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Sustainable Packaging: The New Product Differentiator?

Words by Leon Kaye

Sustainable packaging has come a long way over a generation. Long ago companies such as Walmart (with Hillary Clinton was on its board) started to tackle wasteful packaging — as in the cardboard boxes that encased deodorant sticks that were ... already encased in plastic. What was once dismissed a “green” gimmick started to make business sense as companies realized excess packaging meant heavier shipments, more wasted fuel and of course, less profit.

So while companies are getting smarter about packaging, waste is still an issue. I saw it myself over the past year, living in a city with almost no recycling. I would stash boxes and plastic under the kitchen sink, hoping it would somehow recycle on its own as I couldn’t stand the thought of pitching what could have otherwise been recycled into the rubbish bin. And now more consumers are becoming aware of the waste they generate and are putting pressure on companies to be more proactive about their waste.

To that end, an article by Bharath Satya Y in Packaging Digest suggests companies cannot ignore the problems of wasteful packaging anymore, as consumers either want better materials used or insist on having more disclosure about the materials used to wrap and store their products.

Companies have already responded in kind. Much of the heavy lifting in sustainable packaging has occurred behind the scenes, where significant impact can be made. Innovations in shipping containers, for example, helps reduce the waste generated by wooden pallets, plastic crates and that annoying plastic stretch film. And consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, which have long been notorious for the excess waste their products create, are hopping on the bandwagon. Procter and Gamble, for example, committed to more “zero-waste” factories, and Unilever has embarked on a similar agenda while saving millions of Euros annually.

The real challenge, however, will be tackling that waste once all those disposable razors, bottles of mouthwash, cardboard boxes of soaps and crinkly plastic bags of processed food leave the factory: Recycling is only one part of a solution. Consumers are not quite ready to take their empty toothpaste tubes to the local drugstore for a refill — at the same time, many of these companies are skirting the issue of what happens to their products once they have been consumed.

And those challenges present companies an opportunity to prove to consumers that they are innovative. At a time where just about every product on the market is commoditized, packaging presents a way to stand out in the crowd. A couple of companies leading the way are Dell and REI, which have either used more sustainable materials for their packaging and/or have eliminated the number of components — the latter a particular benefit for customers who are weary of “wrap rage.”

Waste diversion efforts still have a long ways to go before we can even get close to a more circular economy, which would be ideal in a world that is increasingly smothered with garbage. Consumer habits will be hard to change in what has become a disposable society — but food and CPG companies are in part responsible for helping us get out of this mess, as they have succeeded with their relentless marketing of these products for generations.

So watch for companies to transform packaging from an afterthought to a central role within a product’s performance and brand. We’ve reached a point where our teeth can’t get any whiter, our clothes any softer or hair any shinier. But we are more curious about how our packaging can be lighter, use less petroleum or trees, and avoid entombment in the landfill. The results will not only enhance brands’ reputations, but also spur more innovation within the packaging industry and hopefully benefit the planet, too.

Image courtesy of www.how2recycle.info

Leon Kaye has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past year and is on his way back to California. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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