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Embracing the ugly stepchildren of sustainability

Article-Embracing the ugly stepchildren of sustainability


You have probably never heard of a package that is advertised for its superior low acidification potential. It's similarly doubtful that many corporate sustainability goals include a reduction of eutrophication. And it's all but certain that a packaging decision has never been made based on an estimate of ionizing radiation. These kinds of indicators are what I like to call the "ugly stepchildren" of sustainability—we know that maybe they ought to receive our attention, but they end up not getting much of it. 

The reality is that experts can continue to identify a plethora of important sustainability indicators, but they can't make companies use them. The choice to use certain indicators lies with the packaging decision makers, who have varying goals and may or may not be the sustainability experts. 

One challenge lies in the large and growing number of environmental indicators, and the fact that environmental considerations are only one of several considerations used in decision-making alongside things like cost, availability and marketability. Weighing the merits of several considerations creates the desire for simplified information. Cost is often boiled down to one number. Availability can be as simple as a yes or no. 

Marketability, however, is a bit more of an interesting consideration, and perhaps it could serve as a model for determining environmental preferability. To determine marketability, complex information from consumer testing, focus groups, insights and educated guesses may be all distilled into one feeling of whether or not a package will do well in the marketplace. Environmental preferability should follow a similar route—a complex set of indicators used to inform one judgment: whether or not the package will be sufficiently benign to the environment over its life cycle.

The trend in determining environmental preferability, though, is to use a sparse set of indicators rather than a complex one. Recyclability seems to be a commonly used indicator (though the idea of recyclability in itself can be rather complex). It's not uncommon for a single metric to be the only contributor used in determining environmental preferability.

As for the ugly stepchildren, they remain on the outside looking in. If a package does happen to be preferable in, say, SOx and NOx emissions, then that information might make its way into marketing materials and be used as justification for the superiority of the package. But we're a long way from realizing a supply chain where a unified set of numerous indicators are always used in every decision.

At the root of the issue lie the perceptions of consumers on sustainability considerations. The trickle-up effect from consumers is often indirect and convoluted, but any profit-seeking enterprise has a prime directive to provide a product that is desired by consumers. Unfortunately for our ugly stepchildren, consumers haven't heard about the importance of ionizing radiation and eutrophication potential either, and it's unlikely that they can all become the next incarnation of concern over global warming. 

If consumers concern themselves with the environmental attributes of packaging, it's likely that they too will simplify the situation. More often than not, that simplification results in a perception of waste generation. To a consumer, less packaging is good, recyclable packaging is better—and that's often the extent of the consideration.

Consumers cannot be expected to understand every aspect of sustainability as it applies to packaging. The torch must be passed to industry if a holistic set of environmental indicators is ever to be used in supply chain decision-making. If this is to happen, the embracers of the ugly stepchildren must light the way. 

Author Adam Gendell is a project manager at GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For additional information about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, visit



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