Each issue, FlexPack VOICE™ hosts a question-and-answer segment that discusses important issues with an industry leader. This issue, we interview Doug Aldred, president of Flint Group’s packaging inks division, an $830 million global business within the company. Aldred is a native of the United Kingdom. He started his work in the industry in 1987 following his service in the Royal Navy. In 1998, Aldred joined Flint Ink and progressed in his career through various roles. Following the merger of Flint Ink and XSYS Print Solutions in 2005, Aldred was promoted to vice president and general manager of the packaging division in Europe. In 2011, he was appointed president of the packaging and narrow web division for EMEA and North America. In 2017, he assumed full global responsibility for packaging inks. Aldred has served on the board of directors of FPA since 2013.
FlexPack VOICE™: What are the top opportunities and challenges facing the flexible packaging industry?
Doug Aldred: Evidently, the main challenge facing our industry today is that posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has the virus disrupted supply chains and raw material flows but it is fundamentally changing the structure of some of these global supply networks, presenting unexpected challenges for flexible packaging converters around the world. The economic uncertainty resulting from the pandemic is likely to further disrupt business planning processes during the next couple of years. That being said, the industry has responded in an exemplary fashion to the challenges posed by COVID-19. Many converters have switched production lines to produce hygiene products, supporting critical health care infrastructures and society at large. There are some green shoots of optimism within the uncertainly caused by COVID-19—flexible packaging’s role as a protector, preserver, and transporter of critical food and beverage products has been unquestionable. Consumers are more aware now, than ever before, of the benefits this functionality has provided.
The other key theme influencing the industry is sustainability and, particularly for flexible packaging, recyclability. The conversation around the use of plastics in packaging can pose a challenge for the flexible packaging sector, but the industry has quickly developed a common voice to effectively respond to society’s concerns. Many consumers still associate flexible plastics with littering due to their plastic content without taking full consideration of the lifecycle benefits of the packaging medium. The industry has a job to do to ensure that its voice reaches consumers and they, in turn, understand and appreciate the role that flexible packaging can play in a circular packaging supply system. The fundamental issue is that the majority of flexible packaging today is not recycled post-use due to its inherent multi-material nature. The work being undertaken by associations, such as CEFLEX and its design for a circular economy for flexible packaging, is now addressing this issue in detail with energy and optimism.
FPV: Which challenge is the most serious and why?
DA: The challenge of managing the COVID-19 outbreak cannot be underestimated. And the industry’s response—in ensuring operations are maintained in line with government health and safety guidelines—is key to maintaining industry stability in the short and medium term. The print and packaging sectors are essential industries, ensuring the long-term health and wellness of societies. These sectors ensure that food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and hygiene products can reach their intended destinations in the quantity and quality required.
That said, we believe the most serious challenge—one which likely brings the longest-term effect—is packaging’s impact on the environment. The plastics debate remains front and center for many brands and their customers. However, both flexible plastic and paper-based packaging have an important role to play in protecting food and reducing waste in the supply chain and in the home, while helping to increase the health and well-being of consumers everywhere. We, therefore, need to ensure that flexibles are seen as essential for the security of our global societies now and into the future. We should do this by leading out a comprehensive consumer education and lobbying program on the need for plastics in packaging and, where possible, demonstrate suitability for recycling. Herein lies a significant opportunity for those of us in the packaging value chain.
FPV: What does it take for companies and products to succeed today?
DA: A clear vision, strategy, and customer value proposition are essential. Digital enablement is becoming an increasingly important facilitator for strategy deployment and improved customer experience. Participants across the flexible packaging value chain are being driven by the effects of COVID-19 to create business models that support increased ease of transacting and collaborating. Of course, all of these elements are nothing without talented, hardworking, and entrepreneurial people across all organizational levels. At Flint Group, we are taking the time to re-think our approach across all these paradigms to ensure we continue to support our customers’ needs in the most effective and efficient way possible. We recognize the challenges ahead for our sector, as well as the opportunities, and work hard to make the difference for the future.
FPV: What common mistakes are companies making that prevent them from fully succeeding?
DA: There is no one list of common mistakes. The flexible packaging industry is overwhelmingly characterized by successful, innovative, dynamic, and agile businesses. However, it’s clear that our world is changing fast and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some trends that we witnessed progressing at a more pedestrian cadence previously. In order to thrive, all businesses will have to think very carefully about their target markets and their customers’ experience.
Sustainability, digitalization, and regulation are going to create tremendous challenges and opportunities for the print and packaging sectors in the future. However, the industry is underpinned by some very favorable consumer trends, and there is no doubt that converters will create even more value for society in the future.
FPV: What are some of the biggest changes to the industry in the last five years and what changes lie ahead?
DA: The biggest changes to the flexible packaging industry in the last five years have come as a result of evolving consumer trends, awareness of the importance of the environment and sustainability, and technology developments.
From a consumer trends perspective, as the structure of society has changed and lifestyles have become busier, we have seen more packaging designed for on-the-go consumption and smaller households. Flexible packaging, with its versatility in design, has benefited greatly from these trends. With respect to consumer purchasing behaviors, the rise of the internet and omni-channel retailing has driven the importance of pack aesthetics on screen, as well as on shelf—all affecting how the packaging designer thinks about the graphic appeal of the pack.
When it comes to sustainability and the environment, an upswing in concern around food waste has emerged. Brand owners are looking to extend product shelf life to minimize waste in the supply chain and increase product value-in-use for the consumer. Consumers have become more environmentally enlightened and are now seeking brands with a clear sustainability position that provide transparency regarding the environmental impact of their operations. This has implications for packaging in terms of the information required on a pack, where the packaging is sourced, and how the brand is presented.
Technology continues to be a disruptor for the industry. Technology can be discussed within the context of the digital enablement of customer experience, as mentioned earlier, or in the context of printing processes. Speaking to the latter, there have been a number of notable, positive, developments in recent years within the press engineering sector—so much more is now possible with a flexographic or gravure press than was possible just a few years ago. Digital printing also continues to play an interesting role, although the market remains overwhelmingly supported by analogue printing processes. Whatever the technology, it’s our focus at Flint Group to ensure our ink systems and services are print process agnostic—providing the right support, at the right time, via the right channel.
FPV: If there was one thing you could change about the industry, what would it be?
DA: At the global level, more collaboration and cohesive promotion of the benefits of flexible packaging whatever the technology or substrate, would protect the overall industry from any possibility of negative perceptions in a far more effective way. Organizations such as the Flexible Packaging Association, here in the USA, are doing a marvelous job of ensuring the industry has one consistent, clear voice.