Monday, June 8th, 2015
You wouldn’t think it’d be that difficult for a $380-billion industry to get its message across on Capitol Hill, but the voice of plastics doesn’t go unheard for a lack of size or influence (and certainly not for lack of trying). The issue is more that, to many lawmakers and American voters, the manufacture of plastic materials and products is opaque. Many consumers don’t even know where plastics come from. These materials have become so ubiquitous in modern American living that they’re considered as much a part of the landscape as the purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain.
The fact that plastics are everywhere is key to the industry’s success and a testament to its ingenuity, but it’s a blessing and a curse. Plastics play a vital role in the economy, but to get the industry’s voice heard from a regulatory perspective, plastics has to educate policymakers and officials who, consciously or not, take the plastics industry for granted.
Brand owners play a key role in amplifying this message, and doing so yields its own benefits, according to SPI Brand Owner Council Chair Jay Olson, manager, materials engineering & technology for John Deere. Olson joined some of his suppliers and other members of the plastics industry supply chain on Capitol Hill recently to help advocate on behalf of plastics and clarify the vital connection between regulations upstream and how they ultimately affect brand owners and their customers.
“They don’t necessarily recognize the names of the manufacturers or the smaller companies, so having us participating with the discussions brings instant recognition,” Olson said. “The meetings I had, they were both with legislators in rural districts, so when I said John Deere they instantly knew that it’s part of the agriculture in their district, and they say the connection of the whole supply chain and how it’s important to the end customer, and voters and jobs.”
“Most of the jobs are created by the smaller companies anyway, but they don’t have the visibility that brands do,” he added. “They like the visible; they don’t always see the invisible.”
Olson used the example of material deselection as a regulatory volleyball that is aimed further down the supply chain but could have serious ramifications for companies like John Deere, depending on where it lands. “With material deselection and the regulation and restriction of certain chemicals that go into the materials, that increases our costs and it makes our sourcing decisions more complex,” he said. “Say on a tractor, the fuel tanks are all plastic for a number of reasons: cost, lightweight, flexible. If we have to go back to steel, it increases our costs. It increases quality problems in the factory, so the net value to the customer of deselecting a material that we’re dependent on affects the final customer.”
Any company in the plastics supply chain can try to illustrate this to lawmakers and regulators, and many of them do, and do so successfully, but having a brand owner’s name recognition goes a long way toward getting the message to stick.
This isn’t a charitable endeavor on the part of brand owners either: using the power of their brand name to aid their suppliers ultimately helps the brand owner’s business as much as it helps the supplier. “We can be successful if we can help our suppliers be successful,” Olson said. “With all of the regulatory issues that they have to deal with that we don’t necessarily have to deal with… today we just say, oh that’s a supply chain problem. That’s the process some brand owners prefer, but it’s really everybody’s problem.”