighting impacts on either or both of these levels.
  2. “Progress, not perfection” (a quote from the Allbirds presentation that opened the conference): Brands and consumers see value in incremental steps (e.g. use of renewables-based ingredients), as long as these have value to the consumer and there’s a path to further improvement.
  3. End of life is important, ideally complemented with a positive beginning of life story: Some participants shared that it may sometimes be easier for consumers to understand “recycled” or “recyclable” than “bio”. But that was complemented by examples ranging from the PlantBottle (“made partially from plants”) to the market growth of natural ingredients in personal care products, each of which offers an appealing, understandable beginning-of-life story for consumers. “Biodegradable” end-of-life is seen as a complicated topic, with perceptions that vary based on application and market. The sustainability merits of various end-of-life approaches relative to bio-based or bio-sourced beginning-of-life are not well understood by consumers. We heard specific comments that solutions to both are needed.
  4. Increasing focus on packaging: This was mentioned by several brands as one of the main focus areas today, given widespread attention to plastic waste, eliminating single-use plastics, and concern about ocean plastics as hot button topics.

Insights from our attendees:

“… we moved to ‘100% recycled’ for our packaging because it was an easier story to tell”
“… people feel good when they buy something with a green label. At [our company], we also want to ask and do what is actually good for the world” [which may be different than the simple message to consumers]
“… recycling has led the way but we are now learning more about bio-based and circular economy approaches”
“… need to look at beginning of life, not just end of life, and move away from a fossil economy”
“… need to do both renewables and recycling”

5. Existing supply chains may not provide the full story: There was a general consensus that existing suppliers are slow to move on sustainability issues and have inherent conflicts of interest. “Chemical companies just don’t get it”; and there’s not much incentive for them to move into bio-based or recycled materials. That said, many felt it was important for these firms to be part of the discussion.

6. Sensitivity to GMOs: In some applications or regions this is a sensitive topic, with generally poor understanding by consumers. Can efforts be made to demystify GMOs and explain that there is no genetically-modified material in consumer products that used GMOs as part of the production process (unlike GMO foods)? It’s unclear whether this will be a true issue for CPG brands and their consumers.

7. We need more discussion between brands and technology/solutions providers: There was consensus that this breakfast roundtable was an important and valuable discussion and that companies like Genomatica should continue to speak with brands. By driving conversations it creates opportunities for tech firms to learn real priorities and issues of brands; to share perspectives regarding what’s available or practical, and when; to help educate consumers; and to coordinate initiatives between technology firms and brands.

To learn more:

  1. Brands: a pragmatic approach to bio-based chemicals, how brands can integrate biotechnology with their sustainability objectives;
  2. Five ways biotech supports the transition to a more circular economy, a comprehensive look at the role of biotechnology;
  3. Turbocharging the green chemistry revolution, how value chains can accelerate a transition to more sustainable products;
  4. Remaking nylon, two minute video about a program to develop 100% renewable nylon.

Join the discussion: Interested in discussing these types of issues with your colleagues in small groups? Learning more about bio? Participating in webinars followed by discussions? How would you prefer to work with technology providers? We’re planning to do more. Please contact me directly with your interests at cschilling@genomatica.com.


If you were interested in reading about this story, you may also be interested in the stories below.

Read: Genomatica and Covestro team up to research plant-based ‘high-performance’ materials.

Read: 5 Minutes With… Christophe Schilling, CEO of Genomatica.

Read: Expert View: Brands – a pragmatic approach to bio-based chemicals.

Read: At the HELM of the bio-based chemical ship.

Take part:  Bio Market Insights reader survey 2019.

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