Upturning the global packaging industry with a sustainable solution may seem like an impossible task, but for Australian entrepreneur Joanne Howarth, it’s just a part of her defiant way of life.
Howarth is one of the 2020 Cartier Women’s Initiative seven winners. She has received this global honour for founding Planet Protector Packaging – an innovative product made from waste wool that makes polystyrene irrelevant. Howarth’s life exemplifies the new era of feminism, showing how ambition can coexist with inclusivity.
“I was thinking, ‘I am the worst offender on the planet. I am single-handedly destroying the oceans.’”
Working as a high profile manager at Australia’s largest meal kit service, Howarth was overwhelmed by polystyrene.
From the packaging in which the ingredients arrived to the boxes in which meal kits were shipped out – the toxic fumes of polystyrene filled the air.
Every piece of polystyrene created still exists today. It ends up in our landfills, releasing methane gas or in our oceans, poisoning the food chain.
“I saw that the market really needed a solution. But it had to be a sustainable solution.”
It was Howarth’s research into wool that instigated Planet Protector Packaging.
“I like to say it’s nature’s smart fibre. (…) The wool keeps the sheep warm in winter, and it keeps them cool in summer.”
Success, for Howarth, is a collective endeavour. Aided by her lifetime business partner, Peter Hofbauer, she began constructing a team.
“My team is 100% on the journey with me.”
Shannon Doherty is Head of Special Projects at Planet Protector Packaging.
“I just want to be in a job that I feel like I’m producing something that’s better for the world, and not just pushing paper.”
Not only is the production eco-friendly, the manufacturing uses waste wool, which adds another revenue stream for Australian farmers.
“Our product outperforms polystyrene.”
Her business partner, Peter Hofbauer, speaks of her passion.
“She’s always on the lookout, trying to learn more from overseas designers and developers with different natural fibres.”
The duo has proved themselves highly successful. They franchised Sydney’s Arizona restaurants before moving into seafood in Nelson Bay.
“Her workload and her work ethic was just unbelievable. (…) I’m the apprentice to her.”
“Near enough is never good enough for me. I’m a perfectionist. And I think that that’s important. I give everything.”
Planet Protector Packaging works with clients in the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries.
“If you break down and compress all of that polystyrene. (…) I think we’re at 52 Olympic sized swimming pools.”
After only six months on the market, the team won the 2018 Packaging Innovation Design Award for Australia. Howarth viewed on facetime from her hospital bed.
“The day I had my surgery was the night of the awards. (…) I didn’t know whether I was going to come out of that operation with an oxygen cylinder or whether I was even going to be alive.”
The surgery was the beginning of a health battle Howarth has fought for years, wondering if it was caused by genetic factors, or her hours working with the toxic fumes of polystyrene.
“It’s created more urgency for me to leave a legacy”.
Fortunately, Howarth’s health has stabilized. The battle for sustainability, however, continues – with ongoing commercial resistance. She recalls a meeting with Salmon producer Tassal.
“He says, love (…) as much as we all hate polystyrene (…) it’s bloody easy. (…) He said, until it’s legislated, we don’t have to do it, love. (…) I walked out of there. I nearly cried.”
Howarth developed resilience early in life. Suffering from asthma, she was unable to keep up with her siblings. At 17, she had a respiratory arrest and stopped breathing.
“The thing of which I’m most proud is my resilience. And I think that as an entrepreneur, that’s what you’ve got to be. Some mornings you just wake up, and you know, you get a few punches, (..) and then other days, you’re riding high – it’s like a rollercoaster”
And she has certainly faced punches, losing her fiance in a car accident just six weeks before their wedding.
“I don’t need to be somebody who’s wife. (…) A lot of people, that defines them.”
“They’re defined by their gender role, you know, because they’re a woman, they can’t do everything. You know, if you work hard and have a good work ethic, you can do anything.”
“She’ll never take no for an answer. She’ll say, ‘find a way, let’s ring Scott Morrison or find a way.'”
It’s clear that over her compassionate interior, Howard possesses a steely persistence. It is this uniquely femine fusion that has enabled Howarth, and powerful women like her, to transform the world for the better.