Sustainable packaging – threats and opportunities

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainable packaging Packaging Packaging and labeling Sustainable development

The packing industry has no clear consensus about what constitutes sustainable packaging and has made a poor case for the vital role its product plays, according to a new report.

The study – Sustainable packaging: threat or opportunity?​ – said the pressure for sustainable packaging will continue to intensify but that in order to influence the agenda, the sector must become more proactive in developing a harmonised definition of what sustainable packing is and how sustainability can be measured.

However, the research added that the trend also presented opportunities that companies could exploit as a means of product differentiation.

Authors PricewaterhouseCoopers said the packaging industry had failed to properly explain the value and importance of packaging and cautioned the segment would have to “do more to redress the balance if it doesn’t want the popular misconception that packaging is wasteful and environmentally harmful to grow”.​ The industry must communicate more effectively with governments, NGO as well as consumers to explain its achievements in reducing the environmental impact of packaging to date.

Fact of business life

Based on in-depth interviews with 20 senior executives from leading European packaging companies, the research found huge frustration remained in the industry over the “disproportionate”​ scrutiny placed on the sector compared to the relatively small contribution it makes to the waste stream. While the report expressed some sympathy with this view, it added that the packing sector was a “highly visible and growing contributor to the waste stream”.

The bioplastics segment was likely to remain a niche market in the short-term, the study forecast.

It also stressed that sustainability was becoming an integral part of the sector and those businesses failing to embrace this trend risked being left behind.

“Sustainable packaging is becoming a fact of life and will in time be seen as just another requirement for doing business alongside pricing, product performance and service,”​ said Richard McCole, packaging sector specialist at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Reaching a broad consensus on the definition of sustainable packaging will provide the packaging industry with a platform from which to influence regulation as well as customer and consumer attitudes and expectations.​”

He added: “Packaging businesses that continue to be passive in tackling sustainable packaging are likely to see market share ebb away to competitors that can develop compelling sustainable propositions that still meet the customers’ fundamental functional and economic requirements.”

However, it also revealed the difficulty that while over 70 per cent of the industry players agreed sustainable packaging solutions offered a competitive advantage, they said producers, retailers and customers were generally “unwilling to pay a premium, unless their brand is already built around a sustainable or environmentally responsible message”.

Sustainable packaging definition

The lack of industry consensus over a definition of sustainable packaging is damaging. The debate, particularly in the UK, has been lead by a narrow focus on weight reduction and arguments over whether one material is more sustainable than another, said the report.

One interviewee said: “The desire is there to address these issues but there is currently no organisational framework. We need somebody to be an honest broker between retailers, packers and consumers.”

The report suggested that any definition of packaging sustainability should include: a demonstrated reduction in packaging weight and volume; that waste-to-landfill had been cut through designed-in recyclability; a lower carbon footprint; that it reduces waste through shelf life extension and prevents contamination or damage; that it informs consumers about brand attributes and green credentials.

Sustainable packaging will not only remain an issue but its importance will increase as governments, producers, retailers and consumers become aware of its environmental impact. However, the report said this development presents no more of a threat than established challenges – such as volatile raw material costs and industry overcapacity. It also creates a chance for the shrewdest firms to thrive.

“The wide uncertainty about what sustainable packaging actually is, and how and when different customers will adopt it, present those commercially astute companies to steal a march on their competitors and use sustainability as a differentiator and source of added value in the market place,”​ said the authors.

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