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It’s not just about being 'green’

Pick up any national newspaper or surf your favorite website and you’re bound to find an article about sustainability, focused on the “greening” of something–frequently packaging. And as Kermit the Frog used to say, “It’s not easy being green.”

But by focusing the sustainability discourse on environmental impacts, have we forgotten that it’s not a single bottom-line paradigm? Sustainability incorporates economic prosperity, social equity and environmental stewardship, yet somewhere along the way, companies have started to talk about sustainability efforts and corporate social responsibility as two distinct efforts.

How do we bring social issues back into the sustainability conversation?

Since its launch, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has placed the social aspects of sustainable packaging systems on its agenda, even though a majority of projects and resources have focused on the environmental aspects. Social issues are included in the SPC definition of sustainable packaging, which offers, as one of eight key criteria, that sustainable packaging “is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle.”

The many excellent examples of responsible material sourcing, lightweighting, closing the loop and clean production practices increasing in packaging design and production have as much positive social as environmental impact. Society benefits any time a major corporation positively transforms some aspect of their packaging that reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, toxicant use and emissions and/or landfill waste. But, there’s considerably more to the social parameters of sustainability than secondary benefits of environmental improvement.

It’s not easy being socially responsible. A frequently little-considered factor of sustainable packaging is worker impact. In the International Labor Organization’s photo archive, one can view images of children working in an Indian facility that packages products for an internationally recognized brand. And at the SPC’s 2008 spring meeting, two packaging logistics management firms discussed hidden risks in the global supply chain. Most major brands have conscientiously developed supplier codes of conduct and complex, third-party audit programs to monitor offshore product-manufacturing operations, but are they extending those same risk-management measures to packaging vendors and subcontractors? As the focus on “greening” turns to “greenwashing,” it seems time for packaging professionals to think more about fair labor practices. As one SPC member put it, companies need to consider cost-cutting measures in response to economic uncertainty, and take care not to lose sight of how important supply-chain partner selection and oversight is. The SPC is looking at social metrics for sustainable packaging. Resources include Social Accountability Intl, (www.sa-intl.org), the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (www.sedex.org.uk) and the Global Social Compliance Program (www.ciesnet.com/2-wwedo/2.2-programmes/2.2.gscp.background.asp), the latter an initiative of the European Union-based retailer association, Comité International d’Entreprises à Succursales.

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