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Innovation in sustainable packaging continues despite scarcity of data

June 2015

US retailers are starting to ask their product suppliers for merchandise with packaging that is more sustainable, according to speakers at the recent LuxePack Conference in New York. Laura Klepacki reports

Retailers are starting to ask their suppliers for merchandise with packaging that is more sustainable, according to speakers at the recent LuxePack Conference in New York.

“I think retailers are feeling pressure from their consumers and they are putting the pressure on us,” said Brook Harvey-Taylor, president of natural beauty brand Pacifica, which has been a vendor for Whole Foods for 17 years and is among a select group of brands sold at Target under its ‘Made to Matter’ section. “Retailers are asking `what are you doing?’ and ‘how do you speak to the consumer about it?’ We have always worked within the parameters of Whole Foods, but I think this is the first time retailers outside Whole Foods in the mass market are asking about it.”

While widely vocalized, actually putting together a package that is sustainable remains challenging. “I sat at one supplier’s table – a big supplier in the cosmetics industry – and I said ‘show me everything that is recyclable.’ They showed me three things out of thousands,” said Harvey-Taylor.

Price is still a big concern for manufactures, noted Juliane Camposano, vice president, Global Design, previously a design executive for L’Oréal. A box containing post-consumer material is more costly and retailers want a price that the consumer will pay. “There is a balance between the two that always has to be evaluated.”

Additionally, finding information on materials and on supplier business practices – such as energy consumption - takes a lot of research. “It is like tedious detective work,” said Camposano.

None-the-less packaging breakthroughs are happening. Pacifica is now using a new polypropylene tube from Viva Healthcare Packaging,that has a “very good lifecycle analysis score” and is completely recyclable, said Bruno Lebeault, North America marketing director for Viva. Typically a tube has multiple components made of different materials and sourced from various suppliers. This tube is all made from the same material, has an in-mould label and is all manufactured under the same roof.

Bill Russell, professor of Green Accounting at Columbia University, pointed to L’Oréal as a leader in responsible packaging selection. To penetrate India with its Garnier shampoos it introduced a sachet packet that uses less material and is locally sourced. “By doing that they were able to have the quality packaging and price points they needed for that local market,” said Russell. “This solution might not be right for Europe or North America, but it was the best one for India at that moment in time.”

Russell said embracing sustainability can lead to a 50% to 81% increase in profitability for a company, and outlined an economic sustainability assessment model that firms can use to track and compare expenses, revenues and intangible benefits. Core measurements include direct and indirect expenses, processes that make up what the company does to deliver the product and package, and costs associated with waste. The elastic model also takes into account ‘carrots’ such as an increase in reputation associated with an innovation and also if a payoff would result from investment in a third party certification.

The model is still “messy” and “turbulent,” but not tracking the business of sustainability at all is worse, advised Russell. In this area, Walmart, in conjunction with the Sustainability Consortium has been producing lifecycle analyses or a ‘Sustainability Index’ for individual product categories sold at Walmart, with more than 700 to-date and more being added. This is helping them “come up with hot spots – what is the most critical toxin to remove or what it the most critical aspect of the footprint that we want our product developers to do for that segment of products,” explained Russell.

According to Russell, the prospect of not addressing these issues could be dire. The planet’s biological resources are being consumed at a 50% greater rate than the earth is producing them. “We are doing all this while population is increasing, so even if it was business as usual, by 2050 we would be consuming nearly three planets of the biological resources that the earth is producing,” stated Russell.

Meanwhile, co-author of Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough remarked that packaging design doesn’t have to be about using less. But rather, materials can be used in abundance, as long as they are used wisely. “We should eliminate the entire concept of waste.”

To get there, package designers should shift away from the practice of using ‘less’ of a bad material - such as something that contains toxins – and just eliminate it completely. Admonished McDonough, “Being ‘less’ bad is not being good.” 

North America | Sustainability


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