Sustainable packaging still a grey area

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 2nd February 2010

Packaging leaders agree on the growing importance of sustainability, but there remains a great deal of frustration in the industry at the ‘disproportionate’ focus placed on packaging and confusion about what ‘sustainable packaging’ means, according to a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The report, Sustainable Packaging: Threat or Opportunity?, is based on 20 interviews with senior executives from leading packaging companies in Europe. The research found that over 70% of respondents feel that sustainable packaging solutions offered a competitive advantage but that, although producers, retailers and customers all claim to want a more sustainable packaging product, they are, in general, unwilling to pay a premium, unless their brand is already built around a sustainable or environmentally responsible message.

Another finding from the discussions is that there is no industry consensus on what constitutes ‘sustainable packaging’. The debate has been dominated by a narrow focus on reducing packaging weight and arguments around whether one material is more or less sustainable than another. A consensus-based definition from respondents on the attributes that sustainable packaging should have includes the following:

• The packaging weight and volume has been considered and effectively reduced;

• Waste-to-landfill has been reduced through designed-in recyclability, reusability or degradability of the substrate;

• The packaging has a lower environmental footprint in terms of resources used in production as well as emissions to air and water;

• The packaging effectively reduces waste through extending shelf life and prevents damage or contamination; and

• The packaging is able to communicate effectively and engage consumers as to brand attributes and sustainable credentials.

“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,” Richard McCole, packaging sector specialist at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, commented. “Reaching a broad consensus on the definition of sustainable packaging will provide the packaging industry with a platform from which to influence regulation as well as customer and consumer attitudes and expectations.

“Packaging businesses that continue to be passive in tackling sustainable packaging are likely to see market share ebb away to competitors that can develop compelling sustainable propositions that still meet the customers’ fundamental functional and economic requirements.”

A further common theme was the belief that the packaging industry has been subject to disproportionate scrutiny compared to the relatively small proportion of the waste stream which it creates. Many were frustrated that little credit is given to the industry for the efforts it has already made to reduce packaging footprints.

“The packaging industry has made fairly poor job of championing the value and importance of packaging,”Clive Suckling, global forest, paper and packaging leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, suggested. “It will need to do more to redress the balance if it doesn’t want the popular misconception that packaging is wasteful and environmentally harmful to grow.

“So far the agenda has been set by a variety of retailers, consumer groups and regulatory bodies who often have conflicting aims, now it is time for the packaging industry to promote itself.”