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Time to debunk a sustainable pack myth? | Analysis

July 9, 2012 8 Comments » Print Print

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

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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So one term has been replaced by another.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.