Image: Gillian Garside-Wight

Gillian Garside-Wight is director of consulting at Aura – a sustainable packaging consultancy that works with some of the world’s largest retailers. I spoke with Gillian about her role, the challenges for brands striving for sustainability, and the importance of data and technology in the space.

Tell me about your role – what does a typical day look like for you?

Garside-Wight: As I head up the consulting side of the business, it’s important I keep abreast of news and legislation that impacts the sustainability of packaging. It’s vital that we’re proactive in the face of upcoming regulations, rather than advising our clients reactively. A big part of my role is also scoping and implementing our e-halo programme to ensure our clients have the access they need to accurate and live data on their packaging, which allows them to make informed decisions on their packaging portfolio and strategic sustainability projects.

A lot of my day is usually taken up with client calls and video meetings. Many of these used to be face-to-face pre-pandemic, but in truth the acceleration of remote working has opened new opportunities, both in terms of clients we can approach worldwide and those who we can hire. Our teams now comprise people from Essex and Glasgow to India and the US.

What role can data and technology play in the sustainability strategies of brands and retailers?

Garside-Wight: To say data is important is, if anything, an understatement. It’s critical. Packaging is a big element of many products but brands have to be able to measure how they’re doing when it comes to its sustainability – and then report on it. Only with measurement through platforms like e-halo can they validate their progress and enable future improvement.

It’s easy to say ‘our packaging will be 100% recyclable by 2025’, but it means nothing without the information to quantify that path. If a brand wants to be circular, will they have access to enough recycled material, given the vast global demand? Does the package take into account the different recycling rules in the UK versus those in Germany? Is it using bioplastics that can actually impact the quality of the recyclate? Data sits at the heart of answering those questions and the many others businesses will face.

Many big retailers have been accused of making misleading sustainability claims – what can be done to tackle the problem of greenwashing?

Garside-Wight: Again, this is where brands need data. I don’t like to believe that businesses greenwash deliberately – they think they’re doing the right thing. What they need is exposure to the right knowledge and consistent messaging.

It’s also about educating consumers – and brands often aren’t as transparent as they should be. If the package isn’t recyclable yet, tell people so they don’t assume it is, put it in the bin and ruin a batch of otherwise recyclable material. This ‘wishful recycling’ stems from a brand’s lack of communication with consumers and is a common issue that can contaminate waste streams.

What are some of your favourite sustainable brands and why? How do they ensure credibility?

Garside-Wight: It’s easy to pick big brands that have significant investment behind them, but I do appreciate the way companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have gone about their work. They’ve not always made the right decisions, but they’ve always done something – the latter, for example, has employees collecting waste (an average of 27 tonnes every year) from around every restaurant for many years and led the way in the global shift away from plastic containers.

That said, I really do like the more niche brands that are going about sustainability the right way: UpCircle cosmetics is a major user of refillables, Divine Chocolate co-creates with women to ensure a sustainable way of working and Who Gives A Crap toilet roll is doing a lot to help with sanitation efforts.

What makes all these brands credible is transparency and evidence-based improvement. It’s not about saying that they’re more sustainable, it’s about showing their progress every step of the way. That’s what consumers want to see: transparency and progress, not perfection.

What trends or innovations do you think will come to the forefront of your industry in the next 12 months?

Garside-Wight: A lot of brands and retailers have 2025 targets for sustainability and that’s now only two years away. What we’re seeing at present is many have made great progress on recyclability and are continuing to close the gap to 100% but they are also thinking about CO2 now, with the intention of evolving that into broader life cycle analysis further down the line. What we need are steps towards a genuine circular economy.

Rather than huge leaps in packaging innovation, I suspect the coming months will see more brands developing their efforts in responsibility and accountability. And once again, that means they’ll need data to show how they’re getting on.

I’d also hope we’ll see a more thoughtful approach to educating consumers. For example, ‘compostable’ packaging solutions may sound appealing, but are they actually being composted by the purchaser? If they’re just ending up in a recycling bin or in landfill, those materials can actually do more harm than good.

What’s next for Aura?

Garside-Wight: Our solutions are designed to give businesses live, accurate data on their progress towards more sustainable packaging and helping them to meet their targets, so we plan to keep developing those products and services. From a consulting standpoint, it’s a question of helping them create the right strategy and communicate it both internally and with their customers.

The value of data is that one size certainly doesn’t fit all when it comes to packaging sustainability. What works for a soft drinks company focusing on plastic bottles will be significantly different than what works for a ready meals brand. What they do have in common is that both will need to make informed decisions about the future, which is where Aura can help.

Further reading (paywall): How FMCG brands are adapting products in response to the shift to ecommerce

ICYMI: Econsultancy’s Ecommerce Deep Dive elearning channel now includes a course on ‘Mastering Product Data for the Digital Store’.