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10 Sustainability Questions You Need to Ask

Sustainability expert and consultant Robert Lilienfeld discloses the questions that plastic converters and suppliers should ask customers and prospects.

Robert Lilienfeld

July 10, 2024

3 Min Read
Rick Lingle via Canva

At a Glance

  • Plastic companies must shift from selling products to selling solutions.
  • Sustainability requires new skills and strategic consultative approaches.
  • This approach builds strong customer relationships to drive long-term business growth and success.

Lately, I’ve been doing a great deal of work for companies that are relatively new to the concept of sustainable packaging. These include converters who are rather late to the game, along with their suppliers who are only just beginning to feel the concern from a range of customers. These suppliers include label makers, foil and decorative coaters, adhesive & coating producers, and even printers.

These are companies that built their businesses around functional excellence, strong customer service and relationships, and reasonable pricing. Some of these companies are independent, but many are now part of packaging conglomerates or private equity funds.

Frankly, they’re scared. They don’t have a clue how the downstream demand for enhanced sustainability is going to impact their financial success. They don’t have sustainability directors, PR teams, or lobbyists. While they may belong to small industry-focused trade groups, they can’t afford to join the various large-scale grocery, packaged goods, or materials organizations.

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Ironically, many times their (supposedly) more sophisticated customers ask for sustainable packages and materials without being able to clearly express what specifically they require in terms of environmental benefits, operating conditions, or product cost profiles.

The real opportunity.

The real opportunity for these companies is to learn to stop selling specific products and start selling solutions. Consider a wrench supplier. Instead of selling a line of wrenches (feature), they’re going to need to be in the bolt-tightening business (benefit): They will assess the problem (how to create stability and unity between unrelated parts) and offer a range of functional, cost-effective solutions. These might include crescent wrenches, monkey wrenches, adhesives, welding gear, and all types of fasteners.

Taking this more strategic approach provides the difference between being in a transactional, tactical sales mode (Do you need what we have?) and working as a strategic seller in a partnering consultative mode (Do we have what you need?).

Clients always nod their heads in agreement when I mention this, but few understand what this new approach requires. At least as important is the fact that they don’t yet understand that it will require their salespeople to have new skillsets or be replaced by sellers who already have consultative skillsets.

I can’t tell you how to motivate and change your organization. However, I can help you understand what you need to start asking customers, both in terms of learning how to operate consultatively, and how to use this approach to generate business.

Here are the 10 sustainability questions that you should be asking customers and prospects as the first step in becoming professional consultative sellers:

  1. How important is the concept of sustainability to your organization?

  2. Does your organization have a specific sustainability goal or goals?

  3. Regarding packaging, please rank these four strategies in order of importance to your company: recyclability; source reduction (less use of materials and energy); post-consumer recycled (PCR) content; and compostability.

  4. Who is responsible, by names and titles, for setting the sustainability goals and metrics used in your organization?

  5. Can you give me an example of one or two recent sustainable packaging successes within your company?

  6. Can you do the same for a few of your competitors?

  7. Are you a member of, or active in, any trade associations, packaging groups, or NGOs (non-profits) that focus on shaping policies and perceptions related to sustainable packaging?

  8. What is the process by which you define, design, develop, create, produce, and test sustainable packaging?

  9. Does your company take a proactive role in the development and presentation of sustainable packaging to your customers, or do you tend to wait for them to approach you?

  10. Would you be open to learning more about our sustainable packaging efforts and how we can help you meet your sustainable packaging goals?

You’ll note that at the end of this input session, you’re not asking for the order. You’re asking for another meeting. Write down the questions and answers and share them with both the prospect’s attendees and your own internal group of sellers, marketers, communicators, plant managers, R&D managers, and general managers.

Transactional selling may get you a sale today. But strong consultative relationships turn customers into clients, providing many years of personal and business growth for all concerned.

About the Author(s)

Robert Lilienfeld

Robert Lilienfeld Consulting

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. He also recently founded SPRING, The Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group. Reach him at [email protected].

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