Sustainability has been at the top of the packaging industry agenda for years, but delegates at the third European Plastics News Sustainable Plastics Packaging conference, held recently in Brussels, heard that certainty in sustainability remains as elusive as ever for packagers and brand owners alike.
There really isn't a right or wrong way in sustainable design. What is lacking at the moment is sufficient clarity, said Mark Shayler, managing director of eco3, an environmental and eco-design consultancy in Ashby de la Zouch, England.
The challenge for brand owners is intensified, Shayler told delegates, because sustainable initiatives do not always line up with consumer perception.
Once we have the best option, the consumer may need to be educated because it may not be what they think is the best solution, he said.
Shayler said, however, that this issue should not discourage packaging users and designers from coming up with solutions that challenge consumer perception, as he said it is at the design stage that the biggest sustainability gains are made.
For every £100 [$160] spent solving a problem in production, it would cost £10 to solve it in development and just £1 to solve at the design stage, he told delegates.
While agreeing that designers are critical in achieving true sustainability in packaging, brand owners also need to get their marketing teams to buy-in to the concept, said Dorothy Mackenzie, chairman of London-based brand consultancy Dragon Rouge.
New demands to provide sustainable brands and packaging are going to change the way the industry works, she told delegates. Design and marketing people need to get their minds around materials and regulations a little better than they have in the past. Making the wrong decisions can be a high risk for the brand.
Mackenzie said surveys have shown that there has been a clear evolution in consumers' attitudes toward recycling and environmental issues.
The number of consumers that put environmental concerns at the top of their agenda is still small, maybe 5 percent, but many more up to 45 percent think about sustainability together with price, she said.
For this reason, many brand owners are keen to be seen addressing packaging issues and are making environmental claims a key element in their advertising. However, she said the risk that must be avoided in following the consumer is limited effectiveness.
What often resonates with consumers is a very small change to the packaging rather than a big change to the supply chain, she said.
Philippe Roulet, head of global packaging materials and training at Nestlé SA in Vevey, Switzerland, also emphasized the difficulty in selecting sustainable packaging solutions. There is no right packaging some packaging is good for some applications and some is good for others, he said at the conference.
Nestlé's approach is to ensure its packaging is fully integrated with its products, which Roulet explained means taking a holistic approach to both and making systematic use of life-cycle-assessmentbased eco-design tools, including its internally developed Piqet packaging life-cycle database.
The scope for packaging to contribute to sustainability also varies according to local factors, Roulet pointed out. In the developing world, up to 50 percent of food is wasted in the supply chain. By contrast, the developed nations lose just 3 percent of total food production in the supply chain, but 10 times that amount is wasted in the home.
Roulet also suggested that the period of easy sustainability gains made largely through weight savings may be drawing to a close. He said Nestle's successful Eco-Shape water bottle initiative has seen the weight of a 500-milliliter (20-ounce) bottle for still water slashed from around 18 grams to little more than 12 grams in two years, realizing energy savings of 25 percent.
However, weight reduction initiatives on this scale will be difficult to maintain moving ahead, he predicted, as packages become unacceptable to the consumer. You can't continue. The technology is there [to go lighter] but there are consumer issues.
Copyright 2010 Crain Communications Inc. All Rights Reserved.