Steps Towards Enhancing the Sustainability of Packaging
Sustainable packaging encompasses multiple initiatives, including producing effective solutions with minimum resources, protecting the product, transport efficiency and effective end of life management. What’s encouraging is that each of the aforementioned can be accomplished one step at a time.
Implementing incremental changes towards sustainable packaging can often achieve a more robust outcome towards comprehensive sustainability than holding off on a product’s release until a complete redesign can be made. It all depends on brand owners’ objectives, including their knowledge of consumer preferences, impact from supplier scorecards, and their own internal sustainability goals.
One caveat, no matter what the company decides to include in its sustainability mix, there will be no greater backlash than the waste of fully-costed products. These are products that have been manufactured and transported to a retailer only to never be purchased due to a variety of reasons, such as a packaging defect or damage – which can endanger the integrity of the product inside. To balance performance and sustainability, product manufacturers should consider the following points:
1. Reduce Material with Care
A common tenet of sustainable packaging is “reduce, reuse, recycle.” For years, the industry has focused on reducing by rightsizing or down-gauging material. This approach reduces waste towards the end of the package’s lifecycle and also saves material costs upfront. In some cases, depending on the redesign, it can drive transportation efficiency by reducing overall weight and size permitting greater cube utilization. This results in the reduction of fuel usage and minimizes the CPG’s overall carbon footprint.
However, material reduction should always be done with care to maintain the integrity of the package. The primary function of any package is to protect its contents, and packaging that fails to do so will result in fully-costed waste. Industry guidelines have been created because many packagers focused too much on light-weighting, leading to compromised integrity and damage during the shipping process.
2. Follow the Industry Guidelines
As noted above, when re-designing or light-weighting a package, brand owners can reference industry guidelines. For instance, the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) has created a protocol for responsible package design. This protocol offers an analytical process for assessing packaging functionality and sustainability and provides an eight stage evaluation process to guide design changes and prevent damage during transport.
Additionally, programs like the highly visible Wal-Mart Sustainability Scorecard rewards continuous improvement efforts by CPGs in refining packaging design and operations. It incorporates metrics on material choice, transportation, materials sourcing, and the end of life of a product to score products on a bell curve against one another. As new innovations and designs come out, peers are forced to upgrade and compete in order to retain their position thereby driving incremental innovation. In some cases, it may be to your advantage to make incremental versus dramatic changes.
3. Don’t Just Reduce, Reuse
CPGs should not neglect other aspects of their supply chain when making strides towards enhancing sustainability. Re-tripping (or reusing) corrugate in transporting product to retailers is another way to improve carbon footprint. Programs exist similar to pallet programs where vendors supply, collect and pool shippers for redistribution. Alternatively, converters and brand owners can establish agreements to return and reuse corrugate if the transportation distance and delivery frequency makes sense. It is also important to note that the corrugate material in re-use will need to be tested to understand how many times it can be re-used before the shipper loses integrity and needs to be replaced.
4. Test Packaging Re-Designs for Consumer Preference
Before implementing major changes to their packaging format, consumer product goods (CPG) companies should understand how consumers will respond. In the past, products have been launched or re-branded with packaging that boasts eco-friendly benefits like recyclability, bio-degradability, or compostability. For example, in 2010, Frito Lay introduced a compostable bag for its Sun Chips brand, but consumers deemed the material too noisy, causing backlash against the product and ultimately forcing the CPG to pull it from the shelf. This instance illustrates that if certain attributes of the new package interfere with functionality, convenience – or even shelf appeal, consumers may be turned off. As a result, the product may fail to sell and the well-intended sustainability initiative will have resulted in the generation of fully-costed waste.
In considering material reduction, companies need to carefully evaluate new package redesigns. Before making changes, CPGs should bring together their material and equipment suppliers, packaging designers and brand managers to discuss any potential challenges with introducing a new package. This step is crucial to ensure that the new package functions properly on legacy equipment and prevent downtime or waste associated with line stoppages during production.
Taking incremental steps towards sustainable packaging can sometimes be the more strategic choice versus a whole scale redesign, but is still critical to evaluate each step against the whole. Each measure towards sustainability has an impact further up or down the product’s lifecycle—understanding the whole picture helps drive comprehensive sustainability. Additionally, from how a new package material or design performs during production, in protecting the product through the supply chain, attracting consumers at the point of purchase and when in use with consumers – each aspect is paramount for optimal brand performance.
Kyla Fisher is corporate sustainability director for PaperWorks.
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