Sustainable Packaging: Not That There’s Anything Wrong with It

by | Jun 16, 2011

This classic guilt-ridden Seinfeld come-back is what I often want to say when talking to people about sustainable packaging. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with working on reducing packaging weight, or reinventing plastic to be compostable, or focusing supplier incentives on packaging…but there are so many other areas that are much more impactful that it seems imprudent to focus this amount of effort on packaging.

Case in point is a quote from Fred Bedore, senior director of business strategy and sustainability for Walmart – leading the charge worldwide in sustainable packaging – who said in a recent article that “customers ultimately touch, feel, and engage with products and packaging at the shelf [therefore] that means it’s something that’s meaningful to them, and therefore it’s meaningful to us.” And of course, this is a universal feeling among most businesses, but in my opinion it’s misguided – not only because sustainability is about something much larger and more important than just keeping the customer happy, but also because sustainability is about long-term profitability and reducing cost, waste, and therefore environmental impacts which are relatively minor if a company focuses only on packaging.

This is the carbon footprint analysis for an average strawberry yoghurt.

This client was under the common assumption that the packaging should be the primary focus of environmental impact reductions, but once they saw this graph, they changed their mind. When we ran the graph breaking down the raw materials (below), it was immediately clear that packaging (the grey slice) was less than 10% of the total impacts of any of the raw materials.


And while there’s nothing wrong with focusing on packaging – and there are lots of retailers, manufacturers, governmental, and NGOs who are doing just that – it’s obvious from these results that a 10-20% reduction in packaging weight is not going to create a huge reduction on the overall impact of this yoghurt.

The rebuttal that I most often get right about now is based on the same narrative as quoted by Mr. Bedore, above. Packaging is what the customer sees and feels. Packaging is what the company can (more) easily control in their supply chain and in their product design. Packaging is (or can be) sexy. Packaging is an easy target. But, is packaging really going to result in the types of reductions that the world needs to stay fed, clothed, housed, and entertained? I would argue no.

If a company is the business of manufacturing toasters or coffee machines, they probably know by now that the majority of their product’s lifecycle impact is in the consumer’s home. And this is rather a scary thing to find out. The first reaction is usually that this phase of the lifecycle is out of their hands and that they have no control over it and therefore no responsibility. But it’s becoming more and more understood that in fact they do have a responsibility. There are some industries that have embraced this responsibility, most notably the laundry soap manufacturers who have reformulated and are marketing their “eco-friendly” products as ones that can be effective in cold water, saving a significant amount of energy (and consumer cost) compared to washing laundry in warm or hot water.

In the same vein, companies need to realize – and believe – that first, reducing their environmental impact will definitely reduce their lifecycle costs (even if it’s only realized at the consumer’s home), and second, that their “hotspots” for environmental impact will not likely be obvious to them.

Last year at a conference I had an interesting discussion with a representative from a meals-ready-to-eat (MRE) manufacturer. Due to the requirements of MREs to be able to last for many months in ambient temperature, they had developed a complicated and impressive series of vacuum-packaged layers around the meal so that they could meet this requirement. These layers of packaging were extremely troubling to them because one of them was a virgin aluminum and they had heard that virgin aluminum has a very high carbon footprint. It took much persuasion, and lots of graphs and charts, to clearly show that in almost all cases, the food ingredients (and all the processing that went into them) were far more impactful than the tiny layer of virgin aluminum in the packaging.

It’s a hard lesson to get your head around, especially with all the pressures focused on packaging and the incremental successes therein. However, it’s not difficult to prove with metrics that are easy to generate and incontestable, that it’s unlikely that a reduction in packaging impact is much more than a PR activity that will have a short lifecycle of its own and not significantly improve the bottom line of the business. If the yoghurt manufacturer above reduced their packaging impact by 10%, they would reduce their product’s impact by 0.9g and their relative cost by the same percentage (less than 1%). However, if they spent the same time and resources reducing the waste of their other primary raw materials by 10%, they could realize a 9g reduction and have a much more significant and long-lasting affect the profitability of the business, as well as their environmental footprint. It’s worth thinking about.

Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of sustainability metrics specialized in the food and beverages industry with its smart product-level lifecycle assessment tool, Carbonostics (cost + carbon + nutrition).

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