Open Innovation: Developing Sustainable Solutions Through Collaboration

As a society, we face a unique challenge that cannot be solved in isolation. The path to sustainable development involves addressing many economic, social, and environmental challenges. This in turn requires coordinated effort and collaboration with various stakeholders with potentially competing short-term objectives, lest growth and innovation in one field risk having an unforeseen negative impact elsewhere.

This is no more evident than in the development of sustainable packaging solutions, which requires collaboration from the whole value chain – from manufacturers, packaging providers, coding and marking suppliers, retailers, end users, and waste and recycling companies. While individual stakeholders within this vast ecosystem have their own domain expertise, businesses need to go beyond ‘local’ innovation to span complexity, scale, standardisation, and behaviour change if we are to address a system-level problem, as Lee Metters, Group Business Development Director, Domino Printing Sciences, discusses.

The sustainability paradox

In their paper ‘The Facets of the Sustainability Paradox’[i], Argento, Broccardo, and Truant outline how – even within a single organisation – there are differing interpretations of sustainability depending on an individual’s role and perceptions. They argue that these interpretations impact how sustainability is implemented and monitored and highlight the importance of establishing a common understanding and shared expectation of the three facets of sustainability: financial, social, and environmental.

Suppose the concept of sustainability presents challenges within a single organisation alone. In that case, it is clear that, at a macro level, developing solutions for sustainable packaging will require broader collaboration for several reasons:

Complexity: The packaging industry is complex, encompassing manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, consumers and recyclers. To develop sustainable solutions, all these players must work towards a common goal – a challenge when much of the effectiveness of individual efforts falls outside of businesses’ direct control. For instance, while brands are increasingly expected to take responsibility for packaging put onto the market, they have little-to-no control over waste and recycling practices or consumer behaviour once a purchase is made.

Standardisation: Sustainable packaging requires a shift in the entire packaging industry towards using more environmentally-friendly materials, which requires standardisation across the industry. Without collaboration and agreement on what sustainable packaging means and how it should be achieved, there is a risk of confusion, duplication of efforts, and conflicting messages.

There is also a need for broader understanding and agreement on the definition of sustainability. As Dominic Oughton, Principal Industrial Fellow, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge and leader of the Open Innovation Forum, comments: “Retailers have been on a crusade to reduce the use of plastic packaging, which is, of course, a laudable initiative but needs to be balanced against the potential impact on food waste, and the carbon cost of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in food which is largely invisible. The overall sustainability effort is compromised when a decision to save 10 grams of packaging might well write off a kilogram of fruit.”

Scale: The packaging industry is vast and global, and achieving sustainable packaging at scale is a significant challenge that requires collaboration between different regions and stakeholders. Collaboration helps organisations share best practices, leverage economies of scale, and drive innovation.

Consumer behaviour: Consumers play a critical role in the success of sustainable packaging. They need to be aware of its importance, understand how to recycle and dispose of it and be willing to pay for sustainable packaging. Collaboration between industry players and other stakeholders, such as governments and NGOs, can help to educate and incentivise consumers to adopt more sustainable behaviours.

What is open innovation?

Open innovation is a mindset of being open to sharing and receiving information, and collaborating with individuals, businesses, and institutions, to drive progress on common objectives. It means sharing knowledge and information about problems and looking to those outside a single business or organisation for solutions and suggestions.

The concept of open innovation may run contrary to traditional business practice; internal knowledge and expertise are typically held as a competitive differentiator or intellectual property, and innovation kept secret and closely guarded. However, open innovation is crucial when developing for sustainability. Issues and solutions must be developed within the context of the entire value chain to make significant change and move in a way that benefits everyone.

A new report by Bain & Co and the World Economic Forum on global food system transformation highlights “committed collaboration” as critical to “scaling up promising demonstration models and achieving the collective ambition of building better food systems more quickly”.

In its analysis of seven strong ‘early mover’ country examples from across the globe, it states: “Today’s food system challenges require pulling many levers concurrently, including government policy and related tools, public-private partnerships, financing, technology innovation, corporate and enterprise action, and multi-stakeholder coalitions. Each early mover country profile represents valuable examples of large-scale change at the country level. Collectively, they demonstrate the potential for these levers if applied in tandem and with greater urgency to accelerate country-led food systems transformation.”

Open innovation through collaboration

An example of open innovation in practice is run by the  , University of Cambridge. The Open Innovation Forum is a consortium of food and beverage companies that come together to share ideas and innovation and consider collaborative approaches to problem-solving. The group includes major manufacturers and organisations across the food and beverage industry, including ingredients and materials suppliers, technology providers, brand owners, retailers, and waste and recycling companies.

Dominic Oughton comments on its value: “One of the real success factors behind the Forum is that it brings together different perspectives along the value chain. It’s not immediately obvious why that’s important until you start thinking about the grand challenges of which sustainability is central. And that’s because it’s a system-level problem, which, by definition, we can’t solve permanently on a one-to-one basis between any two players in that system.”

The challenge of moving to sustainable packaging is one that we all face, but none of us owns more than a small part of the problem. It’s easy for individual companies to propose changes that may have overall negative impacts. For Domino, working with the Open Innovation Forum provides a broader perspective and a series of contacts up and down the supply chain with which to develop solutions to the sustainability challenge. It would be near impossible if we were trying to work this out on our own. Being part of a group where these topics are discussed and where businesses can hear other perspectives and updates as the industry view moves is crucial to our overall success in addressing these global issues.

Sustainable packaging in development

Amongst the issues actively being explored within the OI Forum are considerations surrounding the adoption of new packaging materials, such as compostable and recyclable materials – where considerations include:

  • The need to ensure packaging performs as expected without impacting product shelf-life;
  • The need to ensure packaging can be processed and managed by manufacturing technology on production lines;
  • The need for consumer training to ensure correct disposal of the material at its end of life; and
  • The need to ensure that the material can, indeed, be appropriately managed by waste and recycling companies.

The challenges around new packaging systems are also being explored, including deposit returns for recycling and returnable or refillable packaging. These new systems require a step change in packaging design and management, technology, and systems to ensure the traceability of packaging throughout supply chains, and creative new solutions for coding and marking, and labelling products to assist in usage and disposal. In all instances, collaboration between brands, packaging providers, retailers, and technology partners to the food and drink industry becomes critical.

In essence, to be successful, all stakeholders in the packaging value chain need to work together to create and validate solutions that are interoperable – not proprietary – using open architecture that is available to everyone.


Sustainability cannot be achieved in isolation. To address this system-level problem and make a substantial difference, we must look outside our businesses and collaborate and network with actors from the whole supply chain. Only through being open can we find solutions that work from a societal, business, and profitability perspective and ensure that any progress will not negatively impact processes further down the line.