Besting the Challenges of Designing for Holistic Sustainability: Q&A with McCormick’s Michael Okoroafor

by | Jan 19, 2018

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McCormick started over 100 years ago when founder Willoughby M. McCormick and a few colleagues began selling extracts and spices in Baltimore. Since then, the company has undergone enormous growth to become a global flavor powerhouse with more than 10,000 employees and $4.4 billion in annual sales.

Last year McCormick published its 2017 Purpose-led Performance Report (PLP) detailing sustainability commitments for 2025 and progress toward those goals such as redesigning Old Bay and black pepper cans, reducing glass in European jars, and improving transportation logistics.

“When we talk about PLP, what we’re trying to communicate is that it’s not just about what we do, it’s the impact of what we do,” says Michael Okoroafor, VP of global sustainability and packaging innovation for McCormick. Recently we caught up with him to learn more about the company’s strategy and how it connects to packaging.

What is the McCormick approach to sustainability and what are the company’s main goals?

Sustainability has been in our DNA, but we decided to dial it up. We call it “purpose-led performance,” which means doing well by doing good. We’re trying to take a holistic approach. Everything we do has to have a positive impact on four major stakeholders: the community, especially our farm communities, the customers like Walmart or Tesco in the UK, the consumers, and the company.

We have made some audacious commitments. Five iconic spices — black pepper, red pepper, vanilla, oregano, and cinnamon — constitute a lot of what we sell. By 2025, they will be 100% sourced sustainably, and the rest will follow suite.

We are committing to reducing emissions by 20% in our system by 2025. We’re reducing solid waste by 80%, so by 2025 less than 20% of everything in our capacity will going to landfill.

Last but not least is reducing our packaging carbon footprint. In the past, people talked about reducing packaging weight. That doesn’t tell you fully what they are doing because if you reduce the weight and it impacts the shipping with secondary packaging and transportation then you’re causing a negative impact. The carbon footprint is the holistic impact across every aspect of the value chain. We’re saying we’re going to reduce that by 25% by 2025.

Our commitments are aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. If you look at our Purpose-Led Performance Report, we map it toward the 17 UN SDGs. This is the first time we have a common yardstick. It’s quantifiable and measurable.

How do the company’s sustainability goals connect to packaging?

When you change or modify or upgrade your packaging, what is the impact on the entire value chain? We look at it in that way.

The cost of recycling metal plate is getting very expensive because of the energy required. On the other hand PET, which is the workhorse of the packaging industry, doesn’t require that much heat to be melted and recycled. PET, polyethylene terephthalate, is recyclable almost in perpetuity. When we’re trying to impact the planet in a positive way, we have to reduce the energy involved in recycling. That was the impetus for us to go redesign our metal can to a plastic pepper can. They look the same, but the plastic pepper can has a 16% lower carbon footprint than the metal can.

Were there other considerations besides recyclability?

With the metal can, over time, you have a slow egress of moisture from the inside to the outside. You start to lose the full aroma. But with the plastic can, it’s completely hydrophobic. Because of that the moisture is retained in the product much longer. That is something the consumer appreciates.

What were the biggest challenges that came up during the redesign process?

There were several. One was the integrity of the plastic material itself. It was a lot of trials, a lot of experimentation. We actually had an FEA — a finite element analysis — to look at where you can put more weight and where you can put less weight so that that integrity is maintained. This took a while.

The second thing is seal integrity, making sure you have a material that is fully compatible with the PET. That compatibility in this case was critical because we wanted to prevent any egress of moisture prior to anyone starting to use it. That’s why we call it a “freshness seal.” Achieving it was critical.

There were challenges in the scale-up to full manufacturing. The reason is not because there are significant changes, it was the speed at which you have to manufacture. Those challenges are not trivial. The heat parameters changed a little bit. We had to learn. The key is that we’ve done enough work and generated enough data that we can approach those problems and solve them.

Are there key lessons you learned along the way?

When you go through a change in substrates in a production process, it doesn’t matter whether it’s glass or metal or plastic, forget what you did in the lab. It is not a linear extrapolation. There are other considerations that will come into play depending on the process, the equipment, the filler. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it, things change and some of them happen in production. Be careful because that could affect your timeline.

This holistic approach where we’re looking at the impact on the entire value chain is something I would challenge other people to look at. You’ve got to be technically astute and sometimes you have to leverage outside expertise. The FEA I mentioned was done with an outside partner. That’s better because it gives you the independent evaluation.

We’re seeing experimentation with packaging that can be recycled or composted.

When you talk about composting, remember you have offgassing, mostly methane. If you have a lot of that, what does that do to our carbon footprint? You have to think about how to overcome that. That is why McCormick has created this framework that allows us to look at it holistically.

What does the future look like?

We’re going to see a lot more of the circular economy. Up until now there has been this mindset of “make, use, dispose.” In the future, we’re going to “make, use, reuse,” meaning you’re going to be thinking about our framework a lot more.

The Environmental Leader Conference & Energy Manager Summit will take place May 15-17, 2018 at the Denver Marriott Tech Center. More information here.

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