This is an interesting week for sustainable packaging professionals: It”s the week that Wal-Mart and Sam”s Club invite their preferred “green” packaging manufacturers to Northwest Arkansas to show Wal-Mart/Sam”s Club buyers and suppliers all of the newest options for making their packaging more environmentally responsible. It”s a unique format for a trade show, in that Wal-Mart invites not just the exhibitors, but also all the attendees, and I have literally overhead Wal-Mart buyers tell the attendees (comprised of their supplier companies): “You need to be working with the manufacturers in this room.” As one of the manufacturers in the room, that”s a reassuring statement to overhear.
The 2009 Wal-Mart Sustainable Packaging Expo consists of two 8-hour days of seminars and trade show activities, followed by a half-day of Sustainable Value Network meetings to review and discuss the Wal-Mart Packaging Scorecard. There are approximately 165 booths at the Expo this year, and local news stations say 1,500 Wal-Mart / Sam”s Club representatives will walk the show over the 2-day Expo.
While the Wal-Mart Scorecard has received a lot of media attention since it was introduced three years ago, the Sustainable Expo is still a mystery to many mainstream packaging companies. In fact, you might say this is the packaging industry”s best-kept secret, partly because it”s “By Invitation Only,” and also because many of the details (such as: have I been accepted into the Expo?, and if so, what is my booth number?) are not revealed until the week or two before we convene on Bentonville.
Traffic at the show is definitely down this year, however the “Sustainability IQ” of the buyers walking the show seems to be more sophisticated than in years past. At previous shows, buyers asked a lot of questions about pie-in-the-sky sustainable solutions they had heard of or researched (such as plant-based bioresins or “biodegradable” additives), but this year, buyers seem more focused on more efficient shipping solutions, source reduction and recycled-content packaging. This shows a positive shift in their expectations, and makes it more likely that the manufacturers in the Expo can deliver the cost-neutral packaging solutions that Wal-Mart and Sam”s require.
It”s interesting to see what elements of the packaging cycle are included in Wal-Mart”s Sustainable Network; it”s equally interesting to see the companies and product segments that are conspicuously absent from the Expo this year (most notably the “oxo-degradable” additive companies that claim their additives make HDPE and PET biodegradable in landfill conditions).
When I get home later this week, I”ll definitely be doing my homework to see what might have happened to the companies that were at the Expo last year, but no-shows this year. Did their green solutions fall prey to the current economy, or did their technologies not pass the new “greenwashing” standards that Wal-Mart is fully enforcing this year?
What I do know for sure: When you see the sophistication of Wal-Mart”s sustainable initiatives, I”m glad our company is one of the manufacturers invited to be in that room.