Packaging up a sustainable future

Joanne Howarth, the founder of Planet Protector Packaging describes herself as someone who went from a waste offender to a sustainability crusader after seeing the effect polystyrene was having in her packaging business.

“As the outsource partner for Australia’s largest meal kit company, I was responsible for dispatching tens of thousands of polystyrene boxes to households all around the country week after week,” Jo says. “Consumers were largely unfamiliar with polystyrene and how to dispose of it.”

Jo spent almost two years researching and sourcing the globe for a sustainable solution, coming across an innovation in the UK and, in so doing, discovering the thermal properties of wool for insulative packaging.

Meeting challenges

The challenge became formulating a product that was suitable for both Australian summers as well as New Zealand winters. Two years of testing went into finding the right wool, discovering the proper formulation and finalising the design in consultation with many industry partners.

“Consumers were largely unfamiliar with polystyrene and how to dispose of it.”

“Australia became wealthy off the wool on the sheep’s back, and, indeed, we have the best quality textile wool in the world,” Jo says. “But for thermal insulation, we need the ugly stuff! This type of waste wool historically has been either sold for pennies or discarded altogether.”

By securing a supply of what she needed, Jo was saving waste from landfill, providing increased income to sheep farmers and wool processors and giving new life to a sustainable material. Jo is very proud of the work the company did in the beginning to bring this idea into reality.

The next challenge was getting her industry to embrace innovative, sustainable alternatives to polystyrene that for most people are a totally new concept. Jo says that large businesses, in particular, require a very long cycle of testing and validation before they are confident enough to transition away from what has been the market standard for the past 60 years.

“You will always have trail blazers willing to walk with you though the early days, but large corporates and key accounts will need a bit more care to get on board,” Jo explains. “I have never walked into a meeting with a prospective client where they weren’t super enthusiastic about the concept of our wool packaging. Convincing their Quality Assurance gatekeepers, that’s a bit more work!”

Recognition for all the hard work

In June this year Jo was named as the laureate for the 2020 Cartier Women’s Initiative for South Asia and Oceania, recognition that Jo sees as validation of all the collective efforts of her whole team.

“Planet Protector Packaging is a place where sustainability meets innovation,” Jo says. “From the beginning, I had a big vision as to what our business could achieve if given the resources and my being nominated as the Southeast Asia and Oceania Laureate is key to making this vision materialise. It also makes me and the team so proud that we have been recognised globally for our efforts. This is something really special; it is definitely the highlight of my career.

“The most valuable lesson I learned through the Cartier process was to ‘think big’,” Jo adds. “Having the support of such an expansive network of influential entrepreneurs, impact investors, academics and alumni is uplifting. It gives me confidence and a renewed faith that I can realise my vison. As a female entrepreneur there are more challenges, but if you believe in what you are trying to achieve and you will have passion and resilience in bucket loads, you can succeed.”

Winning the award has helped cement Planet Protector Packaging’s credibility and created a lot of interest, providing the business with a platform to expand globally. They are now investment ready to raise capital for an expansion into the Southeast Asian market, one that Jo has always had her sights firmly on.

“There are huge opportunities there, it accounts for 42.5 per cent of the total global packaging market!” Jo explains. There are obvious challenges for any business in establishing themselves in a market with which they are largely unfamiliar, but what Jo calls the inherent value of the Cartier network goes a long way to meeting this problem.

Expansion opportunities

“There is a whole ecosystem of impact investors, entrepreneurs, prominent academics and alumni from INSEAD, people all committed to uplifting female entrepreneurs and to growing their impact,” she explains. “Already they are brokering introductions and strategic partnerships that will help our business scale. Cartier are very visionary and generous, qualities I personally value greatly and to have their support on this journey makes me really believe that together we can achieve my mission to eliminate polystyrene from the planet.”

Jo is adamant that being in business today is about more than generating profit – that it’s about having a greater purpose and impact. And, Jo has a clear “winner” when it comes to the most important lesson she has learnt on her various start-up journeys that she’d share with aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Never, ever, EVER give up!” Jo avers. “Being an entrepreneur is a challenge. You have passion and a vision of what you are working towards, but you have finite resources and typically you are under-resourced. It’s a juggling act between competing priorities, but it’s a lot like life, there’s good days and bad, the ups and the downs, but regardless, stay true to your passion. Don’t be defeated!”

Resilience and tenacity are two of the character traits Jo has observed time and time again in successful entrepreneurs, many of whom have failed, and failed multiple times.

“It is that belief in their vision and their commitment that sees them get themselves up, start over to drive success,” Jo says. “My resilience, not only in business, is something of which I am most proud.”

This story first appeared in issue 30 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine