Sustainable Packaging: What’s Your True North?

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The purpose of a compass is to point you in the right direction, so let’s explore that concept as it relates to packaging sustainability.

I recently attended a panel discussion while at EastPack, the leading packaging trade show on the East Coast of the United States.

The topic: “Sustainable Packaging — What Really Matters to Consumers?” The panelists and discussion were truly compelling. Each panelist’s passion and understanding of their brand strategy and mission was evident and well-articulated.

The discussion highlighted the complex nature of sustainable packaging and the various directions companies are heading in their pursuit for a better way to address years of uncontrolled generation of waste and hard-to-manage plastics.

The debate quickly turned to fundamental yet different approaches to addressing plastics in packaging. And this is the challenge today’s brands, packaging suppliers and consumers are facing. There is yet no agreed on “right” answer, but also no time to wait any longer without making tangible positive changes.

Sustainable packaging is such a complex issue that one of the few things most involved can agree on is that there is no singular approach or solution today. What we can strive for and encourage is that all involved throughout the value chain take positive steps forward in reducing waste and increasing circular economics in packaging.

The panel represented brand owners, a packaging supplier and a supplier who serves processors and brand owners, not end consumers. Each panelist’s sustainable packaging strategy was different, as one could expect with a diverse panel. This highlighted the different strategies driven by product positioning, consumer and brand-owner expectations, brand strategy, and financial and regulatory limitations.
The strategies presented in the panel can be summarized by four categories: improving plastics packaging, avoiding plastics, giving consumers’ choice and improving supply chain efficiency.

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Improving plastics packaging is a viable argument and shouldn’t be dismissed as just maintaining the industry due to is size and financial scale. Many products are made safe and affordable due to the functional benefits of polymers and plastics. Many food-and-beverage products would not be affordable and safe for consumption without packaging. The same can be said for many medical products and personal care items.

Improving plastics packaging includes using less material, materials that are easier to recycle, higher recycled content, and informing consumers how to handle and dispose of packaging. This approach can be seen in many of the recent commitments associated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and other consortiums committed to reducing packaging’s impact on the environment.

The opposite approach to improving plastics is the strategy of avoiding plastics altogether. This is a growing trend and often a cornerstone of companies committed to sustainably sourced and produced products. I could feel the anguish in the panelist as he described all the efforts put into sustainable products and then being forced, due to functionality or regulations, to use virgin plastics in their packaging.

The costs and technical challenges in converting from plastic to metal or glass are real, but consumers are seeking these types of alternatives and research indicates that they are willing to pay for these options.

What might be viewed as a compromise, but is another challenging step in the right direction, is the practice of giving consumers a choice. Case in point: Keeping plastics in use due to economics and convenience while offering packaging in other formats such as glass and metal. These items are often more expensive, but give consumers a choice in purchasing products that are better for the environment.

There is growing evidence of a pent-up demand and a lack of supply for sustainable packaging. Loop, a returnable and reusable packaging program, began its U.S. pilot in May 2019. In the pilot phase the program is designed to serve 5,000 people in the northeast U.S., yet there are 85,000 people on the waiting list!

Finally, improving the supply chain’s packaging efficiency is another approach and trend to address sustainability. Processors and brand owners are requiring their suppliers to use less packaging in their product and ingredient supply and are requesting increased use of bulk packaging. There is a growing awareness that at each link in the supply chain there is often packaging that is used and discarded.

Addressing what can be called “pre-consumer waste” is a significant opportunity to reduce single-use packaging and create practices that drive efficiency in operations. A growing trend that was highlighted by the panel is supply chain’s growing involvement in conversations with peers, suppliers and customers to drive opportunities in this space.

So where do you fall in the discussion? What opportunities and challenges do you face based on your product mix and brand positioning? Where is your packaging sustainability compass pointing?

John Blake, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner Supply Chain

 

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