With sustainability becoming the norm across almost every product category and industry, packaging sits squarely in the cross-hairs of companies working to be more responsible and accountable for our planet’s future. As much as one third of all waste in the U.S. comes from packaging and only 30% of that is recycled. This problem is compounded by the fact that not all packaging materials can be recycled equally well and consumers are often unaware or reluctant to sort through the various recyclable materials. For Disney’s consumer product business, this challenge was especially pressing as research revealed that two of the top five environmental concerns for Disney products were reducing the amount of packaging and using more recyclable materials.
While they began to address this issue through easy-to-open packaging and re-affirming their commitment to the environment in stores and with its licensees, its new smart packaging initiative takes sustainability to a new level for the company and the industry at-large. As Adam Gendell, Associate Director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition states: “Disney’s Smart Packaging Initiative (SPI) is a first for the toy industry. The SPI’s rigorous metrics-driven approach, combined with its thoughtful scoring system, makes it one of the most innovative and robust packaging sustainability assessment tools out there.”
For any sustainable innovation to be successful, it must begin with looking at one’s own industry with fresh eyes and better judging what serves your customers, society and our shared future. In the B2C world, we saw this with CVS Pharmacy when it banned tobacco products and renamed themselves CVS Health. In the B2B world, we saw a similar first-mover advantage when Intel banned conflict minerals from its supply chain and challenged the entire industry to follow suit. Now Disney is rising to the challenge by reinventing its longstanding practices to set a new standard across its industry that is not only more sustainable but that will inform what generations of children will expect of packaging and its environmental impact.
Such a first is not without its challenges. The SPI program, which launched in 2014, was the result of a six-year development process to breathe new life into The Walt Disney Company’s commitment to use resources wisely. It also required collaboration with industry partners and subject matter experts such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to ensure the initiative would achieve true social or environmental impact. Finally, to be truly successful at an industry-wide level, sustainability initiatives must share their learnings and even open up their IP to expand its impact across the category and industry, as Nike did through its MAKING App. Disney’s SPI is following suit by serving as a sustainable packaging measurement and design tool that will reduce packaging waste, increase packaging recyclability, optimize on-shelf performance, and reduce costs for the whole industry including licensees and industry reps. The tool examines packaging designs, gives an “SPI Score” and provides intuitive design tips and comparisons against industry norms to allow designers to reduce the environmental impacts of packaging.
As an industry first, the SPI tool has received praise from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Disney has achieved initial success for packaging across its Princess dolls and high volume Cars product line that have been designed to minimize environmental impact in three ways: 1) design for recyclability, 2) source responsibly and, 3) optimize resources (including materials reduction).
Take Walt Disney Animation Studios new film, Moana, opening in theaters on November 23. Inspired by the new sustainable Classic Moana doll box, Destination Imagination, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching skills-based learning, has launched their “Amazing Invention Photo Challenge,” which gives parents a fun activity to do with their kids, creating their own inventions out of recycled materials found at home. Entrants in a competition will be asked to submit a photo of their creations along with the name of the toy, brief description about what it does and materials used. The Grand Prize is a trip to the Moana premiere in Los Angeles.
Beyond the Challenge, the Moana doll packaging is made with 70% recycled paper, printed with vegetable-based inks and was designed without glue or tape allowing the packaging pieces to separate easily. What’s more, the box itself can be turned into a boat inspired by Moana’s journey, providing an added element of fun for parents and kids. As Luis Fernandez, Senior Vice President, Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, explains “Everything at Disney starts with storytelling, even our toy packaging. By combining Disney magic and our smart packaging principles, we created a package that’s not only better for the environment, but also a way to continue Moana’s story.”
Disney’s leadership is already having a far-reaching impact as Mattel is now extending the SPI approach to the packaging for all its products. As Sarah Levine, Head of Sustainability at Mattel shares, “Mattel is using the SPI to enhance packaging not only for the products we create with Disney, but as an additional input as we look at packaging efficiency for all of our brands. And we’ve seen how quickly small adjustments can become meaningful, especially in high-volume lines. For example, a small design change in a four-pack of die-cast Cars vehicles yielded an overall paper savings of more than 1 million square inches, enough to cover a whole basketball court.”
This type of collaboration demonstrates the power of true servant leadership where partners, and even competitors, align around shared values to serve the best interest of the industry, society and our planet. We have seen this in the footwear and apparel industries with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition led by Patagonia and Walmart, and The Better Cotton Initiative, and now a similar collaborative approach is emerging in the toy industry. As Candela Montero, Director, Corporate Citizenship, Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, comments, “One of the most exciting features of the SPI is that it provides dynamic design guidance that helps reduce a package’s impact over its entire lifecycle. We’re thrilled that the SPI is being embraced by our partners and the industry, and believe its potential to make toy packaging better for the environment—and easier for parents—is huge.”
Since the launch of the SPI in 2014, the world’s largest toymakers, including The LEGO Group, Hasbro, Mattel and Jakks Pacific, have implemented principles from the tool and continue to leverage it in their packaging decisions. Meanwhile, Disney is integrating the SPI across all toy SKUs, hosting sustainable design workshops to drive packaging innovation among all licensees, and offering the SPI as part of Disney Consumer Products’ “License to Lead,” a collaborative, voluntary program offered to licensees.
As consumers increasingly demonstrate preference for brands committing to social and environmental impact, reducing packaging can be a meaningful change to that drives consumer goodwill, loyalty and profits. Further, consumer brands should look to others in their industry, including competitors, who have begun to pave the way and develop innovative solutions that inspire similar or further developments. The Disney SPI is an example of how one company’s commitment to sustainable innovation could be leveraged and implemented beyond the confines of its brand to shift and improve long-standing industry practices.
Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Company.
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