Why the blame culture is failing the packaging world

By Neil Shackleton  

I can’t recall the number of times that I’ve been called in to help with packaging production problems. It’s quite a few. After all, I’m a few years into this profession now.

What’s most interesting about these packaging production issues is that a lot of the time there is one common theme. That is an instant blame.

I recall one such issue. The line was not running, packs could not be formed correctly and following a nightshift of downtime where various settings where adjusted and toolboxes opened, the frustrations led to the call to me. The brief was simply:

 “We need your help. It’s the material.”

Now, this is not about calling out production process, or the people who manage these lines. The demands of manufacturing FMCG goods require quick thinking and quick solutions. But those solutions must have substance; otherwise, the underlying issue will always be there.  

Blame Culture and Plastic

I tell this story because it highlights one of the bigger topics for packaging at present. Like the example above, we have through the media’s drive, created a new social conscience against plastic use. ‘Plastic Free’ is now a term, as too is ‘single-use’ plastic. The media and society have decided that plastic is the problem and by simply eliminating it, we will remove the problem of contaminated oceans as so effectively highlighted by Blue Planet.

I am not pro-plastic, indeed as a packaging professional, it would be unethical for me to be pro any material other than the one that provides the best solution to the client. Yet it feels, when it comes to plastic, that society is not taking the bigger picture into full account.

Headlines are powerful, but context is superior

Packaging’s primary objective is to protect the product. Plastics have played a vital role in opening up global product supply, especially in fresh produce. Let’s not forget that consumers want a year-round supply of goods. This is where the promotion of buying seasonal comes into play.

Smashed turnip on toast sounds far less appealing than the trendy alternative. Yet, this is the reality. The UK is not growing Avocados on a large enough scale to meet supply, but we can grow turnips in abundance if the demand was there. We still want avocado on our menus, and yes, they come in their own ‘natural packaging’. Sadly that natural packaging is not expected to withstand thousands of miles in transit.

The other issue is plastic in the ocean. One of the most important and in my opinion, underused comments, is quite simply ‘plastic cannot walk into the sea by itself’. This highlights the real issue here. We are a wasteful society.  But rather than point the blame directly at ourselves, at the government and our disgraceful lack of investment in recycling facilities, we blame the material.

Ditch the blame culture. Informed consumerism is the key

The whole point of my story above was that jumping to conclusions, grabbing the headline and directing the blame at one variable did not solve the problem.

We need to go into context and understand the root cause to be able to put forward a solution that actually makes a difference. Moving to eliminate plastic will not stop society being wasteful. Building process and infrastructure that makes society become more aware of reuse, plastic or otherwise is the underpinning value that’s required.

For the client above, it wasn’t the material that caused the issue. It was, in fact, a temperature change on the line that hadn’t been communicated between shifts. I asked the right questions, I took an objective view and I looked at the context of the problem to reach this conclusion. It fixed the problem and also led the way for investment in a new line with more flexibility and a new controlled material specification as part of the future solution.

For our current global issue, let us develop a strategy that educates consumers, incentivises infrastructure development and creates a reuse culture for all materials. It will be far more effective than laying the blame on plastic in the long run. I don’t know about you, but I’m bored of those headlines now.

Why The Blame Culture Is Failing The Packaging World.