With consumers complaining about excessive waste in the packaging of products they buy, companies are being forced to pay attention to the issue. The paths they might take are illuminated by Deloitte in a downloadable paper on its website. The paper highlights environmental and economic benefits that can flow from radical, substantive changes to the packaging chain. The paper lists four opportunities to make changes, and steps to follow:
1. 'Passive' materials switch
Using non-toxic, bio-based, or recycled materials rather than materials drawn from non-renewable resources can help, even if the product and package otherwise do not change. This approach is called passive because consumer behaviour does not need to change to secure the gains.
The consultants cite Vermont-based Seventh Generation's plastic bottles, which now contain at least 80 per cent post-consumer recycled content, more than three times the industry average of 25 per cent.
2. 'Active' materials switch
In this approach, materials are altered to use recyclable, compostable, or reusable materials. Then consumers must change their behaviour in order to maximize the environmental benefits. "Market research can help companies determine whether consumer adoption rates will be high enough to justify a switch, and help guide marketing campaigns designed to encourage the desired behaviour," the paper notes.
3. Design changes
The environmental footprint of a product can be significantly reduced if changes are made to its design, or to its packaging. That is what happened with B.C.-based Method's creation of an "eight times" concentrated laundry detergent. That move reportedly reduced overall packaging volumes by 36 per cent, compared with its two-times concentrated product, and reduced the average carbon footprint by 35 per cent.
The Deloitte consultants advise that modifications affecting the size, weight or shape of the product should be co-ordinated with distributors and merchandisers, because it will affect how the product is shipped, stored and displayed.
4. Supply chain redesign
Redesigning the product supply chain can be powerful, as companies have found when they take packaging waste from other products and use it as inputs for manufacturing something else. The consultants note that Massachusetts-based Preserve and New Jersey-based TerraCycle are creating consumer goods such as toothbrushes, pencil cases and tote bags out of discarded yogurt cartons and drink pouches. Some companies are nearly eliminating packaging altogether through better integrated supply chains.
"The goal is to deliver the product – or better yet, its function – directly to customers. An analogy is the digitization of media – why produce CDs when you can … disseminate the data to your customer's computer or smartphone?" the paper points out.
How to implement changes
The consultants stress that achieving these results require more than engineering prowess. It also involves a savvy approach that draws on many aspects of your firm's expertise.
Start with an assessment of the environmental impact of the current packaging to understand which elements contribute most to the footprint, and what tradeoffs you face in various types of environmental impact, such as water, energy, or waste. Determine which packaging attributes are most important to customers. Collaborate with suppliers as you design changes, to develop the most effective approaches. And market your efforts credibly.
"Communications around sustainable packaging efforts (including marketing/labelling of the product itself) should be truthful, objective, and supported by measurable facts," the consultants advise. "In other words, avoid green-washing."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter