In the world of environmental consulting, it is axiomatic that measurement is the first step towards achieving sustainability. A sustainability campaign can only be as good as the datasets that underpin it. But how good is good data? And how much time and effort should companies spend on collecting data, relative to investing in improvements? It’s an open question that really depends on the question you’re hoping to answer.
Packaging data is one of the most abundant forms of environmental information available to businesses, not least because of the success of the Packaging Regulations, now in their sixteenth year.
As well as producing a vast quantity of packaging data, the sharing of producer responsibility obligation across supply chains has encouraged communication and cooperation between manufacturers, distributors and retailers; a prerequisite for any sustainability programme.
Whilst packaging data is abundant, it’s fair to say that the majority of retailers collect this data solely for the purpose of reporting their total obligation, against which they will purchase Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).
The level of accuracy of the data is optimised for reporting a total tonnage, the sample of raw data is focussed on the highest selling, heaviest items, and is often out of date. This means data struggles to stand up to statistical analysis, and fails to reflect the latest packaging minimisation efforts.
Nevertheless, in consultant speak, it has been ‘fit for purpose’, designed to provide the insight businesses require, with the right level of resources.
In recent years, as businesses are setting more ambitious and challenging sustainability targets and looking across their product portfolios for reduction opportunities, they are looking to existing datasets such as packaging to provide life-cycle insights and support decision making.
Unfortunately, all too often they find data is riddled with inconsistencies, inaccuracies and reliant on biased extrapolation methodologies.
Signatories to the Courtauld Commitment have had to commit additional resources to ensure data is fit for the new purpose of achieving reductions against a baseline of own-brand lines.
In this process, there is a struggle with incomparable and unreferenced data, making it difficult to identify common hotspots and reduction opportunities.
Businesses across all sectors are more ambitious than ever in their efforts to reduce the impact of their products and are taking the concept of producer responsibility to new levels.
Alongside this shift in approach towards life cycle thinking, and portfolio-wide scope, businesses must challenge themselves – and their consultants – to improve the quality of packaging data.
‘Fit for purpose’ is still the mantra, but the landscape of business intention is changing – a much greater degree of accuracy is required. As the most abundant form of product environmental data available, packaging has the opportunity to lead the way as an environmental metric. It’s time for a clean-up.
Sam Hampton is a consultant at sustainability consultancy firm Best Foot Forward