Recently, one of the most important issues related to the environment is the ‘packaging’. Albéa, the No.1 packaging company all over the world, has set up various business models in good time. Although it is pandemic, they are still working on it. We had a written interview about their strategies for the sustainability with Gilles Swyngedauw, the Innovation & Sustainability Vice President of Albéa.
Gilles joined Albéa in 2017 to lead the Corporate Social Responsibility department a well as the Innovation & Development team. He has close to 30 years of experience in packaging in Europe, USA and Asia. Gilles started his careeras process engineer in Pechiney Packaging and worked several years in Production before moving to Product Development and then Marketing. Before joining Albéa, Gilles worked 11 years in Singapore as Director of R&D and Process Development for Amcor FlexiblesAsia Pacific.
Would you briefly introduce your company to our readers?
Albéa is a leading packaging manufacturer for the beauty, personal care and health markets – we make the toothpaste and sunscreen tubes, cream jars, lipstick packs, mascara bottles, and fragrance packs that people use every day.
We invent and make responsible packaging. Yet we believe there can be no responsible packaging without a responsible company. That’s why we uphold the reputation of our dynamic and prestigious customers; we act for the environment; we support our communities; we invest in technical expertise and world-class equipment for our 31 modern facilities worldwide; and we care for our 10,000 talented people.
At Albéa, we protect Beauty.
How is your company dealing with this pandemic situation?
The pandemic has hit hard the beauty market: lockdowns impact retail sales, travel restrictions affect duty free shopping, remote working and mask-wearing affect makeup routines, and the economic crisis is hurting the fragrance and luxury segments. Some of our market segments ended the year 20% below plan. Others fared better, but all markets ended below expectations.
We operate 31 sites across the world. So our sites in China were the first ones to close, one year ago. Then Italy, when the pandemic reached Europe. Then France, Germany and East Europe, followed by the US and Mexico, before ravaging India and Indonesia. So we were somehow forewarned and a bit more prepared than others. We rolled out exceptional safety measures in China, which we then adapted and strengthened in Europe and implemented quickly in America and other countries in Asia.
And we have made it a point to not close our sites. That we could protect our people, that our customers relied on us, that our supplier network was solid, that this was in a way an opportunity to demonstrate our resilience and position as partner to our customers.
Plastic is truly important in packaging. But the plastics are pointed out as the major destroyer of environment. How do you think? What about alternatives?
We are convinced that we should and can get rid of plastic waste, and that we should and can reduce the amount of fossil-based virgin plastic used in packaging.
Yet we are also convinced that plastic will remain a material of choice, alongside all others, because of its unique properties: lightweight, cheap, strong, versatile, protective…
So the challenge is in transforming all our packaging into responsible packaging, meaning packaging that is safe for users and the planet; that is circular, meaning that it never becomes waste; and with the lowest possible environmental impact on air, soil and water (as measured through Life Cycle Assessments).
Albéa was the first cosmetic packaging company to sign up to the New Plastics Global Economy Commitment (back in 2018) in effect pledging to make all our packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025 and include at least 10% of Post-Consumer Recycled plastics in our packaging.
Changing into the environmental way requires heavy investment. How do you balance between the cost and the effectiveness?
That is a tough question.
We need to transform ALL of our packaging by 2025 – this requires sustained investments in our products, processes and equipment. In some cases it means switching from one material to another. Or inventing solutions (such as the paper-plastic tubes we launched last year with L’Oréal). Or testing new technologies (such as chemical recycling). Or adapting our manufacturing lines to new specifications. Or qualifying new suppliers.
Investment means money. And it is not yet clear if brands can, and if consumers are ready, to accept a higher price in exchange for environmentally-friendly solutions. Surveys after surveys say they will – but the reality is not quite as clear-cut.
But I have no doubt the market will move – regulations, in Europe and now increasingly in Asia are kicking in. Our customers are accelerating.
We believe there may be a need for governments to step in and kick-start the transformation – in order to build a lead in circular economy, in order to support transformative industrial investment, in order to bring together not just brands and suppliers but also the waste collectors and recyclers and regulatory authorities across the value chain.
The hope is that supply and demand will eventually balance out – and that government support will no longer be necessary.
So yes, that’s a lot of investments, in quite a short time – and unfortunately at exactly the same time that we need to recover from the pandemic.
According to your sustainability report, this is the second year since your 2020-2025 CSR strategy has started. How was last year? And what do you expect for this year?
Albéa has been committed to CSR for close to 20 years so we have quite a robust track record and background. Publishing our Reports was a way to provide transparency and disclosure, and to make our commitments public.
Our 2020-2025 roadmap, which we have branded Protecting Beauty, comprises 11 strategic stakes, identified through a Materiality Matrix assessment conducted in 2018.
Last year was obviously COVID year. And the priority was to sustain our business – so the only strategic stakes that we have accelerated are health & safety (for our people) and responsible packaging. All others were maintained, because they all matter every day, but not pushed forward.
This year we believe there are 3 stakes we need to accelerate: responsible packaging of course, always, but also climate change and ethics & compliance.
Again, this reflects our conviction that there can be no responsible packaging without a responsible company – one that is trustworthy, ethical, transparent, reliable. We pride ourselves on putting emphasis not just on our packaging but on our people, our communities, our planet, and on ensuring our customers that we are a partner for the long-term. And that we act responsibly towards all.
Since Albéa is a big company, many branches are spreading around the world. Each country has different regulations and environments. How do you deal with it when there are some global challenges related to establishing or changing CSR strategies?
Our customers operate on the prestige and mass or masstige markets. In makeup, skincare, personal care and pharma. In Europe, Asia and America.
So yes – regulations vary, their priorities vary, the pressure on their markets vary.
Our position is that we are a partner and an expert – so we aim to provide guidance, and solutions, that are meaningful to each individual brand.
We have a clear set of priorities: reducing the use of fossil-based virgin plastics, ensuring that our packs are recyclable, supporting reuse schemes and new usages, including PCR resins, and bio-based that do not compete with the food chain.
Then we work with each individual brand to understand what their priorities are, corporate commitments, and how we can support them uniquely. We leverage our expertise and experience, capabilities, mindset, team to make it work.
That’s also an outcome of this transformation: increased collaboration between brands and suppliers. It’s less of a transactional relationship and more of a partnership: combining each player’s core expertise, sharing and disclosing information, co-developing breakthrough solutions…
That’s because the topic is such an urgent challenge, so complex and so technical.
It’s great to work so closely with our customers! Witness all the joint announcements we made last year – with L’Oréal for the first paper-plastic tube; with Estée Lauder for the first chemically-recycled tube; with Colgate for the first recyclable toothpaste tube; and then with Henkel, P&G, J&J…
This being said, there is one area where the variety of environments is an issue: regulations. These are needlessly complex and different across countries, even though many companies sell across borders. That’s quite a thicket. That’s why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the WWF are petitioning the UN to take the lead on the topic and thus accelerate the inevitable convergence.
What is the meaning of your company to you?
I believe Albéa’s mission is to protect Beauty.
More than ever, we must act together, with all our stakeholders, to protect beauty.
We must protect product formulas with increasingly responsible packaging.
We must protect the environment.
We must protect the reputation of our customers.
We must protect our teams, our sites and our communities.
We must protect our know-how.
We must protect our partners.
We must protect our history to enjoy our future.
If you have any comments to Korean cosmetic industries? Any advices related to CSR or environmental activities?
As you may know, I have lived and worked for more than 12 years in Asia and I love that region, its dynamism, its leading edge in so many fields.
As for Korea, K-Beauty is famous across the world for its active skincare, skin protection, efficient routines. K-Beauty is recognized for its innovative formulas and ingredients.
I would say that the same audacity and innovation could apply to cosmetic packaging. New formulas require new packs. Innovative formulas deserve innovative packs.
And we would be honored to partner with Korean brands to support their specific challenges and ambitions!
Anything else you want to say?
The past 3 years have seen an extraordinary acceleration of the drive towards responsible packaging – eg recyclable or reusable. So much has been achieved in such a short time. Yet the challenges ahead remain formidable.
Learning from the past will help shape the future.
Looking back, I would say that there are 5 success factors that need to be harnessed for an effective transformation:
- commitment, which steers a company towards its goal, and makes change inevitable and shared
- transparency, which demonstrates humility in view of the progress, constraints and challenges, and makes sharing achievements possible
- ecosystem, which implies working across the value chain, with brands, packaging suppliers (incl. competitors!) , raw material suppliers, equipment manufacturers, waste collectors, recyclers, regulators etc
- innovation obviously, constant, in various directions, because there is no magical solution
- and co-development, or collaborative innovation, between customers and their suppliers, to pool resources and ensure breakthroughs are made real and launched quickly, thus testing the market.