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Shipping Pallets: This is not a topic that is typically at the top of the sustainability agenda for most companies.
Maybe it should. As companies dig deeper and deeper into their supply chains looking for ways to reduce waste, energy, greenhouse gas emissions and other negative impacts, pallets are on the cusp. to have more weight in the conversation.
That’s my conclusion after spending time last week with pallet industry executives. I gave the keynote address at the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA) Annual Leadership Conference and had the chance to learn how sustainability fits on the industry agenda , its efforts to promote the environmental benefits of wooden pallets and some of the challenges.
Selling pallet durability issues to customers can be daunting, especially for small businesses.
First, some statistics: almost 2 billion pallets are in service every day in the United States, plus 3 billion in Europe, of which approximately 95% are made of wood. Each is made from 10 to 17 foot planks of wood – usually oak or southern yellow pine. The industry claims that 90% of the US supply chain moves on a pallet, of which approximately 90% is constructed of wood.
For decades, the wood pallet industry has been fighting to be seen as the environmental choice, over plastic, its main competitor. (Decades, indeed: I first wrote about this debate in 1994.) The challenges of messaging and marketing mirror those faced by many industries: telling a compelling story that compares favorably to a competitor , including combating myths and misunderstandings about its product, including those perpetrated by those same competitors.
Turns out it’s a heavyweight.
The pallet industry is diffuse, spread across hundreds of companies in the US alone, mostly small businesses, making it difficult to build a unified messaging force. Environmental considerations do not loom large for most pallet buyers – primarily those in the operations and purchasing departments of manufacturers and retailers – frustrating wood pallet manufacturers who feel they have a compelling story to tell. . Price and availability trump almost every other consideration.
Still, the environmental story is compelling. I won’t bother with the litany of facts that the industry touts – you can find some of them here – but I was particularly struck by these two pieces of information: 95% of wooden pallets are used multiple times, and when they are no longer usable or repairable, 97% end up as new products, such as boiler fuel, mulch, animal bedding or pellets to make biofuel.
It’s an enviable sustainability story to tell, though the industry is struggling to break through. One of the challenges is that plastic pallet manufacturers – around 5% of the market – also think they have a compelling story: they are touting the safety, cleanliness, durability and cost-effectiveness of plastic pallets. Along the way, they talk about wooden pallets, which they say are heavier, difficult to clean and pose a higher risk of infestation and contamination when wet, a particular problem for the food industry. .
Wood pallet manufacturers, for their part, counter that the environmental superiority claims of plastic pallet manufacturers are not based on verifiable life cycle data, which would present them unfavorably in an apple comparison. apples. They also hope to capitalize on the current wave of anti-plastic sentiment by promoting wood as a “natural” product.
When I met with the NWPCA board after my speech, I advised them to avoid vilifying plastic – the problem, after all, is not so much plastic as plastic. waste – and better tell their story. For example, many of their biggest customers – the world’s biggest brands and retailers – need help collecting data on the sustainability of their supply chains, and pallets are an obvious (but overlooked) part of that. ). Solving customer problems is usually a better bet than bashing the competition.
There are signs of progress. “For one of the first times, we recently used some of our sustainability reports as a sales tool,” Lindsey Shean-Snowden, managing director of California-based Valley Pallet, told me. “And rather than glancing at the slide during the presentation – and having them say, ‘Oh that’s good, but what’s the price?’ – they stopped and asked a lot of questions. .
Valley Pallet landed this particular sale. “It was one of the first times we saw sustainability become a real selling point.”
Yet for most pallet companies, selling pallet sustainability issues to customers can be daunting – again, a situation common to all industries, especially those dominated by small businesses.
“I think a lot of it is capturing what you’re already doing and then saying, ‘Okay, how do we make sure that we have a conversation about sustainability within our organization and that it’s is one of our corporate values,” advised Chaille Brindley, vice president of operations and publisher of Pallet Enterprise magazine. “I think every company is going to have its own unique story when it comes to sustainability or ESG .”
Building the right toolbox is key: gathering data that can become proof points, crafting messages around those proof points, arming sales and marketing teams with talking points, testing those messages with customers , continuously evaluating what works, then spreading what works.
Having a supportive professional association also helps. The NWPCA has created several tools for its members, including a Pallet Design System, a proprietary software package to help manufacturers incorporate the latest data, engineering, and technology into their pallets. Software licensees are automatically certified under the US Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred program, providing manufacturers with a product eco-label.
The association has also developed an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for wooden pallets, which includes a life cycle assessment for all stages, including production, use and end of life. The tool has been verified under the UL Environment EPD program and developed in accordance with ISO standards. Meanwhile, some pallet manufacturers have created carbon calculators on their websites (example), another useful sales tool.
It’s still in its infancy – the environmental benefits of wooden pallets will take time to become a selling attribute for most customers – but I’ve been impressed with the industry’s serious efforts to make it one true product differentiator. And as more and more companies probe their supply chains to address environmental and social issues, it’s inevitable that some will take notice of those ubiquitous wooden workhorses that haul their goods up and down. at the market.
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