Is eco packaging making retail greener?

All retailers, whether online or High street based (or both) – are being forced to look at new ways and methods of reducing their carbon footprint.

The impetus for this change comes from both legislation and consumer demand – UK government carbon reduction targets require retailers to address these issues, customers would prefer eco-friendly suppliers whilst still meeting their requirements in cost and quality.

This article focuses on the problems faced by today’s retailers- specifically the reduction of packaging waste whilst maintaining a high level of customer experience, product protection and cost efficiency.

Packaging problems that retailers face

Retailers, both large and small, have suffered criticism in the past for the amount of waste they are responsible for sending to landfill – a significant proportion of this is packaging.

Back in March 2010, Hilary Benn – then the Secretary of State for the environment, food and rural affairs – said “In 2009 a sixth of household waste is packaging and more than half of this comes from the groceries that we buy”

The implication is, from both government and consumers, that retailers bear the responsibility for solving the problem of waste packaging.

In addition to this no new landfill sites are to be commissioned – taxation will make sending waste to landfill will become increasingly expensive.

In its 2011 report on UK retail and hospitality, WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) states:

“Without packaging we couldn’t get products to the customer. We need the right amount of packaging to protect and preserve products.”

They go on to say:

“It is important that industry and designers optimise packaging (lightweighting, recycled content, design for recyclability
and re-use) but also to look at how the product/packaging system can be re-designed, e.g. refills, self-dispensing, concentrates. “

However, improvements in eco packaging have been slow – whilst retailers bear the brunt of the criticism it’s not unreasonable to view them as the “piggy in the middle” in this situation, between the consumer and government on one side and a packaging industry which has a lot of catching up to do, on the other.

Many retailers would do more if the suppliers of green packaging were there, but in many cases they are not yet.

Later in this article we’ll see how some retailers have taken the drastic step of intervening in packaging production themselves.

Another problem the retailer faces is public perception, there are many instances of genuinely ethical, eco-friendly retailers facing accusations of greenwashing – the act of making hollow, green-friendly promises in a cynical bid for PR and increased sales.

Sainsburys themselves have criticised rivals for making unrealistic environmental promises – accusing other major stores such as M&S and Tesco of “playing catch up” to the ethical policies Sainsbury’s has had it in place for many years.

Eco packaging progress and solutions

The good news is great progress in waste reduction has been made in recent years.

Between 1998 and 2008 the amount of packaging waste recovered increased from 27{b922f8cefff31631deb29509dd0146200d12f58f2292deeff3107b9a333ca788} to 65{b922f8cefff31631deb29509dd0146200d12f58f2292deeff3107b9a333ca788} (Source publication: e-Digest of Environmental Statistics, March 2006)

DEFRA’s (Department for environment food and rural affairs) targets for 2011 -2012 have increased for packaging recycling and recovery to 68.1{b922f8cefff31631deb29509dd0146200d12f58f2292deeff3107b9a333ca788} and 74{b922f8cefff31631deb29509dd0146200d12f58f2292deeff3107b9a333ca788} respectively.

Customer buying habits have also altered showing, on average, an increase in the purchase of environmentally sustainable products.

These are some of the factors which have helped reduce the British economy’s Total Materials Requirement (TMR) from 2130 million tonnes in 2005 to 1755 million tonnes in 2009 – a reduction of 17.6{b922f8cefff31631deb29509dd0146200d12f58f2292deeff3107b9a333ca788}.

The problem of retailers being unable to source the suppliers of eco-packaging that they require has seen some retailers – both large and small – getting involved in the packaging design and creation process.

M&S invested £1.3 million in Somerset’s waste operations, improving its recycling facilities to aid them producing more packaging using recycled material

On a more modest scale, Leavs Ltd produces organic, eco packaging was created (with the help of the European Union) by Richard Wright, a Norfolk-based farmer who also runs a retail business.

Leavs Ltd has developed a revolutionary organic, recyclable void fill material produced from locally sourced materials.

Online selling presents a bit of a conundrum regarding the reduction of packaging waste.
There is anecdotal evidence that consumers believe buying online is more ethical and environmentally friendly than making purchases in the high Street – the argument being that online sellers are centralised, having no shops etc cutting down on operational costs and energy usage.

However, packaging is, by definition, extremely important when sending products by Courier – the transport of which is also a factor in increasing carbon footprint.

Therefore it is extremely important online retailers wanting to be as green as possible need to put packaging at the top of their eco-friendly list.

The avoidance of greenwashing, mentioned earlier, is one of the last hurdles of the green retailer – every step can have been done correctly with the highest ideals in mind, but if the consumer doesn’t believe your intentions they are not going to buy your product.

Greenpeace has a site dedicated to stopping greenwashing which helpfully outlines what they define as offending practices, for example:

“…If an industry or company has been forced to change a product, clean up its pollution or protect an endangered species, then uses PR campaigns to make such action look proactive or voluntary.”

Moving packaging toward a greener future

Retailers have started to become involved much more closely in where their packaging comes from, and what happens to it after it’s left them – which is a major contributory factor in meeting Defra’s packaging recycling and recovery targets.

It should not be forgotten, however, that packaging is only one factor in the whole supply chain – locally sourced materials and transport costs (both financially and environmentally) are also major factors both for online and high Street retailers.

Retailers reduction in packaging waste is an ongoing process, but great progress has been made in recent years in the 3 essential elements – re- use of packaging, recycling of packaging and reduction of packaging.

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