How can we achieve true packaging sustainability?

3 September 2021

The question of sustainable packaging is a hot topic in recent times, but it seems like it is a more complex problem than we realise. Although brand owners, retailers and regulators are aware of the importance and need for sustainability, at the moment there is no global alignment on how to measure sustainability across varying interlinked elements.

One problem seen in many of the major consumer-facing companies that have ambitiously committed to significantly reduce their greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions is a heavy focus on recycling. By concentrating on improving recyclability and increasing recycled content, they are failing to see the bigger picture — which requires taking an end-to-end view of the value chain and applying a science-based approach to quantifying emissions profiles.

Because true packaging sustainability is not just about recycling, as McKinsey & Company explain in a recent report. They discovered that for many brand owners and retailers, the focus for packaging has been primarily around circularity (recyclability and recycled content), but there is in fact a growing interest from consumers in carbon footprint and elimination of waste leakage. When seeing this bigger picture, it becomes clear that these three elements of sustainability are interlinked and they must be balanced carefully to best optimise overall sustainability in packaging.

Here are the three elements of packaging sustainability in more detail:

Companies must think about minimising the harmful effects of non-recycled material leaking into the environment.
Assessing the GHG emissions per packaging material must be approached holistically by taking into account the full life cycle of the materials.

This is the highest profile element, focusing on saving energy and reducing the pressure on natural resources. It also includes improving the overall sustainability performance of packaging.

As shown, the path to true packaging sustainability needs a much deeper understanding of the elements that are in play and how best to balance them off against each other. As an example, the carbon footprint aspect of packaging sustainability has an inevitable trade-off with recyclability and recycled content — meaning that the lowest-carbon material does not always have the highest recyclability or use of recycled content. Many consumers, consumer-facing companies, and regulators fail to understand these issues and the fact that decisions must be made on which aspects of packaging sustainability to prioritise.

So, what’s the answer? Well, it’s a complex issue that will continue to challenge the big packaging players, but the McKinsey & Company report offers three lessons for those involved in the packaging value chain:

This is about getting the sustainability narrative of your product right. Make sure you have a fact-based assessment of where your packaging product stands versus next-best alternatives across the various sustainability elements. A by-product of this will be the inevitable trade-offs, so make sure these are clearly highlighted.
As mentioned, there will be inevitable trade-offs among sustainability goals — and these must be fully assessed. Take a full view of the value chain to quantify your footprint, recognising both direct and indirect carbon impacts and incorporating all the pros and cons associated with each material choice. Further, note that new business-model setups, such as reusable concepts, might also drive further carbon-emissions reduction.
The only certainty is uncertainty, so be prepared for disruptive external factors. Companies must recognize that there is uncertainty in how packaging sustainability is interpreted and that the external environment is prone to change. For example, new regulations may come into play that focus on one aspect of sustainability at the expense of others. Therefore, all sustainability dimensions should be considered, including the impact from other powerful packaging trends that are driving change and uncertainty. Lastly, make sure a thorough contingency plan is in place for all packaging products.

There’s no doubt that sustainability in packaging is a key industry-shaping trend, but it’s also a rapidly evolving area and one that is often not fully understood. There is also confusion among customers and consumers about what sustainable packaging really means, because actual sustainability performance will depend on which of the previously mentioned elements is prioritised. One thing is for sure though, only the companies that take a proactive approach to packaging sustainability will manage to stay ahead of the game.



                                                                                                                                                                                                                 SOURCE: David Feber, et al., McKinsey & Company