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Which companies are leading on packaging sustainability?

14 March 2017

supermarket shelves

Seventeen global consumer goods companies have been assessed to ascertain which ones are leading and which ones are lagging in terms of their packaging approach, be it on quantity of packaging, content, re-use or recycling.

Stewart Investors commissioned ISF researchers to find out how these companies are addressing packaging sustainability so that Stewart Investors, as a progressive investor with a focus on long-term sustainability, can support these companies in making the most effective improvements to their packaging sustainability.   

The assessment focused on actions being taken to address environmental issues such as materials efficiency, the source of raw materials, and reuse or recycling of packaging at end of life. The evaluation also looked at business processes and activities that support packaging sustainability including their corporate strategy, design processes, supply chain management and industry leadership.

Product packaging fulfils a number of requirements. Good packaging only uses as much of the right material as necessary to fulfil these requirements. Less packaging can lead to more product damage or wastage, and this may be counter-productive if the environmental impacts of wasted product exceed the benefits from using less packaging.

The quantity of packaging is rapidly increasing across the globe in both developed and emerging markets to meet the needs of growing and more affluent populations. This has implications for every stage of the packaging lifecycle, from the extraction of resources to the management of waste at end of life. Nevertheless, many advances have been made to temper the growing volume of waste being produced.

An important global trend is the increasing use of plastics; replacing more traditional materials such as glass and metals. In many cases, the use of plastics can achieve sustainability benefits because of its superior performance and reduced impacts over the entire lifecycle. However, plastics are made from non-renewable fossil fuels and are more difficult than glass and metal to sort and recycle. The growing quantity of plastics in the marine environment is also an emerging ecological issue. In response, a number of governments in developed and emerging economies are considering bans and other regulations to mitigate the impacts of plastics packaging. These trends are driving the development of new polymers from plant-based materials that are renewable and either recyclable or compostable.

Companies are becoming increasingly engaged in the process of improving packaging sustainability. Government regulation is increasingly being used to ensure companies have a good understanding of the type and quantity of packaging being sold onto the market. The more advanced companies are improving packaging sustainability beyond legislative requirements and are doing this out of a desire to do what is best for the planet and for society. Leading companies have shown year on year improvements in packaging efficiency and light weighting. However, this trend is not expected to continue indefinitely as there is a physical limit to reducing the volume and weight of packaging whilst maintaining packaging integrity and minimising overall product waste. Companies must therefore strive to achieve packaging sustainability through other means such as material sustainability, procurement processes, transport optimisation, industry leadership and consumer engagement.

To find out more about packaging sustainability and what companies are doing to improve packaging sustainability; as well as the results of the assessment and the framework developed for the assessment, read the final report which is now available from the ISF web site.

Kelly, S., Lewis, H., Atherton, A., Downes, J., & Wyndham, J., Giurco, D. (2016): Packaging Sustainability in Consumer Companies in Emerging Markets: Final Report. Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS.