Manufacturing Sustainable Products: How Printpack is Making an Impact
Increasingly, companies are investing in ESG initiatives (environmental, social, and governance). Partly, it’s due to a realization of the impact of climate change and a recognition that something has to change.
But promising to make a change and actually making that change are two very different things.
What are the practical steps you can take as a company to start developing more sustainable product offerings?
Dave McLain, Director of Sustainability at Printpack, shares lessons on how his team has helped identify & implement changes to signature products and provides advice for establishing a culture of sustainability within your organization.
- 4 P’s of Printpack corporate social responsibility
- How the definition of sustainability differs among customers
- Printpack’s process for developing sustainable products
- Getting buy-in for sustainability initiatives
- Advice for companies considering making changes to product offerings
Are you ready to start your digital transformation journey? Request a demo today.
Check out the full episode below:
[00:00:00] Josh Santo: Are you appealing to logic, are you appealing to emotions, and are you doing it at the right time and place? If you really analyze those poor conversations where you were trying to change somebody’s mind, you probably missed one of those three things.
Welcome to Conquering Chaos, the show for manufacturing leaders. In each episode, we are connecting you to the manufacturing leaders of today who are driving the innovations needed to future-proof the operations of tomorrow. If you feel like your time is spent fighting fires and trying to control the everyday chaos, this show is the show for you. My name is Josh Santo. I’ll be your host.
Hey, y’all, it’s Josh. Before we get into this episode, I wanted to put this into your ear. If you like the types of conversations we’re having, you’ll enjoy the content that we share through our mailing list. Go to parsable.com/podcast, scroll to the bottom of the page and sign up to get more insightful content delivered directly to your inbox. Okay. Onto the show.
Welcome, conquerors. We’re back with a brand new topic to help you move your operations in the right direction while overcoming the chaos that threatens to derail you in your day-to-day activities. Today’s topic, producing sustainable products. Today’s guest, well, he’s held a variety of roles from maintenance manager to plant manager and that’s actually after his stint in the automotive industry for Printpack’s Rigid Division.
His journey in manufacturing has taken him across the globe to China, in fact, where he took the reins of general manager of Printpack (Suzhou), and director of Printpack (Thailand). Expanding his career experiences, he then returned to Printpack’s global headquarters in Atlanta, where he spent several years in marketing and sales, focused on Printpack’s PE business and sustainability. He now leads Printpack’s efforts to help customers realize a more sustainable future by serving as the director of sustainability. Please welcome, Dave McClain. Dave, thanks so much for being here today.
[00:02:16] Dave McClain: Good grief. I need to just carry that around with me. That was like, let’s get ready to rumble. I feel like that’s where we need to be, man. That was awesome.
[00:02:27] Josh: Well, I appreciate that. I like to think of myself as a hype man.
[00:02:33] Dave: I’ve never had a hype man, but I have a snippet of a hype man now that I-
[00:02:36] Josh: You have a snippet.
[00:02:36] Dave: -can take with me.
[00:02:38] Josh: For everyone listening, let me assure you, this man deserves the hype. Let’s talk about a couple of things. First, like always, we want to start with a day in your shoes. Dave, talk to us about what life is like day-to-day.
[00:02:55] Dave: I’ll start with, I’m father of four, my wife, Rebecca, and I have four kids, super active. We love being outside. We’re involved in scouting. We have three boys and then our youngest is a girl. We spend a lot of time in the woods and then for work, it’s all virtual still for us. I was traveling probably 50% to 70% of time prior to COVID. Now, it’s a lot of time in front of a computer. It’s been awesome not giving up an hour and a half of my day to Atlanta traffic.
[00:03:36] Josh: That is certainly something I can resonate with, and I’m sure a lot of people can, is just that idea of traffic is not enjoyable and any time we can avoid it, that’s great. There’s been a lot of benefits there though we think about all the people still working in the plants, they still got to get up and show up there.
Now, one thing that this podcast is failing to do, and so everyone listen up, this is a failure I readily admit, is we cannot show you the glorious beard that Dave is sporting. When I first met Dave, I was instantly jealous, beard envy, full force. I’m telling you this, it’s a work of art. Congratulations on such a pristine beard.
[00:04:23] Dave: I’m going to just have my wife listen to the first three minutes of the podcast. We can just end here with regards to the hype, man. I appreciate that. It’s a labor of love.
[00:04:36] Josh: It turns out that the key to sustainability is a great beard. Everyone–
[00:04:41] Dave: It’s the most sustainable thing you can do.
[00:04:44] Josh: Exactly. It is. Well, cool. Let’s talk about a couple of things. First, what stuck out to me when we were first getting introduced was your background. We want to spend some time talking about the work that you’ve done at Printpack for sustainability initiatives, coming up. Before we do, we want to make sure everyone understands why you are someone that they should listen to on this subject. We’re going to have you share your story, but if I can sum it up for everyone in two words, it’s this, “the grind”. Okay? Let’s level-set. I want to hear a little bit more about as a director of sustainability, what are you responsible for?
[00:05:24] Dave: The team that I lead is directly responsible for reinventing Printpack’s packaging. From conventional packaging that is under attack and there’s debates raging around the role that packaging plays in our lives, the leadership of our company said, “Hey, we need to get on with doing the work.” I am honored to be able to lead a team doing that. We’re all technical. There are six of us full-time, and we all have engineering backgrounds. We’re just trying to hammer out the trials, the sourcing of new cool stuff, and then working with our product development folks who work with customers to bring that into commercial arenas.
[00:06:16] Josh: Got it. Okay. This is a position that is current and forward-looking, and we’re actually going to reverse the theme of forward-looking and look backwards at this point and talk about how you got here. If you don’t mind, share a little bit about your background so that we can understand your journey and how you’ve seen all these different aspects of manufacturing and how you got to focusing on sustainability.
[00:06:45] Dave: Let’s see. There’s the grind and there’s sustainability, and then there’s how they overlap. I’ll go way back. When I was 13, I had a baseball coach who was a good driller and my parents said, “We want our kids to understand the value of hard work and to also inspire them to pursue academics.” I started working for him when I was 13, 14, did that for six years. I worked essentially in the summers and some after school, but then when I went to a community college to get my associate’s degree, a general engineering degree, I worked for the good driller all the way through that pretty much.
Went to Virginia Tech, mechanical engineering, you could guess it was fluid Dynamics, it was what my focus led to. It was an awesome connection too, to really get into fluid dynamics after working for irrigation wells, essentially. It was a really good connection academically for me. I also co-opt four semesters– It’s now Flowserve, but it was Ingersoll-Dresser Pumps at the time. That was another amazing experience, still in fluid dynamics. From there, I got a job. My first job out of college was with Cummins Engine Company as a fuel systems guy. Same, I’m thinking, “Okay, this is what it’s going to be. I’m going to be in fluid dynamics for a long time.”
At the time, we were transitioning our diesel, our community, the US, diesel regulations that required an overhaul of the fuel systems. I was on the service side. I was a service engineer initially with them, and then I later did tech support manager for a large account. My job was to download all the warranty data and essentially break it down. There are a few of us doing it, but break it down and find the problems. The problems are quite literally, where’s the money going? What are we paying in warranties? You get to see all the problems.
Our role ended with step one. If you’re following a seven-step, say– There’s a lot of problem-solving processes out there. Step one is to find the problem. That was our job. That’s all we did, was to find the problem. That was traveling all over. One week, I would be in Seattle for the transit authority, and then another week I’d be in the woods looking at feller bunchers for loggings. It was a cool job.
Through that, you started to see the transition into– Environmental concerns were quite high, still are with PET chemicals, but in engines in particular at that time going through that transition. You see all the problems when you’re trying to introduce new technology. At the time, personal-wise, we were on our second child. Rebecca was pregnant with our second. We were really trying to move closer to home. Cummins is headquartered in Columbus, Indiana. We were trying to move closer and that’s where we found Printpack.
17 years ago, I went to work as a maintenance manager and had two plants. The grind really is manufacturing, man. Everybody that’s in daily operations, my hat that I’m not wearing right now, but my hat is off to you. It never stops especially if you’re in maintenance. There is literally always a problem that you could be working on. I had a great, great team that I was leading. They’re solid folks, really good people really, really strong.
I learned a lot of lessons around, one, to just let people do their jobs. Over the next five years, I was in a few roles, but of growing responsibility, ended up as plant manager. Then at that time, I was looking to plug in to the rest of Printpack. Printpack really is more known for flexibles. Our rigid division’s 10% to 15% of our overall revenue. I was really looking to move into something else. I took a job to build a plant. We built a plant in Bloomington. I went back from daily operations back to an engineering role as site manager for that build and I was Maintenance Manager for the existing operations that were there.
Then that was China. You mentioned China. Again, back to rigid, spent five years in China. Blew my mind. Paradigm-shifting experience. We were starting up a plant bringing in new equipment, culturally just unbelievable, the differences in leadership styles and what was required of me as a leader. The issues around changing your supply base from an international one to a localized one, all of that stuff is an incredible experience.
Back in the States, six years in three, this my third role, but I’ve had sustainability as a part of it since coming back, essentially. I’ve been in market development, sales, and now sustainability full time. In that time period, I saw, it was probably 10% of my job when it was originally assigned to me and now there’s six of us, like I said, full-time plus obviously, other folks are involved in sustainability in the company.
[00:12:48] Josh: I want to dig into a couple of the points that you raised on your background. You mentioned starting as a mechanical engineer pursuing fluid dynamics, and then Cummins, you were focusing on the fuel systems. With the fluid dynamics, with your background working with the well-driller, was that something that you were interested in? Did it just make sense at the time? What got you pursuing that particular path?
[00:13:19] Dave: Rarely it was the connection with. The type of engineer that I am is, I like to know how stuff works. That’s it. It’s like, okay. Hey, the vacuum cleaner, if we were going to throw that out, yes, I’d like to take that apart and then get rid of it. Just the curiosity.
This well-driller job was great. I was outside, I was in good shape, had a good tan. All the stuff you need in high school and in college. You go from there to you’re sitting in a class and they’re talking about nozzles or impellers and what’s happening in the impeller. I know exactly what they were talking about. I’d taken pumps apart. For me, it was the academic connection to a previous hands-on experience. That was really cool.
From there, when I went to the co-op, I didn’t love the behind-the-desk work, the design work, it just didn’t connect with me as much. They moved me around. I did four semesters with them, and I loved the more industrial engineering type stuff, the on-the-plant-floor stuff, and then the test bench, slinging wrenches all day. Those two rotations that I did, were just so engaging.
[00:14:51] Josh: Got it. You’re the type of person that wants to know how stuff works. You want to actually get in there and get your hands on it. Is that a key part for you in understanding how it works?
[00:15:03] Dave: Yes, for sure it is. It’s interesting now, the role that I’m in, other people are getting their hands on it. I like to know everything, but I would hate to be in somebody’s way or micromanagement. That’s a delicate balance today.
[00:15:24] Josh: Yes. Well, that actually is such a good point that as a leader, you’re not responsible for doing the work, you’re responsible for the people who are doing the work, to your point. If you become two hands-on, you risk becoming a micromanager, which is going to institute a rebellion at some point. Let’s talk about your transition to the maintenance manager. What was it? You mentioned it was the proximity to home was one of the reasons that the Printpack opportunity was appealing to you. Was maintenance the natural next step?
[00:16:04] Dave: One thing is, what I do is much fun. I can walk and look in your pantry and find our products. That was an immediate connection. When I went and interviewed with them and did a plant tour, and I’m looking at things that my kids were eating out of. There was that part. Then on the maintenance side, I went from a service engineer, which is calling on maintenance managers, from an OEM, Original Equipment Manufacturer to now I’m the user. Those things I was looking at from a reliability standpoint. I was just essentially a reliability engineer for a good bit. Well, now you’re a user, but with a reliability engineer background.
There are the practicalities of the day-to-day, but then the hope would be you can pull yourself out of that to see the underlying problems, the systemic problems, or the failures that keep occurring. How do you analyze those, try to work into preventive maintenance?
[00:17:08] Josh: When you think about your eventual transition into plant manager, how did you take that on? Were there any struggles you encountered that you didn’t expect to counter or any preconceived notions you had about what it would take to be successful in that role or in that transition?
[00:17:30] Dave: That transition occurred at a period of time where a lot of very talented people who had built the division were retiring. We’re seeing it all over the country now, right? There are folks in the– call at the sunset of their careers, who know a ton, accomplished a ton. Then there are people at the sunrise of their careers who have a ton of energy. I was one of the ones that had a ton of energy. As we were transitioning, we also experienced a period of unprecedented growth. It was crazy. We were knocking down walls inside the building to put machines to make production. We were moving air compressors out of our buildings to the side to make room for stuff.
We lost the plot. There were too many transitions happening. We were also starting a plant in China, the division. We’d also purchased the third plant. When I answered the email from you as Conquering Chaos, that was what we were attempting to do. When I was pulled in, I had all these ideas before I took the job. Then you figure out what the job is really about after you realize your great ideas maybe need to be shopped around a bit. There’s definitely a dog that caught the car initially and then you find out who you can rely on and you grind out the list. What’s the list of stuff? How are we going to prioritize it, organize it, get on with actually managing the change?
[00:19:24] Josh: Is there a particular moment that you can look back on that fills you with pride that you were able to accomplish it or that your team was able to come together and be successful with it?
[00:19:36] Dave: Yes. We cut waste more than in half in the period of about two years. I think what I’m most proud of would be the folks that were inspired by how we chose to do business. We had maintenance folks, for example, that we presented a problem and they just got to welding and came back with a design idea and we implemented it. The next thing you know, we’re not sweeping up resin pellets off the ground. That kind of stuff. The small things that all of a sudden, when you’re done, you’re like, man, this is thousands of pounds of material that just took individuals unleashed.
At the time, the leader that I worked for used to say, “Hey, we’ve got to unleash the collective intelligence of the organization. This can’t be a small number of people telling everybody what to do.” If there was one thing, it would be that.
That period of time also really changed my idea of the place that quality has in an operation. With food packaging, you can’t just show up and put it on cruise control. People are eating out of what you make and if you think about a lot of the packaging that’s rigid, it’s a lot of kids. My kids were eating out of stuff we made. It makes you order the priorities. Safety, obviously, I’ve known folks who’ve gotten injured and I never want to experience being in the moment with somebody when they’re injured and dealing with that, so safety and then for me, it really is quality. If you don’t have time to do it, you don’t have time to do it twice. Whatever it is.
Bad quality means you’re repeating yourself. You’re just going to load up the schedule again and do the same job that you should have done right the first time. Then you get into efficiency. Is it efficiency, is it waste reduction, or whatever? I’ll tie it back to sustainability. In a lot of ways, I was just in the thick of it. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than human health and safety and making good products, but the world doesn’t have the resources for us to just make junk all the time. I connected that later. To be honest, I didn’t connect that at the time.
[00:22:25] Josh: I think as we get older and have those experiences and we have those epiphanies, that’s always going to be the case. You would love to, in the moment when it’s ideal, realize that but sometimes it takes a few more experiences and a few more struggles and conversations and challenging points of view to get us to that point. I love how you brought that up. From your intro, and providing some of the backgrounds in your day-to-day activities, sustainability already came up, or at least an appreciation for the resources that are coming from the planet that we live on.
Looking at your experience just in your personal life, as well as your career that you’ve described up until this point, there certainly seems to be a connection of not just how things work– like wanting to know how things work, but a little bit on making it last too. Knowing how it works so that you can improve it, sustain it.
[00:23:28] Dave: Yes, it’s funny. I started work when they built to last. In the book, Built to Last, there’s good to great and then there’s built to last, right? When those were big and that’s, yes, I agree. I’ve only driven one car in my life from when I was 18. I still drive the same car.
[00:23:54] Josh: Wow.
[00:23:55] Dave: My kids say that it runs on my life force. It’s a Toyota pickup. They figured out the design but it is one of those things where it’s like, oftentimes, the most sustainable things you can do is maintain equipment specifically and then when you’re changing, you really have to get into, okay, I have this hopefully highly efficient, whatever it is and to iterate there, from there, you have to really get into what am I trading off?
If I were to get a new car, I’m trading off some things. I’m trading off some familiarity, I’m trading off whatever it is that I like about my car. I might get Google Play or Apple Play or whatever on it. Some people in my life have had five cars. Then you get into well, they’re probably driving more fuel-efficient cars, but I’m saying, “Yes, but it’s five cars versus one”. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m not saying my way’s better or whatever I’m to saying that’s what you get into with a lot of what we’re doing today is what is the better choice and it’s really a matter of what’s more important to you or the company or whatever.
[00:25:15] Josh: That’s such a great point. Let’s talk a little bit about that idea of what’s important to you and to the company. One thing that is coming up more and more frequently is environmental social governance, ESG sustainability initiatives. There is such an increased focus on these topics. Some of that has to do with the shifts in consumer preferences, a more socially conscious consumer who cares about sustainably sourced materials or the impact the production of the product has or even the life cycle of the product has to your point about the vehicles and which vehicle do you choose.
There’s also a wider recognition of the impact of climate change. There are demands from investors that companies focus on these topics. There is increased regulation coming, especially when you think about some of the updates coming from the SEC and more. It’s great to see this interest, however, it’s also a recognition that something has to change and recognizing that and promising to make that change versus actually making the change. Those are two separate things.
Those are some of the topics that I’d love to explore with you since that’s what you deal with in your day-to-day life. Before we get too deep into that though, I would love to hear a little bit more about the 4 Ps of Printpack’s corporate social responsibility.
[00:26:48] Dave: In an attempt to break it down for everybody at Printpack, and really of move something from an esoteric concept, social responsibility into actionable business plans, we categorized it into the 4 Ps. It’s people, plants, products, and partnerships. People really is our associates and not only how we treat them. Are we providing a place where folks can grow and are we enhancing the lives of our associates? Are our associates then able to, and free to, and encouraged to enhance the communities in which they live? Are we directly partnering with organizations to enhance the communities in which we operate?
I’ll just say United Way and American Heart Association are the two big ones based on it and that’s key to the history of the company. Our founder passed from a heart attack. American Heart Association was something that obviously resonated with the family, who still privately help. The people part of it, for it not to be genuine, it’s obvious to say, “Well, that’s a mistake” but then it’s also hard to find something that resonates with not just the corporate folks but also everybody. On the people side, it’s everything from charitable, like I said, to some of those institutional things that companies need to do.
On the plant side, that is just our footprint. It’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions, it’s how are we sourcing our energy? Are we reducing waste? For the waste that we are making, are we keeping it out of a landfill? Those types of initiatives.
The product is really directly my responsibilities or the flexible part of our business. The products we make, generally speaking, Printpack is pretty well known for the center of the grocery store isle stuff. Things that are keeping our food stable on the self. There’s lots of activity around the stewardship and the products and the packaging in the center of the grocery store are all right in particular, to their end of life but it’s really the life cycle.
The team that I lead is working on circularity and plastic circularity, with paper packaging and then biological circularity, which would be compostable packaging. To do that, we found that the core to our strategy for sustainability is, we have to view partnerships differently. It’s very easy to say our customers are our partners. Okay. I hope your customers are your partners.
The question is, are you the customer of choice for your suppliers? If we have a strategy that’s reinventing our packaging, a lot of that innovation comes further up the stream than us. We take substrates and raw materials and turn them into packaging. We don’t make the raw materials. We’re like Lego builders if you will. We can design the house and build it but we’re not making the bricks. The bricks are what’s available to us.
Are we a company where if a supplier says, “I’ve got a novel thing that could change the world or even improve it incrementally”, I want Printpack to be the first company they call? How do you do that? It’s a lot of being involved.
The other piece of partnership is working with non-government organizations and industry organizations. I don’t mean the flexible ones or the plastic ones, those are all important for sure but ones that traditionally there may be a little friction. How can we understand where the pain points are in a different way? In a conversation away and really dig in. We’ve joined some organizations that we weren’t members of and it’s really enriched our perspective, but it’s also informed our strategy. There’s more than one reason to do it.
[00:31:31] Josh: Hey, we’re going to take a real quick break to hear from our sponsors. Stay tuned for more Conquering Chaos.
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[00:33:43] Josh: Your team is focused, out of those four P’s, on the products but it sounds like these four P’s are very, very interconnected.
[00:33:53] Dave: Yes, for sure. When you say sustainability, it’s kind of everything or somebody could very specifically mean ocean plastics, for example, or they could mean carbon emissions, or they could mean environmental justice. We don’t pick what people mean when they say sustainability. I view it as our job to understand what they mean and build our work with others, obviously, at Printpack to build the systems, the actual business around being able to deliver those things in a way that makes sense. It’s going to be there for a lot– that is built to last as we said earlier.
[00:34:44] Josh: I think that’s a good point that sustainability and ESG could mean different things to different people. I know there are some manufacturers that I’ve spoken with when I’ve asked them about sustainability, they have to take a second to clarify with me, am I talking about environmental concerns or am I talking about sustaining a change made as a result of a continuous improvement project?
There are even some things there but I highlight that because what you’re describing, which was Printpack developed the four P’s, I think that that’s what’s key is the listening, the understanding, what’s going on and current events, what are the things that we have a social responsibility for to the people that we seek to serve, who rely on our products, and define what that is for your organization.
It has to be that control because, at the end of the day, the organization knows itself best, and how we can then develop that and lead the right team and lead the right resources to that common good. Let’s talk about the idea of leading the right team and leading resources to the common good. You’re focused on the products. You mentioned a little bit what you’re responsible for but I’d love if you could just take us in a little bit deeper about your team’s responsibility and maybe some examples of projects if you can share that.
[00:36:14] Dave: We started with, what does that sustainability mean? What’s it mean to our customers? What’s it mean to Printpack? Some of its classic materiality assessment but then after we got a feel for that, we took six months and did a strategy. I didn’t have a team yet but I was given the responsibility for sustainability. The first thing that I asked the leader that I report to was, “Give me six months to just hammer this out.”
We did classic. We used Willie Pietersen’s reinventing strategy model but we incorporated elements from five forces, SWOT analysis, really got into the classic stuff to say, “Okay, what’s the goal? Where do we want to be?” Then we took that and said, okay, in order to really progress, to dig into those products, to get to your question, we have to carve out a team to go do this.
The way was structured is we have direct customer teams. Whatever type of packaging you want, given scale and fit for business and all that, we will make you what you want, which is awesome. What we found is folks that are doing that don’t have time in the hours outside of customer responsibilities to do longer-term sustainability stuff. A customer picks up the phone, you’re going to– you should go do that.
We said, “Okay, we’ve got to carve this team out”, and then the team, after we figured that out that that’s what we’re going to do, we said, “If you look at circularity with packaging, what are the major kind of platforms that we need to have?” That’s where we landed on those three that I mentioned earlier. It’s really plastics, paper, and biological compostable. Those are the three main forks on the road. Sometimes you can do both, like paper can be compostable, for example, but there’s a hard fork in the road between paper and plastic if your customer doesn’t want or does want a specific substrate.
Then we broke down the markets we serve, available technologies, all that and came up with our feasibility. We essentially looked at our structures said, what is feasible, and then what’s a priority for us? A priority for us could have been anything from it’s our core business with a customer load that’s basically saying, “We’re going to switch.” They’ve committed, or it could be a market that our market development folks want to develop and sustainability is a key one.
What’s a priority for us commercially? What will sell, and then what’s feasible? When we look at all the technologies that are close, we do it two by two diagram. It’s easy for me to say, “Well, you should start with the high priorities that are feasible.” Duh, right? Problem is, you don’t say no to the low priorities that aren’t feasible. We started with that and then we communicated that to everybody.
We shopped it around to our product development colleagues and said, “Look, these are what we think our priorities are.” We got their feedback, of course. Then we went to manufacturing and said, “Look, this is what we think the strategy needs to be and the steps we’re going to take, we might find we don’t have the right assets in some areas. We might find that we have to spend money on trials, and some of these trials would be disruptive or we might find we need partners or whatever.” Since then– and this isn’t all my teams. Since then, we still have these customer teams that are doing a great job, and then the team that I lead is working on things as well.
Printpack overall has had a few successes that are big, there are granola bars that are in recyclable packaging that are store drop that you need to bring back, but you can put it in with the grocery store bags, bring those back. We’ve got renewably sourced materials that are commercial, so resins that are made from renewable sources. We just announced a partnership with a company in the UK that makes paper-based packaging. They want to move to the US, and they’ve got a proven technology. We’ve partnered with them and we’ve invested in some recycling technologies that we think will be needed in the future.
[00:41:16] Josh: You’re getting feedback from people to provide that really critical differing perspective. You certainly don’t want to get caught in any sort of echo chamber, where your idea sounds good, and everyone else says it sounds good. Ultimately, you’re describing coming into situations where you’re asking people to change. Printpack made it clear that this is in line with our priorities. Did you struggle at any point with getting buy-in for some of your ideas and if so, how did you overcome that?
[00:41:52] Dave: If it were obvious, then everybody was on board. You don’t have to sit down and do a big strategy and shop it around. For sure, there were headwinds. Here’s what I’ll say is, most of our challenge broadly in packaging is really smart people been doing consumer packaged goods. Let’s just say, even if it’s plastics– plastics are hot right now– 60 years, call it. 60 years of them grinding to grinding out every penny. Putting in all the efficiencies, all the shelf life, it’s incredibly efficient, all within the retail system that we have.
The delivery of products from A to B– obviously e-commerce is blowing that up, but let’s say, just within the systems we have, it’s taken us 60 years to get here. Most of the things that we face are the legitimate questions of, “What am I trading off here?” You’re going to do this in, call it five years. Customers got a goal to change something in five years. What are you going to trade-off? Is it going to cost? Are they going to pay for that? Is it going to be shelf life? Are they going to pay for that? Is the consumer going to pay for it? Most of it really is legitimate questions that if they go unanswered, the work stops.
I don’t necessarily mean somebody you. I just mean, if you don’t answer that, and you just keep taking the next step, a lot of people will walk away from that meeting and say, “Well, I guess they don’t think we’re going to do this and that person’s got VP in their title, so I guess I’m done.” No, they asked a question. Don’t, over-interpret it, treat it like a question. Go answer the question. The answer is, yes, yes, people are willing to pay for it. We have commercial products now that are making the change, and they’re hard. Our customers are going to do hard, expensive things. My message to our organization is I hope they do it with us because they’re going to do it.
[00:44:15] Josh: I love that mindset, which is, “Take us out of the equation. This is inevitable. This is what’s coming. I’d like for us to be the leader here.” I think that that’s such a powerful mindset to have especially just that idea of separating yourself and kind of getting to this idea of, “Here is the truth, as much as– and I don’t want to debate anyone on what truth is. That’s actually come up before in an episode, but just that idea of, “This is the way that we see the future. We believe that this is the change that the world is going to demand. We can either be a part of leading that change, or we can be forced to catch up. What do you want to do here?” I love that perspective.
[00:45:02] Dave: It’s interesting because a colleague and I were just talking about this recently. There is the leader, and then there are people who say, “We’ll be fast followers on this.” I have never seen a company that’s really good at fast following. There are leaders, and there are others. Leaders sometimes, go in the wrong direction. I’m not saying the leaders are always all right, but I can tell you now, our setup– and this is part of it is, look, if we are out in all of these things, talking to all of these people, and we are the partner of choice, who has a better perspective on what leadership looks like with sustainable packaging.
Because it’s a self-feeding question– nobody’s perfect. I’m not saying we have a perfect perspective. You get the opportunity to influence, and then you’re open to influence and all of a sudden, you get more clarity. It’s still gray, but things are formulating and all of a sudden, you have too much work to do, honestly. Then it’s like, “Okay. Let’s just do the priorities. Those things we know are obvious. Maybe they’re more feasible,” like I said. “Let’s go do those.” Meanwhile, you stay plugged in, you stay plugged in, and people come to you for observations, and they give you observations. Next thing you know, in your culture, you have the data set. It’s really cool. It’s been a fun journey to be part of.
[00:46:35] Josh: Kind of to your point, there’s always going to be so much to do. Change takes a lot of work– and I’ve certainly been a part of experiences, where there’s almost too much of a focus on the big changes. You mentioned the idea “low priority, low feasibility”. Well, those that are a low priority but feasible, can sometimes build the momentum needed to sustain people. Because that’s what people who are participating in the project, want to see that they are having an impact. Sometimes, it’s hard to see with the really big projects, but those small incremental changes are easy to implement, can go a long way in maintaining motivation.
[00:47:18] Dave: It’s interesting because, typically, if you’re going to change your business model, which is what a lot of our customers said they’re going to do, a hundred percent of their packaging is going to be recyclable, reusable, or compostable with 30% recycled content. That’s our big goal. A lot of people would say, “Well, I don’t know how we’re going to do this product. It’s super hard. Let’s go do that.” Meanwhile, 70% of their portfolio they could go do, with available materials.
Pragmatically, I would say, “Well, let’s say you already have a super aspiration of goal. What’s better at the end of five years? You working on that big project that isn’t quite there– you’ve made progress, but isn’t quite there? Or 70% is commercial and what’s left is this really hard thing.” What’s better? People have different– I’m not even saying there’s a right or wrong there, but I know where I would fall. I would say it is far better to say, “We have changed 70%, and this is hard, and we made progress. Here’s an anecdote or whatever, as opposed to we’ve made, call it zero or 10% because we’ve just been working on this one thing.”
[00:48:46] Josh: I would certainly say there’s a right or wrong way, and I think you’re more in line with the right way than the wrong way in that case, but let’s–
[00:48:53] Dave: You could just throw more resources at it and try to do everything, I guess, but– [laughs]
[00:48:58] Josh: Yes. I was talking with someone, and they said to me something, and I’ll never forget this. They said, “There’s more than one way to get to Walmart”. The point is, there are a lot of different ways to get there.
[00:49:12] Dave: Yes. That’s true. I like that better than the animal abuse one that I heard growing up, all the time. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s just terrible.
[00:49:24] Josh: Oh yes.
[00:49:26] Dave: I like that, “More than one way to get to Walmart.”
[00:49:28] Josh: “There’s more than one way to get to Walmart.” Everyone, that’s your takeaway today. Well, let’s talk about a couple or more lessons. I appreciate you sharing your experiences so far and how that’s helped drive some of your interests and direction within your career. When you think about, particularly your work on the product side of the four P’s, was there a lesson that you learned throughout this experience that, looking back, you wish you would’ve known?
[00:50:02] Dave: I think one of the things that we’re all dealing with now is a new normal if you want to call that a new abnormal, and a big shift from– I’ve heard the phrase from “Just in time to just in case”. I like that phrase, I think it makes a lot of sense. It’s basically saying, “Look, our supply chain’s in disarray.” I don’t live in that world every day. I really don’t. I live in the “How we’re going to reinvent our packaging for the future”. I think hopefully folks can just relate to this. You have your projects. It is the most important thing for you to do because it was assigned to you, and you’re paid to do it.
That is not everybody else’s priority necessarily. Maybe it is, and if you are, that’s awesome. That’s good for all of us if we can get there. Most of the time, it’s not. What I found is– and I’ve heard this, too, I wish I’d had come up with this– but by the time you’re tired of saying whatever it is you’re saying, people are just starting to listen. We went and did all the strategy talk, and then we do it again, and then somebody’s ready to talk to the customer, and then I do it again in the prep call.
Then I do it for the– our strategy’s been presented hundreds of times, and that does not mean 100% of everybody really fully deeply understands their strategy all the time, in their daily work. That’s one thing, I would say, is, the patience that it takes, you’ll lose your credibility, if you come across– everybody should already know this, for sure. I’m living this every day, maybe the majority of the organization isn’t, or maybe they are, but when they need it, can I do it in a way that’s not patronizing over time, people are listening, and they pick it up.
That’s one thing, I would say, is, say things more than once, especially if you want to change something, you got to say it and say it and say it. Now people are listening.
[00:52:18] Josh: Is this something that you think could change, or do you think this is just the way that it is?
[00:52:26] Dave: I think there’s a human nature element to it in the fact that a lot of folks, not everybody, but a lot of folks are just myopically focused on themselves– and I don’t mean in a narcissistic way. I just mean our brains can handle X amount, and so it’s like what’s in front of us. I care about my job– a well-intentioned person, I care about my job. I want to do a great job. I can’t care about everybody’s job. There’s only so much you can take in, and keeping your Rolodex in your head and function against.
I don’t think it’s poorly-intentioned, I don’t think it’s people not caring, I don’t think it’s apathy, although those things exist, certainly, they exist. I really do think people have other priorities than your stuff, and so the question is, how can we connect with them at a deeper level? Then that connection changes a priority. That’s where deeper senses of purpose come in. Company cultures come in.
[00:53:32] Josh: Yes. I think that was a great way to put it. By the time you’re tired of saying it, it’s just now starting to sink in. I think, where I’ve seen– because we do a lot of work with companies that have a digital transformation focus, implementing digital technology to accomplish whatever the end goal is. What I see consistently is that people overlook how much internally speaking, regardless of the partner, or the vendor that you’re working with internally, you have to sell your ideas and your projects, and you have to market it, you really do.
It has to be a concentrated effort as part of you getting the word out about your project to build that support, to win over those hearts and minds, to expose these ideas to new people who can share a different perspective that you haven’t considered before.
[00:54:23] Dave: Yes. It is funny. When you’re selling internally, too, I would encourage folks– it’s something that I was fortunate enough that my kids were actually in high school learning about– and that’s rhetoric. I don’t mean in a manipulative way. I mean, are you appealing to logic? Are you appealing to emotions, and are you doing it at the right time and place? If you really analyze those poor conversations, when you were trying to change somebody’s mind, you probably missed one of those three things.
I know I do. I know I am guilty as charged of recognizing somebody really is passionate about something, and just blasting them with logic and sounding entirely tone-deaf. Or come and tell them, “Hey, we got to do this,” and they ask a perfectly logical question. I can’t answer it, because I don’t have the data. I didn’t do my work, or they’re busy with a global supply chain situation like right now, stuff isn’t on the shelves, and I’m going to come in and say, “Well, now’s the time we got to do this, this, and this.”
[00:55:34] Josh: Yes. Well, I think that’s great advice. I want to ask you for some, just a little bit more advice. Just one more, if you were to give listeners who are– maybe they’re considering making changes to their product offerings, to make them source more sustainable, what advice would you give them?
[00:55:58] Dave: Whenever we think about our products– hopefully we’re passionate about– so, this is advice for folks that are really excited about what they do and are trying to affect change. That’s, take an academic approach, take the time. We view things in– and I have to give credit to Willie Peterson’s– I mentioned reinventing strategy before, but that approach of looking at a hierarchy of needs for your current business, like if you look at your customers today, what is their hierarchy of needs. Then what’s their hierarchy of needs going to be in five years, or pick the timeframe you’re looking at.
For us, if you look at the packaging, the hierarchy of needs was human health and safety at the bottom. That hasn’t changed. I don’t have any customers saying, “Well, sacrifice customer safety over anything.” It is still the bottom. Then it was the old system, the old hierarchy for us was efficiency, or waste, or scale, or cost, or whatever, and then it gets into branding. What about shelf appeal? Then you start getting to more esoteric things. Well, if you take something esoteric, and you say, “No, actually that’s at the bottom. The end of life, say, of packaging, that is now at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs.”
It is right above human health and says, “You can’t get any more basic need than human health and safety, but let’s just say, right above that.” Now the question is, “Wow, what’s the next step in the hierarchy?” If we’ve got a system that’s been developed with these needs, what has to change? What are we willing to change? What are we willing to give up? What do we gain? What do we have to do? Who do we have to be? All of that stuff. If you take an academic approach to it, and you get people out of the emotional “I built this”– there are folks here that have spent their whole careers developing packaging for the hierarchy we’re in today, and trying to transition out of.
The people, a lot of the folks on my team are more at the beginning of their careers. We don’t have anybody straight out of college. They’ve got some experience, for sure, but this is where we want to go. If you take an academic approach, people get out of the ownership that’s kind of negative– “Well, you’re calling me stupid or evil?” [laughs] That’s like the choice you’re giving them. If you go up to somebody, and you’re like, “Your products aren’t sustainable.” “Well, okay. You’re either saying, I didn’t know what I was doing, or you’re actually saying that I’ve got a moral problem.”
Generally speaking, we’re not dealing with people like that. We really are. It’s where we are, and it’s where we are today. The question is, “Well, if I can appeal to them, because I need that knowledge,” because again, they’ve done this for so long. I want to tap into that knowledge, and I want to get them to help me with the change to get the buy-in, get them out of that emotional ownership, and take that academic view. It’s been really cool to see how folks plug in when we’ve done that.
[00:59:26] Josh: Yes. I certainly think that’s a great perspective. No one’s going to react well if you’re calling their baby ugly. That’s the saying goes– we’re throwing a lot of new and old sayings out there.
[00:59:37] Dave: For sure. I know there’s been a lot of– I’ve been in a lot of conversations right over the last few years about sustainability, both industry folks, both activists. I mean, activists-activists and industry– well, whatever the stereotype of an industry person in plastics. I’d never met anybody that said we need more human garbage in the ocean. Nobody’s ever said that no. I may encounter a cynical, probably a maintenance guy– but love maintenance guys– maybe one of them will say, “Yes, we need more,” but there’s nobody that says that.
Nobody says it. Then the question is, well, what are we going to do about it? We all recognize that we’re externalizing all of our footprints essentially on the world. It’s not able to recover from what we’re doing here. Do we want that? Nobody says yes. Then it’s, “Okay. Common ground time.” Common ground is where you get things done. You don’t get things done where you disagree, like ever.
[01:00:52] Josh: That reminds me of the book. “Never Split the Difference.” Have you read that one?
[01:00:58] Dave: Oh, no. I like the sound of that, though.
[01:01:00] Josh: That’s a great one. It’s, written by a former head of hostage negotiation for the FBI. The title comes from the fact that he dealt with hostage situations. If someone’s like, “I want $1 million, or something’s going to happen to these five people,” he can’t respond with, “We’ll give you 50 grand, and give us three,” you know what I mean? That’s not going to work. You can’t split the difference. Great book, by the way. Oh, I bring that up because that common ground, that search for common ground, the way that you worded your question was, it solicits a no.
He argues that the negotiation begins when you get people to engage. Far too often, people don’t engage when you’re telling them things that are true and that are right. They engage when you get them to put a perspective out there. That perspective of saying no can really help start the conversation. Recommend it. Well, look, Dave, I appreciate your time today. How can our listener listeners continue the conversation with you?
[01:02:11] Dave: Two best ways, pretty active on LinkedIn. If you want to connect with me, I’d love to talk more about it. As you can tell, I’m a talker, so be prepared. Dave McLain, M-C-L-A-I-N. Then the other way– and you can connect with Printpack, too. It’s one word, P-R-I-N-T-P-A-C-K. Also, if you go to, our website, and say Connect with us or whatever it is, shoot us an email and say, “Hey, I heard a podcast, this bearded guy was on it.” They’ll know who you’re talking about. Either way, those are probably the easiest for the listeners to find me.
[01:02:58] Josh: Then. from Printpack’s perspective, how can Printpack help in a variety of different ways?
[01:03:06] Dave: Everything from that initial conversation of what are you trying to do, help, if you want help. Like if you just want perspective on what’s possible, we’d love to help. I said earlier that we get information when we give information. There is no problem if you just want to say, “Hey, I need to essentially consult with somebody,” but everything from that to innovation sessions, we can do them virtual now, there’s a lot of great tools to do things virtually. To a full like green space innovation, too, “Hey, what do you have that’s on the shelf or in the queue, to help us change our packaging?” That’s where we would love to engage with you.
[01:03:52] Josh: That’s great. For those of you who are passionate about making an impact in the world. who believe that we don’t need more garbage in the ocean, and who knows that the world doesn’t have enough resources for junk, it sounds like you’ve got a partner in Printpack.
[01:04:11] Dave: There you go. Absolutely.
[01:04:12] Josh: All right, Dave, thanks so much for your time today.
[01:04:15] Dave: Really appreciate it, Josh. It’s always a pleasure.
[01:04:24] Walter: Hey all, it’s Walter. I’m another producer for Conquering Chaos. Before you go, if you’re not ready to try Parsable to help you get rid of paper, why not watch a quick video instead. Check the show notes for a link to a demonstration Josh put together to show frontline workers what it’s like to use a dynamic digital experience to get work done. In it, Josh shows you how using a modern-day app enables you to connect to people, information, systems, and machines, just like the apps you use in your personal lives. Take a look and let us know what you think.
[01:05:00] Josh: That’s the show. Thank you so, so much for joining us today. Conquering chaos is brought to you by Parsable. If you’re a fan of these conversations, subscribe to the show and leave us a rating on Apple podcast. Just tap the number of stars you think the show deserves. As always, feel free to share what’s top of mind for you and who you think we should talk to next. Until then, talk soon, take care, stay safe, and bye-bye.Listen to find out how Printpack is making an impact