What's that Racket?

by By Dan Malovany
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When SunChips bags went viral recently, I couldn’t help myself. I had to go find out what the racket was all about. Besides, 40,000 Facebook users could never be wrong. They’re the ones who had “liked” a group called “Sorry, But I Can’t Hear You Over This Sun Chips Bag” because they heard the compostable, plant-based packaging was too dang LOUD! In the end, they spoke with their pocketbooks.

After turning off “Oprah” and “The View,” I strolled on over to the local supermarket, picked up a bag-o-SunChips and got in the 10-items-or-less checkout lane where a woman behind me said, “Oh my! That’s a LOUD bag.”

Then the cashier put the SunChips in a plastic shopping bag. “Uh, Miss, I don’t need that,” I mumbled. She then slapped a honkin’ won’t-even-decompose-in-a-1,000-years “thank you” sticker on it so that everyone staring at me would know that I wasn’t shoplifting the noisiest package in the world as I left the store.

Changing people’s attitudes, let alone behavior, on environmental issues can be a difficult, if not a hair-pulling challenge, especially when they don’t see “what’s in it for me?” Consumers may say they want environmentally friendly packaging, but in the end, it was all hot air. Frito-Lay recently dumped its compostable bag for all but its top-selling Original SunChips flavor. As the company said, life’s a journey. So is a sustainability program. The noisy bag was just a first step in the right direction.

Often it takes years for consumers and businesses to make fundamental changes in attitude, mindset and culture that alter the way they operate. Even companies like PepsiCo and its subsidiary Frito-Lay North America, which have been the nation’s leaders in environmental sustainability, had to go through such a transition period, noted Al Halvorsen, Frito-Lay’s director of environmental sustainability.

“Six years ago, we were focusing on ROI and driving productivity to the bottom line, and now our vision is bigger and broader,” he said. Eventually, Frito-Lay’s perennial commitment to sustainability during the past decade along with the stalwart support from PepsiCo’s top executives has integrated it and locked it in step with the company’s overall business strategy.

For Mr. Halvorsen and his gang at Frito-Lay, sustainability has become second nature in more ways than one.

Today’s funky economic environment, however, may temper many businesses from further investing in sustainability, especially after those projects deemed the proverbial low-hanging fruit have been picked. Yet Frito-Lay continues to push all of its plants to conserve water, reduce landfill waste and test the limits of technology to obtain near-net-zero energy usage not only at its environmental sustainability laboratory in Casa Grande, AZ, but at all of its facilities. As the company sees it, the time to start experimenting with new technologies is before water, gas or electricity prices go through the roof.

A couple of weeks ago, Rowdy Brixey, chairman of the American Society of Baking, gave me an analogy that puts today’s conventional wisdom in the best light. “Most sustainability projects have a longer payback, but they are also sustainable over a longer period of time. If you stick with these products, they are sort of like a lowreturn mutual fund. You are not going to set the world on fire, but you are going to be happy with the return on an ongoing basis whether it’s lighting or some other sustainable effort,” he said. “However, our economy has changed the timeline for what makes a good return on our members’ corporate investments. It’s not that they’re dropping their current sustainability projects. It just may be that they’re looking to balance their resources. As a result, many of our members are adapting a more short-term versus a long-term investment strategy.”

What’s that noise? No, it’s not some compostable bag, an old biddy’s voice or even a bunch of goo•alls going viral on Facebook. It’s the sound of fundamental change finally setting its roots in this industry. We just may need a few more years to see it blossom.

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