Bart Albrechts - Belgium GM, DS Smith: "Packaging is a fully-fledged part of a marketing strategy"

Bart Albrechts is the General Manager of DS Smith Belgium, one of the largest players on the Belgian and global packaging market, for nearly two years. What makes the packaging industry so exciting? Let’s hear it from him.

We tend to think of packaging as that "simple brown box", handy for putting your groceries in or storing old paper. But otherwise, there’s nothing interesting about it. Or is there?

"I understand what you’re saying: until about twenty years ago, products were mainly packaged in simple brown boxes. However, the packaging world has since changed. It’s extremely interesting to be able to experience from close by how innovations and new technological developments turn packaging into real marketing tools. I’ve been working at DS Smith for two years and I’ve definitely learned a lot about packaging. But I still have a lot to learn. It’s a fascinating product, particularly when you know what’s behind it and how it adds value.”

What’s hidden behind the flaps of those cardboard boxes?

“Packaging is increasingly becoming a fully-fledged part of a sophisticated marketing strategy, certainly since the e-commerce boom. Packaging is now often the first contact that a customer has with a brand. Of course, packaging must still do what it was meant to do: protect a product. But we also have a design team here that converts customer wishes into attractive packaging. Continuing to innovate ensures that we can offer good packaging that is cost effective and sustainable and that is durable too. "

“There’s considerable pressure to switch to more sustainable packaging, and cardboard is often one of the best alternatives.”

Cost-saving packaging, what does that mean?

“You can save costs in different ways. For example, packaging that can be placed on the shelf faster or packaging that makes our customers' packing machines perform more efficiently. But one of the most current issues, certainly in e-commerce, is the so-called "empty space". Research shows that packaging often contains a lot of air, they are too large for the product that they contain. Consequently, they take up more space, meaning that you can transport fewer boxes at once. At DS Smith, we explore how we can better adapt packaging to the size of the product, as well as how we can use thinner and lighter cardboard. That’s not an easy exercise. If the cardboard is too light, it can cause damage. If the cardboard is too heavy, we use unnecessary raw materials. Not good for the environment and not good for costs. In short: adapting the packaging to the product and its journey will not only save on the price of the packaging, but also on transportation costs and storage costs, for example. And that’s certainly important in e-commerce.”

You just talked about sustainable packaging. Is the packaging industry a sustainable industry?

“Yes, sustainability is not an empty concept with us; it’s really in our DNA. That becomes clearer if you look at the production process of our packaging. Our cardboard is made from wood pulp from FSC®-certified forests in Scandinavia. That certification means that the wood for the paper that we use is cut in a responsible manner. To make corrugated cardboard, we heat paper so that we can wave it. We use the heat that is released during that process again to heat our office spaces. When that corrugated cardboard is ready and cut to size, we print and stamp the cardboard plates. We collect the cardboard residues from it and return it to the paper factory to have paper made again. We can do that up to seven times, after which the fibres have become too weak for cardboard packaging. They can still be used to make tissues, however. We never throw away cardboard. And we ensure that our customers don’t either: we collect the empty or used packaging and have it recycled. The circular economy is nothing new for us."

But what about the ink you use for printing? Isn't that waste?

"We don't throw away the ink, we collect it in our ‘ink kitchen’. If a customer needs a certain colour on their packaging, we first try to compile that specific colour from the inks we have. Obviously I’m aware that we need to take economic reality into account. But sustainable business can also yield economic benefits: you can package, produce and transport more efficiently. We also save on heating costs by recovering heat. Now that might all seem new, but within the foreseeable future sustainable business will become a matter of course.”

“Adapting the packaging to the product and its journey will save costs. Very important in e-commerce.”

Does that make cardboard packaging a sustainable alternative to plastic?

“In many cases, yes. Instead of using styrofoam to hold parts in place in a box, you can do that with cardboard. Or we replace the filling - think bubble wrap or foam flakes - with cardboard. Moreover, cardboard is not only recyclable, with the sustainably managed forests we can continue for thousands of years. And that’s a major difference with plastic. Of course, cardboard can’t replace all plastic, but we want to show the world that it’s very strong and that it can be used in many different ways. Moreover, with around 2.5 billion active users of social media channels, our society has created a generation of consumers who call on companies to be sustainable and accept their responsibility. Think of unboxing videos or images of plastic waste in the Mediterranean, with hashtags like #isthisyours or #mispaksel. There’s great pressure on companies to switch to more sustainable packaging and cardboard is often one of the best alternatives.”

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