Innovations, Challenges to Setting Global Sustainable Packaging Guidelines

Aug. 17, 2010
It's time to break through the green noise of false claims and misleading sustainable practices.

Recent research by Global Industry Analysts indicates the global market for Sustainable Packaging is forecasted to reach $142.42 billion by the year 2015. This growth is fueled by two key trends: manufacturers realizing that executing sustainable strategies can reduce total costs and consumers jumping on the "green" bandwagon.

According to Consumer Reports, "green" has become one of the highest priorities for consumers when looking for new products. The sustainable movement has transformed from a goodwill philosophy to an expected market condition that now requires global packaging standards and guidelines to effectively manage and reinforce sustainable claims by brands in any industry.

Just as food labeling became a hot-button trend two decades ago, sustainable product packaging is following a similar trajectory. If you browse the shelves at your local big box retailer, you will find the vast majority of products tout some degree of eco-friendly benefit or green promise.

Now, more than ever, as consumers search for the latest green products, it is critical to establish clear, executable and cross-industry standards for sustainable packaging. This consumer demand for sustainable products, usually those claiming to be biodegradable or made from recycled materials, fuels manufacturers to produce. But without guidelines to adhere to, it is easy for companies to make false green claims about products and packaging. TerraChoice's recent survey of 2,219 consumer products in the U.S. and Canada shows that 98% of these goods committed at least one Sin of Greenwashing.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) created its definition of sustainable packaging, which promotes a common understating of the term and is recognized by most industry providers.

While sustainable packaging guidelines can help ensure transparency for consumers and brand owners seeking sustainable products, these initiatives can also yield significant cost savings for companies that follow the philosophy of reduce, reuse and recycle. The systematic reduction in packaging drives down material costs, assembly labor, freight costs and inventory carrying costs. In addition, strategies such as localization of sourcing and in-region postponement can help decrease total supply chain costs.

Innovation is at the core of the sustainable packaging movement and companies across many industries and regions continue to move it forward. The materials industry is making strides by productizing bio-plastics and bringing the latest recycled resin and fiber-based substrates to market. But the materials sector is not the only supporter of the sustainable packaging initiative: technology, academic and consulting industries are also delivering significant innovations. Technology companies now offer tools to drive sustainable philosophy into packaging design, and offer helpful calculation tools for sustainability analysis.

Another significant innovation is the ability to embed environmental impact data into the computer aided design (CAD) software suites used by packaging designers. This puts real-time feedback at designers' fingertips, and bridges a long-time gap between the design process and the need for environmental data.

With great innovation comes greater challenges, and the sustainable packaging movement is no exception. Despite increasing alignment around basic sustainability concepts, there are more than 25 different eco-label programs in place worldwide that companies can use in order to make green claims, all with little or no consistency.

The philosophy -- reduce, reuse and recycle -- requires solid definition of what each component means and the tactical implications on supply chains across all regions. ModusLink, along with the world's leading sustainable packaging professionals, is currently working with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to develop the first international standard for sustainable packaging (ISO TC122/SC4), which includes establishing a clear and universal definition of the philosophy.

Another complex challenge facing the movement is related to the philosophy's third "r" -- recycle -- and developing a clear understanding of the waste management system, which is an industry in itself. Even though most companies want to recycle or procure products with higher recycled content, the truth is that cost is always a factor. If the sorting technology is absent, product will slip through the cracks; if the industry isn't buying, recycling centers aren't selling and ultimately, may not be recycling that particular product.

A deeper issue within the movement lies in its most basic principle: calculating environmental impact. Organizations including non-governmental, private and governmental, are challenging some materials that claim to offer an environmental benefit, categorizing their impact as neutral or even harmful to the environment. The current battle over additive-based, degradable plastics is a prime example. One side claims the environment benefits by mitigating litter and landfill usage, while the other classifies the technology as robbing future consumers of a technical asset and even questions the degradation claims overall. The conflict has polarized the industry's key players, with retailers, brands and service providers choosing camps and sourcing accordingly. Similar polarization is unfolding with bio-resins derived from high-fructose corn syrup.

All of these innovations, challenges and deep-rooted beliefs prove the sustainable movement is here to stay. It is the responsibility of companies and organizations across the globe to continue paving the road their predecessors started back in the 1970s. This road has laid the groundwork and fostered many sustainable innovations for the environment, but it's time to break through the green noise of false claims and misleading sustainable practices.

According to a recent survey conducted by TerraChoice (.pdf format), legitimate eco-labeling is nearly twice as common as it was in its 2007 survey, increasing from 13.7% to 23.4% on all "green" products. Through the collaboration of environmentally responsible companies and organizations -- and the growing demand from consumers wanting all things green -- establishing global sustainable packaging guidelines is a necessary next step.

Sean Sabre is Manager, Global Supply Chain Development for ModusLink Global Solutions. The company designs and executes global value chain strategies.

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