Sustainability has been a buzzword in the business and environmental communities for years now.
But defining what sustainability actually is can be tricky. Especially when talking about plastics.
"The dynamics surrounding the public perception of plastic products today as well as our industry has certainly changed. And people, including myself, want to be aligned with good corporate citizens, from the paychecks they earn to the products that they buy," said Debbie Prenatt, market manager for sustainability at resin distributor M. Holland Co.
"Sustainability really is at the heart of that conversation and it's arguably become a contemporary buzzword. However sometimes it's not used with much thought given to its true meaning and sometimes its long-term implications," she said during a Dec. 1 presentation during a virtual sustainability workshop organized by the Plastics Industry Association.
A good starting point for understanding, and defining, sustainability is more than 50 years old and comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Prenatt said.
"Creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist, in productive harmony, to support present and future generations," the EPA definition reads.
OK, there's that. But how can those in the plastics industry use this as a foundation to create their own sustainability views?
"That definition gives little guidance to companies wanting to define how they will improve their present-day conditions to secure a brighter future," Prenatt said.
She remembers a time, only five years ago, when she worked for another company when sustainability was addressed, but infrequently.
"The dynamics as well as our industry has certainly changed. Rather than trying to define sustainability broadly, define sustainability for your company. And if you never really thought about sustainability in those terms, how can you get started?" Prenatt said.
There is a set of 17 sustainable development goals established by the United Nations in 2015 that can serve as a good starting point for companies.
The 17 goals are wide ranging and include areas such as clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, and industry, innovation and infrastructure.
"It's a way to encourage the general public, businesses and government to work together to build a better future. It's common as you are creating a sustainability strategy to look to these UN sustainability goals for inspiration. Chose maybe three to five that align nicely with your organization in terms of your values, maybe the products that you make, the markets that you service, and start creating dialog surrounding those goals," she said.
"This is a really great way to create a common language to start taking about sustainability internally, with your customers, with your suppliers, assessing your strategy against your competitors" she said.
Prenatt also suggests sharing sustainability progress broadly outside the organization.
"Socialize your progress. We can do this rather informally using some social media platforms that we all have at our fingertips," she said. Companies also can author white papers and press releases to share information.
A more formalized approach can include creating an annual sustainability report or including sustainability information in a generalized annual company report.