Sarah Greenwood: "We can all be guilty of unconscious bias"
Sarah Greenwood has worked as a self-employed consultant for the past five years in packaging and has found her work moving more towards the sustainability of plastics.
She has led the packaging development for a relaunch of the organic food range at Asda and more recently consulted with Garçon Wines on their multi-award winning flat wine bottle.
Sarah tells us more about her career within plastics and packaging through this bespoke Q&A.
Q: Could you tell me about your background and how you got to where you are now?
I studied for a Bachelors in Physics, then a Master of Science in Engineering in Polymers and Polymer Composites at the University of Sheffield.
My first job after graduating was product development on car disc brake pads for Ferodo. I then moved to BP to work on high performance barrier films used in packaging. My original intention was to work in a few different areas of plastics processing, then become a consultant. To my surprise, I found packaging an interesting industry which led me to study for The Packaging Society’s Diploma in Packaging Technology. I then worked in packaging development for Mars, Asda and Fox’s Biscuits.
I have worked as a self-employed consultant for five years and have found my work is moving more and more towards the sustainability of plastics, so in a way I’m back on my original career plan.
I am also a member of the Plastics Consultancy Network (the only female member, but not the first), and last year took on the chair of The North of England Packaging Society and a position on the board of The Packaging Society, a division of IOM3.
Q: What do you do on a day to day basis in your current role?
It all depends on who my clients are at the time. Over the last year, I have worked on-site at the head-office of a national retailer as a packaging technologist and from home performing desktop research and writing.
As a sole trader, I am my own marketing department so I also spend time researching and writing blogs and maintaining a profile on social media – it’s difficult to switch-off sometimes.
Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment in your career so far?
I lead the packaging development for a relaunch of the organic food range at Asda. Although we ended up sticking with conventional plastics materials, part of my job was to investigate bio-sourced alternatives. The focus was looking at packaging weight reduction. We saved an estimate total of four tonnes of packaging material from landfill p.a. over 350 lines.
More recently, I am proud to have worked with Garçon Wines on their multi-award winning flat wine bottle. It is made from 100 per cent post-consumer recycled PET and has been designed to be postable, lighter and more space efficient than standard round, glass wine bottles of the same volume.
When Garçon wanted to establish production of their bottle in the UK, having originally sourced prototypes in China, they needed help in sourcing the right manufacturer. I was engaged to advise on materials and manufacturing methods. I continue to offer them support and advise on materials, packaging and overseas manufacturing.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge in your career so far?
Going self-employed! I have always wanted to work for myself, but couldn’t quite see a way to make it work. After I had been made redundant from a full-time role, a friend suggested that I contact Enterprising Barnsley, run by my local authority for support. I attended a six-week course on running a small business. This lead to me getting accepted onto a year-long business incubation programme, which has been one of the best things that’s happened to me work-wise. I had a desk in an office for a year, continuing workshops and support from a business coach, it felt like an MBA in running a small business. I’m still in contact with my coach, it helps to keep that continuing relationship (plus she’s a good friend too).
Q: What have you learnt from working in the industry?
Up until six months ago I would have said that I have worked at every stage of the Packaging supply chain – film extrusion, printing and conversion, artwork and repro, and at brands and retailers, giving me a broad understanding of the packaging cycle. Now I’ve been looking into the circular economy, I don’t feel I can say that anymore, Waste Management needs to be included as well.
I’ve spent a couple of weeks shadowing colleagues on the factory floor – doing that is always useful firstly to help you do your job better, but also to build working relationships.
Q: Do you have any plans for further training?
Yes, I am looking to become a Chartered Environmentalist, so my CPD over the next year will be focussed with that in mind. I would love to do a course in sustainability, but finding the time is a constraint. In the meantime, I’ll attend as many related seminars as possible.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m excited to be working on the UKRI funded project Plastics: Redefining Single-Use, run by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at The University of Sheffield. There is so much energy going into solving the plastics waste problem and it’s great to be a part of it.
One of the exciting/scary things about being self-employed is that you often don’t know what’s around the corner or who you will be working for. I want to focus working on projects looking at the circular economy.
Q: How important do you feel female role models are to the younger generation and did you have one?
I didn’t realise it when I was starting out, but looking back now it is vital. My research project for my masters degree was for a local company that manufactured injection-moulded electrofusion pipe fittings. My main contact there was a young female materials engineer, she showed me round the factory and testing facilities, so I had direct experience of working as a factory technologist. Although I’d always been interested in how products are manufactured, I’d not considered working in manufacturing up until that point. One of her previous projects was working on the plastic components of Trevor Bayliss’ wind-up radio which I thought was really impressive.
A good thing about working in the food industry (at Asda and Fox’s Biscuits) is the number of senior managers that are women. That was refreshing after working in packaging manufacturing.
Q: What advice would you give to women entering a male dominated environment?
Being the only technical woman in a department can be quite isolating. I recommend making time to seek out other technical women in your organisation, no matter how busy you are. If there aren’t any, consider joining a networking group either in person or online, and if you can’t find the right group, start one.
I only get to go occasionally, but I love going to a group in my hometown of Barnsley called Crafty Business. Most of the other attendees are women running craft businesses (There are one or two men, personally I don’t like groups that are specifically women or men only). Although our businesses are quite different, we all have similar challenges.
Q: Have you ever been in a situation at work where you have felt your gender has affected your progress?
In the past, I have been in meetings with people exhibiting bullying behaviour and been told on more than one occasion by senior colleagues not to voice an opinion on what I’m not directly working on. It’s impossible to say whether it was related to my gender. The companies I’ve worked for have all had very good equal opportunities policies and we have received training in them. We can all be guilty of unconscious bias – just the other day I embarrassed myself by assuming a new CEO someone was talking about was a man – so I guess that’s one of the next challenges in addressing the gender gap.
Q: What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the plastics and packaging industry currently?
Public understanding of the benefits of plastic and packaging is almost non-existent. Plastic as a material is getting the blame for what are really social and waste management issues. There needs to be a balanced, informed debate starting in the school room.
How we deal with waste plastic is extremely important, but climate change is even more pressing. We need a Blue Planet II moment for carbon dioxide emissions, then the public might realise that plastic, when used responsibly, is part of the solution, not the problem.