Clean production is defined by the United Nations as the continuous application of “an integrated, preventive environmental strategy to increase overall efficiency and reduce risks to humans and the environment.” This includes conserving raw materials, water and energy, eliminating toxic and dangerous raw materials and reducing the quantity and toxicity of all emissions and waste at source during production processes.
Clean production is most commonly addressed through the implementation of Environmental Management Systems (EMS) and is focused on the environmental impacts associated with how we make things. It represents environmentally responsible manufacturing practices. Rigorous environmental management systems seek to reduce and ultimately eliminate the environmental impact of any emissions and toxins associated with production processes. For packaging, this means that sustainability is defined not only by the package, but also how that package or product is made.
Countries with well-developed environmental policies use regulatory programs to require companies to comply with emission limits and to control the release of hazardous wastes. More recently, market-based cap and trade systems have been implemented as a regulatory strategy. In the U.S., the results since the passage of environmental laws in the 1970s have been remarkable. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio doesn't catch on fire anymore, species like the Bald Eagle have come back from the brink of extinction and we typically enjoy decent air quality despite a significant increase in population and productivity. Compliance has become a normal operational mode and part of expected corporate citizenship. Despite our best efforts, the urgency of mounting environmental evidence suggests that these strategies are not enough, nor is limiting the focus to our own shores.
The rapid industrialization of China and India is resulting in a frightening déjà vu of our own industrial revolution and its unintended consequences. These impacts know no boundaries in a global marketplace, as contaminated goods travel to markets across oceans along with the pollution and greenhouse gases from their manufacture.
Environmental performance is the level playing field when it comes to evaluating the true cost of packaging or products. Regulatory compliance represents the most basic level of environmental responsibility. A basic level of environmental performance should be expected even in countries with few or no environmental standards. Consumers and companies are beginning to learn that any company can make a lower-cost widget, but if that widget results in more harmful environmental or human impact, then the cost is not really lower.
We need to move beyond compliance if we are to achieve equilibrium with our planet and provide a sustainable future for business and humanity. Demanding a basic level of environmental performance from those with whom we do business should be an essential requirement and part of responsible practice.