This article by GreenBlue Senior Manager Anne Bedarf appeared in this month’s issue of Packaging Digest, which features a monthly column by GreenBlue staff on packaging sustainability. Read the original article.
The recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) report, “Sustainable Packaging: Myth or Reality,” struck a nerve with some of us working to make packaging sustainability a reality. The conclusion of the report, that sustainable packaging is no longer relevant, having been replaced by “a more balanced view of efficient packaging,” made me pause and reflect on what “sustainable packaging” really means and how efficiency plays a role.
PWC declares, “The idea that anyone…can come up with a single meaningful definition of sustainable packaging is largely proving to be a red herring and has been consigned to history.” Yet, one of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s first endeavors-seven years ago-was to create such a definition. The SPC’s definition of sustainable packaging describes eight criteria that have since been adopted widely.
The SPC definition also reflects a range of economic, social and environmental tenets. The “more balanced view” espoused by PWC is actually much narrower, consisting of five goals for minimizing materials and waste. As important as these are, they exclude some of the essential aims of sustainability, such as promoting human health by eliminating toxicity. Efficiency is imperative, but it is not a panacea to a sustainable world, or even sustainable packaging.
PWC declares that sustainability is “too broad a term to be useful at a practical level.” Yet, there has been tremendous progress toward sustainability in packaging, measured a variety of ways. The SPC’s Sustainable Packaging Indicators and Metrics Framework, and the subsequent release of the Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability (GPPS), sought to develop a common framework for measuring the advancement of more sustainable practices.
Nonetheless, it is true that sustainability isn’t always “practical.” As the Canadian Standards Assn.’sEnvironmental Claims: A Guide For Industry and Advertisers tells us, “The concepts involved in sustainability are highly complex and still under study. At this time there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment. Therefore, no claim of achieving sustainability shall be made.”
Today, no package or product can realistically be described as sustainable, but this is the whole point. The SPC definition acts as a cohesive set of visionary goals describing the essential properties a sustainable package would have (if it existed).
The other major theme in PWC paper is that sustainable packaging is no longer a “stand-alone concept,” which coincides with the SPC’s perspective. The only SPC member company interviewed for the report, Procter & Gamble, is quoted as saying that package sustainability considerations of the past “…have been replaced by a more holistic debate around the product, the package, and their use from inception to post-consumer use.” While this is absolutely true, in no way does it diminish the concept of sustainable packaging, particularly since many products and their packages are designed independently of each other.
Many SPC members have referred to packaging as “the gateway drug” that provides a manageable way to first consider sustainability within their businesses. We’ve witnessed that the focus on packaging has helped to catalyze the industry towards broader corporate social responsibility practices.
Ultimately, the concept of sustainability is about people and our relationships. The ultimate social sustainability impact has proven to be the most difficult area to develop metrics around-how can we meaningfully measure the impacts of hunger, lack of clean water or clean air, or other basic human needs at the individual, company, political or any other level? It’s understandable to want to more narrowly scale the conversation to everyday business goals that seek efficiency at all levels, but ultimately the concept of sustainability is one that needs to remain visionary to continue to drive innovation, awareness and real progress.