Balance: Efficiency or Sustainability?

A couple of weeks ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) released a report titled Sustainable Packaging, Myth or Reality. It seems, however, the report doesn’t really debate the myth or reality question, but jumps right to the conclusion that “sustainable packaging is dead” and is being replaced by “efficient packaging.” How fortunate that would be for the “business as usual” crowd if it were true. But, having worked in the sustainability field for 20 years with a good deal of focus on sustainability in packaging for the past five years, I think PwC got it wrong.

I’ll concede that sustainable packaging doesn’t exist today, but the pursuit of sustainable packaging is alive and well, and we’ve already witnessed tremendous strides towards sustainability in the packaging community. Examples include: The Coca Cola Company’s plant bottle, Dell’s elimination of polystyrene dunnage via the use of mushroom and bamboo cradles, Seventh Generation’s redesigned fiber bottle, Puma’s reusable cloth shoe bag vs. traditional paperboard box, not to mention the dozens and dozens of “right-weighted” packaging examples like Nestlé Waters “lightest waterbottle in the UK” and increasing examples of high recycled content packaging including Aveda’s 100 percent HDPE cosmetic bottles and 80–100 percent co-polyester cosmetic jars, Earthbound Farms’ 100 percent PET clamshell, and McCormick Distilling Company’s 100 percent PET vodka bottle, just to cite a few. So, Kudos to Andrew Speck, of the iconic sustainability leadership company Marks & Spencer, who politely disagreed with the notion that sustainable packaging is dead when he commented in an article about the report saying, “Under Plan A we’ve made significant progress in making our packaging more sustainable, but we’re not complacent and know the bigger challenges to make a truly sustainable packaging supply chain a reality still lie ahead.”

That also seems to be the belief held by the roughly 200 member companies of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), which actually defined sustainable packaging back in 2005 (see the SPC’s Definition of Sustainable Packaging for more details), debunking the assertion PwC put forth that “the idea that anyone can come up with a single meaningful definition of sustainable packaging is proving to be a red herring.” For the record, no one from PwC contacted any staff members of the SPC while conducting background research for this report.

The study goes on to say that some packaging professionals are celebrating the “death of sustainable packaging,” suggesting that a more balanced view of packaging may rise from the ashes. This suggests a lack of awareness or understanding about the SPC Definition, because it is nothing if not balanced. The definition defines eight key criteria that address the full life cycle and supply chain of packaging, including:

1)    performance and cost
2)    benefit to individuals and communities
3)    responsible material sourcing
4)    optimization of renewable and recycled materials
5)    optimization of energy resources and use of renewable energy
6)    elimination of toxics in packaging
7)    clean (lean and green) production and transport
8)    material recovery.

Moreover, the SPC definition does not attribute greater weight to any one criterion over another, providing, as was intended by the stakeholders who helped author the definition, a truly balanced vision for sustainable packaging.

The PwC report equates “balance” with “efficiency.” Yet, while efficiency is certainly important, even as broadly defined as in the PwC report, it does not equate to a truly balanced perspective. Judge for yourself: Efficient packaging, according to PwC, means “Taking into account efficiencies that can be made during the entire life cycle of the product, including a packaging solution that uses the minimum amount of resources, produces the minimum amount of waste, while also protecting the product. And beyond that transport and display efficiency, and what happens after the product is used is also taken into account.” That explanation of efficiency covers five aspects of the SPC definition, but it fails to address four criteria that are essential to sustainability: benefit to consumers and communities, elimination of toxics and other materials of concern, responsible material sourcing, and opportunities to optimize the use of renewable energy sources. That is to say, PwC’s interpretation of efficient packaging focuses on driving economic gains and therefore represents business as usual. But it stops there. What about protecting consumers and the ecosystems that yield the resources required to sustain our entire socioeconomic system?

Are PwC and the packaging industry leaders and professionals who are praising this report really advocating for a least common denominator approach for improving packaging? What do you think?

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