Time to debunk a sustainable pack myth? | Analysis

The term ‘sustainable packaging’ is dead, according to a new report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It’s now all about ‘efficient packaging’. But what do the sector’s great and the good think? By Liz Gyekye

sustainable mn

The phrase sustainable packaging is a myth, a red herring, no longer exists and should be scrapped, according to a new report by financial services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Entitled Sustainable Packaging: Myth or Reality, PwC argues that packaging is only a part of the wider sustainability story and focusing on packaging alone in the sustainability debate is counterproductive and short-sighted. It argues that sustainable packaging as a term is no longer relevant today as the debate about good versus bad packaging has moved on. Key stakeholders argue, instead, that a more balanced view of ‘efficient packaging’ is emerging.

So one term has been replaced by another. According to PwC, efficient packaging means 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. And beyond that, transport and display efficiency, and what happens after the product is used, is also taken into account.

Sustainability challenge

The idea that anyone can come up with a single meaningful definition of sustainable packaging is proving to be a red herring, the study argues. Retailers, manufacturers and consumer groups, including the Packaging Federation, Incpen, Diageo, Boots, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and Rexam also unanimously agreed that the much used sustainable packaging phrase should be phased out and the focus should shift to ensuring packaging delivers maximum sustainability throughout the entire supply chain and is recoverable after use.

The report aims to reignite a packaging debate sparked two years ago when PwC visited a group of companies on the issue. It published a study 2010, which looked at the growing interest in sustainable packaging, based on a series of interviews with four key stakeholder groups; retailers; FMCG companies; packaging producers; and Government and trade bodies. Its  conclusion was that consensus on the definition of sustainable packaging would give the sector greater influence on regulation and consumer attitudes.  It argued that retailers, suppliers, and the packaging industry needed to look beyond their own horizons, consider the wider impact of packaging and focus more on collaboration.

Fast forward two years and PwC says that there is more creativity and collaboration happening – industry is now taking an active role in the debate. Packaging players are talking to suppliers, retailers and customers are trying to make sure that the objectives for sustainable packaging are aligned. Manufacturers are tending to use less material of a lighter weight. Retailers are looking at products with the lowest possible environmental impact, as well as packaging that has as low as possible an impact in the supply chain. Many FMCG companies have invested heavily in product development and innovation.

However, one FMCG company, which was not named, told PwC that this had led to some tension between the firm and retailers. It said that they had some tough discussions with retailers, who were making big data demands for all of their products, from carbon footprinting to ethical sourcing. This could not be met without adding a significant overhead and a compromise had to be found.

The PwC report has been welcomed by packaging heavyweights. Incpen director Jane Bickerstaffe says: “It is heartening that a more balanced view of packaging and its positive role in the supply chain is finally emerging, after a long struggle.” Her views are echoed by IoPP’s Kevin Vyse. He says: “It’s been very difficult for packaging professionals to have their voice on this subject. They find themselves buffeted by every whim of marketing hype while their message about adopting a balanced view is being largely ignored.” Benjamin Punchard of Mintel adds that sustainable packaging had become “background noise”, meaning different things to different people.

Moving the goalposts

However, critics of the report claim that it moves the goalposts of sustainability aims. Independent packaging designer Angela Morris argues: “As more and more factors are lumped into some kind of ‘efficiency’ calculation, my worry is that it will actually be easier for key stakeholders to create and hide behind a sustainability smokescreen.” Lucy Frankel, communications manager at compostable food packaging firm Vegware adds that dismissing the end goal as a myth may discourage the sector from making genuine sustainable changes.

Marks & Spencer commercial and environmental packaging manager Andrew Speck is another industry figure who thinks sustainable packaging is a reality, not a myth. He adds: “Using sustainable materials that are easily recyclable by the consumer and reducing the amount of packaging used are key towards packaging becoming more sustainable. Under Plan A we’ve made significant progress in making our packaging more sustainable, but we’re not complacent and know the bigger challenges to make a truly sustainable packaging supply chain a reality still lie ahead.”

PwC now urges Government to focus on what it calls the “real issues” affecting the packaging industry – a national shortage of packaging technicians, fears over scarcity of raw material supplies and a lack of political will to tackle the core issues.




  1. A great development!

    Analysis must triumph over Rhetoric!

    For anything to be truly sustainable it will need to have a cost benefit.

  2. Whilst the report has a strong dose of substance in it, I fear that the term ‘efficient packaging’ has come to replace ‘sustainable packaging’ as just another marketing buzzword / catchy phrase. No matter how we call it, I am still astonished by the sheer lack of reference to the consumer – the ultimate judge of packaging and products. I’d argue that the term should be ‘relevant packaging’, if we must label it somehow. Efficiencies are for companies to sort out internally. What truly matters and must be communicated widely is that packaging should, at last, become more meaningful and relevant to those who actually use it. What consumers expect from packaging is convenience, value for money, functional superiority and emotional reassurance. Our research constantly reveals that sustainability (or efficiency if you want to call it that) is not a purchase driver. And that is because everyday consumers simply don’t find it motivating enough. It just doesn’t add any value, either functional or emotional, to the consumption/usage experience. CSR of course should remain a key focus for manufacturers but it’d be wise to bring consumers closer to the process as early as possible. Packaging innovation can truly benefit from a more participatory spirit and a co-creation mentality. That way companies will still be able to address their CSR objectives by making more efficient or sustainable packaging whilst at the same time delivering meaningful experiences, added value benefits and relevant innovation.

  3. To be sustainable something must be available to our children – otherwise it has not been sustained.
    If we actively promote reused packaging materials over reuseable we will start to realise this and to create end user markets for packaging.
    At present we are fostering the belief that if a material is recycleable – it will be recycled. This is untrue and that just needs to be said.
    I believe that reused materials should not attract multiple Packaging Waste taxations as they do now.
    Every time a corrugated box with 75% recycled material is put into the marketplace – the taxation is on the whole weight of the box – it could just be on the 25% being put into the marketplace for the first time as for wooden pallets. Why is tax collected on that 75% recycled paper content over and over again when other materials are exempt?

  4. At last !
    It was clear that the term sustainable packaging had become a catchphrase for anyone that wanted to appear environmentally conscious.

    I’m delighted that a heavyweight such as PWC recognizes that its simply “efficient packaging”…and that a consideration of materials, efficient production,functional design & of course consumer needs ! will, by default, meet most peoples definition of sustainability – whilst protecting the product & selling the brand.

  5. This is typical how this industry operates. A new direction or trendy phase is initiated and every one jumps on the trend saying they are really supportive and want to do this and that. Then after a while people realise nothing has really changed and so a new idea is released to allow people to jump on this bandwagon and promote this image yet again. All the while nothing is really happening and industry just keeps getting way with what it has been doing for the last 30 years. Making plastic packaging as best they can to further their profits. If industry were really interested in a sustainable product the first thing the would do is to try to get their packaging back for recycling into more plastic. Yes we see almost none of this happening and to the contrary a lot of opposition to incentives to recycling of plastic waste.
    Many of these manufacturing decisions were made back in the 1970s when we all thought the world was inexhaustible and sustainability was not needed to be on any ones radar. Now with higher populations, much more processed food, and much higher plastic production this is not true, yet the manufactures are still operating on this old paradigm. Until that is corrected, and it won’t be corrected voluntarily, little will change. This is what we are seeing with this new buzzword PWC are now saying is the trend, in a couple of more years there will be another one and the manufacturers will still be smiling their way to more plastic production.
    There are some very simple things that could be done to control a lot of this.
    1) Restrict plastic packaging to just a few types of materials. With all the plastic options in use now, it is too hard to recycle and reuse them all.
    2) Put in place a plastics tax on the usage of new plastic material. Let recycled plastic be only 1/2 of this tax. Let biodegradable (in a landfill that is) materials be exempt of the tax.
    3) Encourage (through tax incentives) the implementation of landfill biodegradable additives that will let plastic biodegrade away in a few years in a landfill where approx 80% of our plastic waste goes now. Even it if goes to a waste to energy plant, having the landfill biodegradable additive in it will not affect the performance in an incinerator. Plastics with Landfill biodegradable additives in them can be recycled in mainstream recycling unlike other additives. Hence landfill biodegradable additives are really a back stop method to control plastic waste. Recycle and reuse it as much as we can then at the end of the day the plastic goes to an incinerator or sent to a landfill where it will then biodegrade away.
    4) Put a refund scheme in place for people to return their plastic waste and get a refund or a shopping coupon, etc. This would hugely increase the recycling or recovery rate at least over night. Who pays for this? The manufacturers of the plastic as the are the ones responsible for making the plastic in the first place.
    5) Don’t allow plastic waste to be exported off shore. What is used in a country stays in the country to be reused.
    Simple ideas like this put the issue of plastic waste back into the manufacturers hands and when extra cost decisions have to be made when a plastic package is to be used, we will see a big reduction in plastic packaging.

  6. If focus should be shifted from packaging to a whole product lifecycle view, as the article suggests, then why do PwC suggest changing the jargon from “sustainable packaging” to “efficient packaging”? Surely the word packaging should be removed altogether and we should be talking about “sustainable consumption” if we truly want to take a bigger picture view?

    I love PwC’s assertion that “packaging is only a part of the wider sustainability story and focusing on packaging alone in the sustainability debate is counterproductive and short-sighted”.

    Packaging plays an incredibly important role in reducing product waste and providing functionality. And yes, there are examples of obscene overkill. But I think as a society we’d be better to focus on over-consumption in general, and not just over-packaging.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly that the life of the product is what should be being discussed, not simply the packaging. However, I would like to further the point – surely ‘sustainable’ and ‘efficient’ should have two different meanings? They’re not synonyms and nor are they mutually exclusive.

    In an environmental context, sustainability should refer to the impact of humans taking resources out of the environment (e.g. harvesting trees for card – is the tree stock replenished? Yes? Well then the source of supply is sustainable and can be used again). Efficiency should refer to the fact that we are putting things like carbon back into the environment (e.g. through transport) – doing this responsibly in as small a way as possible makes the product (more) efficient.

    Previously, the word ‘sustainable’ has been bandied about in too broad a way – it was used to encompass too much by some and too little by others. It has been difficult to quantify and there’s therefore been no like for like comparison between supermarkets. They’re all aiming to impress consumers by being responsible, but their methods cannot be measured in a way that is transparent.

    I don’t know, for example, what exact improvement was made by those supermarkets who have altered the shape of their milk bottles. Presumably this efficiency has meant that more can be fitted onto a pallet, more pallets can be fitted onto a container etc. but there’s no figures available in the stores – the consumer is merely told that the milk is now ‘sustainable’.

    I belive that a product can (and should) be both efficient and sustainable – we need to relocate the meanings of the words and use them in their proper context again, so that transparency can be achieved.

  8. As Stergios said, I am astonished at the lack of reference to consumers. Much as brands may want to look good by using ‘sustainable’ or ‘efficient’ packaging, it means very little to me in terms of my day-to-day purchasing behaviour and I believe the same holds true for the majority of the population. As a consumer looking at plastic packaging on the shelves my main thought surrounds how cheap and horribly mass produced it makes the brand look – in short it affects how I perceive brand quality. For example, when Cadbury replaced their Dairy Milk paper and foil packaging with plastic my immediate thought was how comparatively cheap and not at all special it looked. I’m not saying that sustainability isn’t a good thing to care about, I’m just saying that I don’t think it affects consumption patterns in the way that some people would like to think it does and I fear big brands are bogging down their communications with the stuff.