Reports of the Death of ‘Sustainable Packaging’ Were Greatly Exaggerated

As ThomasNet.com Green & Clean ramps up coverage of sustainable packaging — one of the most important trends in green business — and just as I was finishing up my first article on the sector, a bunch of headlines signaling the death knell of sustainable packaging started appearing, led by the respected consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers. What’s going on here?

As I reported a few days ago, those party-poopers at PricewaterhouseCoopers just came out with a new report that determined:

Sustainable packaging as a term is no longer relevant today, as the debate about good versus bad packaging has moved on. Sustainable packaging was used as an umbrella term to cover many aspects of sustainability and, as such, is deemed too broad a term to be useful at a practical level.

 

The report coincided with these headlines:

P&G, Nestle, PwC Call ‘Sustainable Packaging’ a Red Herring

‘Sustainable packaging’ irrelevant, says report

Should sustainable packaging be “scrapped”?

Sustainable packaging ‘red herring’ should be ‘scrapped’

As I promised earlier, I picked apart PwC’s study to find out whether the professional services gurus there have really decided that it’s alright to go back to incinerating and land-filling millions of tons of environmentally unfriendly containers and packaging materials — or whether its declaration is a little more nuanced.

Why Pick on Packaging?

The title of the study, Sustainable packaging: myth or reality — Revisiting the debate two years on, refers back to a report that PwC did two years ago (Sustainable packaging: threat or opportunity?), in which the firm said that “sustainable packaging is becoming a fact of life and will, in time, be seen as just another requirement for doing business alongside pricing, product performance and service.”

Even at that time, though, PwC cautioned that “there remains a great deal of frustration in the industry at the ‘disproportionate’ focus placed on packaging and confusion about what ‘sustainable packaging’ actually means.” The firm said that industry players needed to stop being merely reactive and “to do more to help shape the debate and the future state of the industry.”

Production of packaging material. Credit: Tetra Pak, CC BY-SA 2.0

The new June 2012 report is based in part on interviews with stakeholders in four key groups: packaging manufacturers, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies, retailers and government and trade bodies. Analyzing their responses, PwC sees significant progress in the industry since its previous report, especially in three areas:

  • A focus on efficiency in materials, energy and costs, and on establishing measurable goals for sustainability throughout the product life cycle
  • A common language in the form of a new packaging sustainability reporting framework developed by the Consumer Goods Forum (I will be discussing this initiative in my next article)
  • Development of a “shared understanding” that the product, its packaging and the related supply chain have to be viewed as a single solution, not a sum of disconnected parts, when it comes to reducing the impact on the environment.

Together, these trends suggest not so much that sustainable packaging is passé, but that packaging needs to be looked at within the context of the overall product chain. It’s no longer enough just to talk about simple metrics such as the weight, volume, toxicity and recyclability of packaging materials. A systems approach promises to yield a lower environmental impact, as opposed to a traditional silo approach in which packaging gets treated on its own.

Peter White, director of sustainability at Procter & Gamble (P&G), told PwC researchers:

The consensus around what represents sustainable packaging has developed significantly in the past few years. The debates about lightweighting, recycled content and recyclability as the ultimate measures of how sustainable a package is, have been replaced by a more holistic debate around the product, the package and their use from inception to post-consumer use.

Products made from recycled packaging. Credit: Tetra Pak, CC BY-SA 2.0

But it doesn’t mean that the importance of packaging has diminished. In fact, PwC finds, packaging manufacturers are continuing to work on greening their products — using lighter materials and less of them, and “improving efficiencies in the production, distribution and disposal of their products.” However, those efforts are undertaken in the context of broader sustainability measures in the overall supply chain rather than through a specific focus on packaging.

This view of packaging as an integral part of a product’s overall value chain is steering industry away from a focus on the packaging materials themselves, leading PwC to conclude that “sustainable packaging,” as a term, is no longer relevant. A more balanced view requires “taking into account efficiencies that can be made during the entire life cycle of the product, including a packaging solution that uses the minimum amount of resources and produces the minimum amount of waste while also protecting the product,” according to PwC. Such a view also takes into account “transport and display efficiency, and what happens after the product is used.”

Given the complex life cycles of products and the extensive value chains that produce and distribute them, PwC feels that industry should abandon the phrase “sustainable packaging.” It dismisses efforts to define it as red herrings, in favor of a “more balanced view of efficient packaging” that’s based on:

  • Producing effective packaging solutions while minimizing resources
  • Properly protecting products, thus reducing product waste
  • Efficient transport and display
  • Effective strategies for end-of-life disposal and recycling.

I get all this — a holistic focus on the sustainability of the overall value chain is better than just concentrating on packaging. Still, I think it’s wishful thinking by PwC. Sensational headlines notwithstanding, I suspect that the rumors of sustainable packaging’s death are greatly exaggerated.

 

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