Using Sustainability Playbooks in R&D

Science Group Worked With CTOs to Develop Detailed Guides

Using Sustainability Playbooks in R&D

A forum for chief technology officers (CTOs) in 2022 launched its inaugural effort—a practical guide for research and development (R&D) teams that are contributing to corporate net-zero goals. This year, the forum’s initiative accelerated with actionable insights on balancing sustainability with growth. 

Together, the CTO Forum Net Zero Playbook and the CTO Forum Growth & Sustainability Playbook draw lessons from major corporations along the supply chain, suggesting pathways to a space where R&D divisions refine their thinking and build a collaborative approach to net zero and sustainability. 

William Jackson, Ph.D., CTO at Amcor Flexibles North America and board chair of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), represented the flexible packaging industry. The “boot camp of sorts” helped the participating CTOs “be more decisive and influential in our approach,” Jackson says. “Over time, these playbooks will become a valuable and often referred to document on the basic principles of advancing sustainability through the R&D functions and into the businesses.” 

Meeting of the Minds

The playbooks began with a query to international clients from Science Group, the Cambridge, England-based provider of science- and technology-based consultancy and systems. The firm approached CTOs with whom it had relationships. Would they be interested in convening to address shared challenges? Yes, the CTOs said, as long as the effort delivered tangible, applicable outcomes, says Michael Zeitlyn, president of advisory services at Science Group. 

“There was a real desire to make a difference and do something that was material,” Zeitlyn says. “It’s not often you see the level of energy and belief they put into this. They said it wasn’t about their immediate job but about the legacy they’re leaving for their successors. They all take great pride in what they do.” 

From there, the CTOs convened in 2022 and agreed that a playbook on achieving net zero resonated with them, leading to the CTO Forum Net Zero Playbook, which was later updated. That initial group comprised the CTOs and R&D heads of Amcor Global Flexibles, Bayer Crop Science, Mars, PepsiCo, Solvay SA, Stepan Company, and Procter & Gamble. 

In 2023, the same group, plus Shell Global Solutions International BV, reconvened to create the CTO Forum Growth & Sustainability Playbook. (Visit to find both playbooks.) 

In each round, the group met to “ideate and improve the thinking” around R&D’s role in advancing sustainability for their companies, customers, shareholders, and the planet, Jackson says. That role is “probably a larger one than some might think.” 

“To make the most impactful decisions, we need to take into account the full product supply chain and life cycle and not just narrowly focus on one aspect of raw materials or manufacturing,” he says. “The Science Group playbooks outline the steps that stakeholders can take to advance initiatives and improve sustainability performance by leveraging the expertise of the R&D organization in their companies.” 

Chorus of Voices

Forum members valued their group meetings for the opportunity to compare and contrast challenges and opportunities across industries, Jackson says. As CTOs, they recognize the trade-offs often needed in developing more sustainable product offerings, plus their own roles in facilitating the dialogue regarding short- and long-term funding and the impact of those trade-offs. 

They also gained insight into their roles in advancing their companies’ carbon profiles—perhaps partnering with procurement to help suppliers improve their own carbon footprints or working to incorporate lower-carbon components into products for customers that might approach cost-neutral, he says. 

“In the end, transparency and credibility of effort are key to advancing the sustainability profile of any organization,” Jackson says. “Decades ago, sustainability pledges were aspirational. Today, boards, investors, and consumers want to know how we are performing against our stated goals, and how the product they purchase has a believable sustainability message. The R&D community can support the marketing message, in part, with content such as life cycle assessment data.” 

Each industry represented in the forum encountered shared but nuanced headwinds and tailwinds, Zeitlyn says. As discussions focused on particular aspects of sustainability, the CTOs with more tangible experience in those areas helped lead the dialogue. 

“The members got great value from hearing those experiences because of the differences in the businesses, but at the end of the day, all companies face similar types of challenges,” he says. “The experience of peers is still relevant, and it can help to view the problem from different angles. That cross-fertilization was hugely valued.” 

Zeitlyn saw the dynamic at work when one panelist said it was time to swap the phrase “sustainability or growth” for “sustainability and growth,” and the group agreed. Another said that sustainability should rise to the level of safety as an organizational priority, and again, heads nodded around the group. 

Inside the Playbooks

The CTO Forum Net Zero Playbook, which was fully updated earlier this year, presents what it calls “plays”: Commit, Plan, and Do. Here are the tools for facilitating implementation.

  • Net-Zero Maturity Model. This is used for diagnosing the progress a corporation and its divisions have made on the net-zero journey.
  • Who Does What Framework? This determines how R&D and other divisions individually and jointly contribute to greenhouse gas reduction goals to align efforts, introduce coherence, and avoid working at cross-purposes or in conflict.
  • Carbon Battlegrounds. This is for prioritizing carbon reduction targets.
  • Carbon Scoreboard. This is for checking the carbon-reduction power of the R&D portfolio.
  • Innovation Flywheels. This has 12 inventive principles for identifying synergies between traditional innovation goals and net-zero targets.
  • The Green Premium. This is a decision framework for determining the market impact of green alternatives.

Following up on the CTO Forum Net Zero Playbook, the group released the CTO Forum Growth & Sustainability Playbook earlier this year. This playbook guides R&D teams in supporting their companies’ goals of realizing progress on sustainability without compromising business growth. 

Its three “plays” focus on delivering growth and sustainability, making choices amid conflicting sustainability objectives, and working with suppliers, customers, and partners to deliver sustainable outcomes. Ten principles provide guidance on thinking through the plays. Three tools wrap the plays in support of anticipating trajectories for growth and gauging sustainability trade-offs. And then achieving system change is done through the following five steps: 

  1. Step in to advocate action,
  2. Test to build traction, 
  3. Engage to secure commitment, 
  4. Prove to demonstrate success, and 
  5. Scale to cement the standard. 

The R&D Role

The playbooks provide R&D an opportunity to enhance its “enterprise-focused role,” says Jackson. R&D can “imagine a better world” and positively impact a company’s sustainability profile while elevating awareness of credible efforts to do so.

“It is our responsibility as the product design experts to think about the challenges before us on an enterprise, go-to-market, and shareholder basis,” Jackson says. “We begin by ideating, and if we can meet the core criteria of the solution and bring along improved sustainability, then we advance the work. That can mean lowering our carbon footprint, phasing out problematic materials, or advancing our designs that would otherwise be in the crosshairs of the consumers.”

Forum members agreed that sustainability is “a team game,” Zeitlyn says. R&D is naturally involved in sustainability—often the “first port of call” for its technical and scientific expertise. But more stakeholders need to be involved.

“This only works if the organization works together in a joined-up way,” he says. “Then R&D innovation can do their bit, knowing that manufacturing is doing their bit, and marketing’s doing their bit, and procurement’s doing their bit, etc.”

From its scientific grounding, R&D has a say in the agenda driving business growth into the future, Zeitlyn adds. If a proposed project contradicts sustainability promises, R&D is tasked with speaking up.

“To start moving the needle in sustainability, we’ve got to think about what we’re selling in two to three years,” he says. “That comes back to what R&D is building toward, and of the items in your portfolio, which you prioritize and invest in and which you do not.” 

Using the Playbooks

The CTO Forum Growth & Sustainability Playbook includes case studies from each forum member. For his example, Jackson described Amcor’s commitment to its performance paper product. The product, he says, is a solution aligned with the paper recycling infrastructure’s more advanced state. 

Adding sustainability improvements to the traditional range of package needs “becomes part of the product’s overall differentiated product value proposition,” he says. “I believe Amcor shows leadership in the industry by credibly advancing our sustainability efforts. We are working hard to do what we say and ‘walk the talk.’ The playbooks will be reference guides for myself and staff to consider outside perspectives as we advance our company and industry to be more sustainable long into the future.”

The first steps in utilizing the playbooks depend on corporate priorities, Zeitlyn says. All divisions are rarely pulling in the same sustainability direction. For instance, a solution for carbon neutrality can conflict with biodiversity. In this atmosphere, adherence to the corporate agenda helps anchor and direct the discussions. 

The biggest challenge is embedding sustainability into organizational process change, Zeitlyn says. Several playbook tools, including Battleground Choices and the Who Does What Framework, help sharpen corporate thinking around worthwhile and productive initiatives while avoiding duplication or dilution of efforts.

“To make an impact, there are so many things you can work on,” he said. “You need that effort to be directed and intelligent.”

The playbook principles are “rules of thumb” that users can adapt as they articulate their questions and weigh the sustainability impacts of their options, Zeitlyn says. “The principles give much more actionability to the teams, and the tools give a demonstration of how you might tackle it,” he says.

The CTO Forum Growth & Sustainability Playbook’s Sustainability Trade-off Tool offers a space for plotting the overall impact, wider implications, and recovery time frame—replanted trees take years to grow, for instance—of each option and choice. Final decisions are “context-specific” and seldom right or wrong, Zeitlyn says. However, the trade-off tool weighs all the factors involved in a market where consumers are holding companies accountable for their decisions.

“You have to look at the whole and then consider the merit,” he says. “Do you feel comfortable with the trade-offs you’re making, and would you be prepared to stand up and defend that?”

Sustainable Future

As the CTO Forum Growth & Sustainability Playbook notes, “Advancing the cause of sustainability often demands a cohesive and collaborative systemwide effort.”

A “community-based approach” will encourage industry and business longevity in a time of rapid change, Jackson says, “so that individual companies, regardless of size and resources, can work to develop a more consistent dialogue and approach that will advance the industry and the planet.”

Packaging must first meet its fundamental needs of reducing waste while providing product shelf life, security, sterility, and safety, he adds.

“From there, we can continue to improve the sustainability elements without compromising the quality critical to customer needs,” Jackson says. “We know that there is more we can do to design more sustainable packaging, and we are doing it.”


Intensive regulatory involvement is also necessary because “regulators and regulation can be the difference between success and failure,” notes the CTO Forum Growth & Sustainability Playbook.

“Well-framed standards and regulations that are coherent and reinforce the change can make a critical difference and increase the likelihood of success,” according to the playbook. “Involving regulators as early as possible in the systems change process increases the likelihood of regulatory alignment.”

Through FPA and other forums, flexible packaging companies and their key subject matter experts can network for rapid mobilization on urgent advocacy issues, Jackson says.

“We need to try to better unite on clear and consistent messaging in our industry to speak to state legislatures and promote a better and more implementable approach to sustainability,” he says. “That approach needs to be good for the industry, viable, with better extended producer responsibility and with thoughtful consideration to the necessary infrastructure to support recycling materials.”

As for future playbooks, Science Group sees an appetite for more and is exploring possible topics, Zeitlyn says. “Sustainability is such a strong and resonant theme that there’s a good chance if we do another one, which I think in all probability we will, it’ll be on another theme related to this,” he says. 

M. Diane McCormick is a freelance writer and editor based in Pennsylvania.