START WITH PACKAGING
The many stumbling blocks on the road to sustainable packaging
Sustainability and success increasingly go hand in hand for brands in today’s market.
This is underlined by businesses in the field: in recent years, green approaches have helped numerous companies to relaunch successfully in their own fields or explore new ones.
However, while taking an eco-friendly approach may have seemed ground-breaking and original some time ago, due in part to strict regulations such as those introduced by the EU to cut the use of disposable plastic, it is now vital for businesses to reduce their environmental impact and make the most of new green technology. Otherwise, they are in danger of being left behind and losing their competitive edge over their rivals.
Where should they start? With packaging.
8 million: Tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in the ocean each year, the equivalent of one garbage truck per minute
2050: Year by which the oceans will contain more plastic than fish, according to some estimates.
THOSE WHO FAIL WILL NOT BE FORGIVEN
Moving beyond plastic: how to choose new, green packaging
A large number of international brands – such as McDonald’s and Deliveroo – have made pledges to their consumers about environmental sustainability.
First and foremost among them is a promise to stop using plastic in their packaging. It might be easy to say, but it is a lot harder to do.
In order to completely overhaul the packaging that has been used until now, it is necessary to rethink every single step in the production chain. Everything must be covered, from the suppliers of the materials to the final retailers, not to mention all aspects of the waste disposal and recycling procedures.
Consequently, selecting new, sustainable packaging materials is far from simple.
When decisions of this kind are made, pitfalls can be presented by all sorts of unknown quantities. The green industry is relatively new, so there are no long-standing best practices to analyse and follow in order to minimize strategic risks. As the illustrious packaging design consultant Tracy Sutton noted: “some companies are nervous about committing to buying a new material or to invest in developing a new piece of packaging when they don’t know how successful it is going to be.”
Nonetheless, businesses cannot afford to wait any longer before embracing a greener approach: those who fail to move with the times will not be forgiven by the media, consumers and environmental associations.
People need to be able to make informed decisions, so “it should be laid out clearly what materials can be recycled and what cannot to reduce investment risk” according to Barrington Pamplin, who has been a packaging specialist for more than 30 years. The scenario described by Pamplin would be ideal, but in the current embryonic stage it still seems a distant prospect.
Standing still is not an option, so all that is left to do is pick a new, sustainable material, using the information that is currently available and the strategic, forward-thinking visions of managers.
After all, like all business decisions, the choice of eco-friendly packaging can play a crucial part in success or failure.
ROME WAS NOT BUILT IN A DAY
An ecological revolution: the transition to green packaging takes time
As the old adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It is necessary to invest time in the ecological packaging revolution.
You need to find the ideal material, test it with the intended contents (making sure that the characteristics of the products remain unchanged), make the packaging appealing in the eyes of consumers, and then rebuild the entire production chain.
It is a long, complicated process, so big companies prefer to do things gradually when it comes to sustainability, slowly building up ecological expertise and greater familiarity with the green world.
Maxime Verstraete, the Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at the Hilton hotel chain, explained that it has committed to cutting its environmental impact by 50%, but it will need 12 years to reach its goal.
While we are waiting for the ecological revolution to be completed on a broad scale, we can start to enjoy the services of the virtuous organizations that are already capable of getting the best out of their businesses in terms of sustainability.
This is the case at DS Smith, which is one of the world’s leading packaging firms. It has successfully trialled e-commerce product packaging technology. By taking a made-to-fit approach, it has achieved a fill rate for every single shipment of at least 99%. As well as making it efficient in terms of costs, this has allowed DS Smith to significantly reduce emissions from transport that are harmful to the environment, thus benefitting both the company and the community as a whole.
MORE THAN A FAD
Save the planet: shining the spotlight on packaging and green materials
Sustainability has become more than just a fad: it is now an extremely pressing matter. The importance of the issue is highlighted by the fact that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.
It is an emergency that has shaken up the sensibility of the market, investors and the general public, who finally have the capacity to change the world. Genuine, concrete action can be taken and that is what users are doing. It may come in the shape of an idea and a start-up, or a click and an economic contribution, even a small one.
It is all thanks to the digital economy and crowdfunding, which have thrown open the doors to a free revolution and an invasion of innovation on all fronts.
Crowdfunding means that you don’t need to be a huge multinational to save the planet from pollution: even a single individual who thinks big can make an enormous change.
For instance, take FinalStraw, which intends to replace plastic straws with personal, reusable metal ones. It was aiming to scrape together $12,000 and actually managed to raise $1.8 million. Then there is Recycling Technologies. When it revealed its plans to launch new recycling technology for complex plastic waste, it received backing amounting to £3.7 million in 14 days, which adds up to £11,000 an hour.
The impact of user awareness is not limited to crowdfunding: when they are shopping, customers can choose which companies to reward, which to ignore and which to ditch.
How do they decide? The criteria are increasingly of an ethical nature. The focus is on key features of products, such as packaging, which must be sustainable, ecological and fully recyclable.
The days of sumptuous, excessive packaging are over. Customers choose brands with simple, minimal and frugal packs. They are more interested in the essence of the products, and consequently the environment.
This practical trend can be seen not only in the appearances of packs – which are smaller and simpler, as exemplified by Amazon’s brown boxes – but also in the materials used to make them. There has been a clear shift away from the once ubiquitous plastic, which used to be so popular because it was light, cheap and easy to produce. In its place, glass and paper are enjoying a taste of their former glory.
It is a step into the future, with the flavour of the past.
WHAT IS A TRULY SUSTAINABLE CHOICE?
We must embrace sustainability carefully if it is to offer real hope
Naturalness, ethics and a circular economy: modern products and their packaging must be sustainable, recyclable, and preferably made of biodegradable materials.
However, it is important to avoid the danger of hurried, haphazard efforts: there is a risk that the race to be green will be a demanding but pointless endeavour if is not steered in the right direction.
Sustainability and environmental friendliness are key issues that must be handled in a calm, collected way. Otherwise, there may be confusion that leads to people being misinformed and an abundance of muddled decisions being made.
Suvi Haimi is the co-founder of the Finnish company Sulapac, which makes sustainable wooden packaging. As she notes, “I have seen many products marketed as environmentally friendly without any scientific justification. This creates a new challenge. How can we clarify for consumers what is a truly sustainable choice?” Essentially, unified global regulations are needed to help consumers with their efforts to be green.
There are also many more challenges to be faced. First of all, all of the international waste disposal and recycling regulations must be aligned. In addition, a tangible sustainability culture must be promoted, so that people genuinely learn to take a smart approach and reduce waste.
How can all of this be achieved? With cooperation between companies, as championed by David Honcoop, the Managing Director of Clarity Environmental: “With so much pressure to make changes, and as businesses join the race to ‘green’ their packaging, there is the risk of ill-informed decisions being taken. The industry must be encouraged to work together.”
If everyone pulls together, it can be done.