Following his move from Tchibo to Melitta, Stefan Dierks has set himself ambitious goals. In an interview, the Director of Sustainability outlines his “Plastics of the Future” concept, criticises the often irrelevant discussion about plastics and addresses concrete wishes for retail, industry, consumers and politics.
Mr Dierks, for almost 13 years you have helped Tchibo to arrive at a sustainable orientation. You are now with Melitta. How do the tasks differ?
Dierks: Both Tchibo and Melitta are globally active family businesses with a long tradition. Both companies are committed to sustainability and a future worth living. And they do this not only to safeguard their business activities, but because it goes with their attitude towards a company’s role in society. That’s why my old and new tasks are similar in many respects: to make a contribution to sustainable development with my team. However, the requirements are becoming increasingly demanding as a result of globalisation.
The scope of the Melitta Group is considerable, ranging from coffee to household films. If you compare the divisions at Melitta, where do you see pressure on your employer to act?
Dierks: You mentioned two main areas. The existing challenges in the coffee-growing countries, such as climate change, gender and youth issues and market structures, are being exacerbated by the current price crisis in the Coffee Division. Here, we’re currently participating intensively in the sector-wide dialogue on how we can tackle these issues in a coordinated manner. We will be involved in shaping the New Plastics Economy in the area of household films and are working on innovative solutions for our customers.
At present, plastic has a very negative image for the general public. What does this mean for Melitta’s many B2C products?
Dierks: For many applications, plastic is the ecologically most sensible solution. If this is to continue, we have to completely change the value chains. We call this concept “plastic of the future”. To achieve this, we will switch from fossil to renewable and recycled raw materials, increase the resource efficiency in the chains, make the products recyclable and offer reusable solutions. We are also committed to expanding material recycling structures and developing biodegradable plastics for regions where there are no collection and recycling structures. To this end, we are entering into the New Plastics Economy Commitment with the EllenMacArthur Foundation.
Are there alternative packaging materials that are already being tested?
Dierks: We are currently converting some of our products to test their market acceptance and their feasibility in the supply chain: We’re preparing the launch of a household film made from 70 per cent renewable raw materials. In Italy, through our Cuki division, we’re offering products made entirely from post-consumer recycled materials. And in cooperation with the company Nestlé, we are launching a cling film in September 2019 made from 15 per cent recycled resources from the food cycle. Naturally course, we want to further increase the proportion of alternative raw materials in these and all other suitable products. Our goal is to feed all products and packaging into closed material cycles.
Paper is not intrinsically better than plastic. But decisions by retailers – think of replacing plastic bags with paper bags – follow the mainstream, contrary to better knowledge. Doesn’t this damage the credibility of the sustainability debate?
Dierks: It is important that paper doesn’t replace plastic bags 1 for 1 in retailing. A voluntary commitment by retailing resulted in 2018 in Germany already being below EU Directive target for 2025 in terms of per capita consumption of plastic bags. I agree with you that the fact that debate about plastics and their (alleged) alternatives isn’t always accurate harms rather than benefits sustainability. Industry often faces requirements it has to meet for marketing reasons, but which aren’t necessarily relevant.
Where does implementation of sustainable processes mostly get hung up?
Dierks: On the whole, I wish politicians and society generally would pay more attention to facts and long-term needs than to emotions and special interests. Of course, it isn’t enough to want others to behave differently. We’re all in this together, which means everyone can and should commit to sustainable development. Against this background, we as a company want to contribute to overarching solutions.
If you had three wishes, what would you wish for in terms of the sustainability of retail, the consumer goods industry and consumers?
Dierks: I would like retailers to give sustainability even more weight in their marketing activities. There are already several positive examples that other retailers could follow. The consumer goods industry can initiate or engage in active cooperation in many areas. We need cooperation, including cross-sectoral cooperation, in order to achieve the necessary effects. I would like consumers to be aware of sustainable products and make a conscious decision in favour of them. Unfortunately, sustainability is still a niche in many segments. And another thing, I wish politicians to focus more on impact and practicable solutions rather than rigid regulations which are very complex to implement but have little effect.
“All in all, I see us as a society on the right track, and now it’s important to stick with this consistently and be open to new ideas”.