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Why the rest of Europe should adopt France's revolutionary packaging laws

25-Aug-2009

The modern French nation can be thought of as a revolutionary traditionalist, which is why the recent change to the country’s packaging laws comes as quite a surprise.

The revolutionary tradition in the Gallic nation is well known, but modern day strikes and protests often aim to preserve the status quo rather than push through pioneering changes. So, France’s new packaging law, which could theoretically threaten the luxury market, is not expected behaviour.

As part of the Grenelle environmental law adopted last month by the French National Assembly and the Senate, a small change to the requirements for consumer goods packaging was made.

However, this small change could have large consequences if zealously applied.

Under the new regulations, the birthplace of brands such as Chanel and Moët & Chandon insists that packaging is as limited as possible while respecting the needs of product safety, hygiene and logistics.

This differs from the current EU law, which also includes what is known as a consumer acceptance clause. Essentially, this allows the elaborate packaging often associated with the luxury markets, as getting rid of it would change the spirit of the product which would become unacceptable to the consumer.

If this law was to be enforced then anything not needed to protect a product during its travels from manufacturer to the consumer would become illegal.

The move has attracted criticism from Europen, the European trade association for packaging and the environment, which argues it threatens the luxury market and packages designed for consumer convenience, as well as posing trade barriers within Europe.

In addition, the trade body argues that France is not allowed to make these changes under EU law.

Europen would like France to abandon the changes, but perhaps it is Europe that should be following France’s revolutionary lead.

The country is right to say that consumer acceptance of the current law can work as a get-out clause and does not push for innovation with an environmental bent. Why change your packaging if the current version is acceptable, when new designs and materials are costly? There is even less incentive if no one else in the marketplace is doing anything.

Regulation that cuts out the consumer acceptance clause could significantly reduce packaging and in turn its effect on the environment.

Evidently it would push companies to think hard about how to reduce material to what is needed for protection while still creating a product that remains attractive to the consumer.

In some cases this could lead to dramatic changes in the look and feel of the product, but if everyone is working to the same regulations then it is a fair game. The most innovative company, and of course the environment, will win out in the end.

Reducing material is not the end of the story, of course. Using recycled, biodegradable and recyclable material is part of the solution, and these should not be forgotten.

But reducing the packaging material used is a fundamental step and one that Europe should be taking together.

Perhaps in this case we should try to recapture the spirit of the storming of the Bastille (minus the violence) and really aim to revolutionise the industry.

Katie Bird is a science reporter writing on industry-related issues in several Decision News Media publications. If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail Katie.Bird 'at' decisionnews.com.