Is a Sustainable Packaging Revolution Upon Us?

Is a Sustainable Packaging Revolution Upon Us?

Most of us would agree that doing what we can to ensure a healthy and sustainable planet for generations to come is a worthy endeavour. Today, much of the public focus in this regard tends to centre on “energy” – i.e., how we can continue to power our world in a “clean” way, with a primary focus on alternative forms of fuel that replace suboptimal existing solutions.

Though a transformative innovation of this kind (e.g., cost efficient solar, fusion energy) would be great, there’s only so much a busy person, or professional, can do to impact change in this area. I suppose you could write to your MP or Member of Congress, but when was the last time any of you did that?

Meanwhile, there are plenty of comparatively incremental innovation opportunities available to those of us from the business arena that can have a meaningful impact on our world. One such area is packaging. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that, as of 2015, the U.S. alone generated approximately 77.9 million tons of solid waste from “containers and packaging.” The good news is that the amount of waste that is landfilled every five years has gone down as recycling has become more pervasive. On the other hand, as e-commerce continues to pick up steam globally, we can assume that the necessity for improvements in packaging will only continue to increase.

A Waitrose shopper fills up her reusable container with grains at the grocer’s “Unpacked” pilot store in Oxford.

Loblaw Co., Canada’s largest food retailer, is taking notice. Earlier this month, Loblaws announced a partnership with Loop, a company that produces reusable packaging customized for participating brands that is delivered by a courier, and then picked up when dropping off new deliveries (think of it as the return of the “milkman model”). Loblaws plans to pilot the system in Toronto in 2020. 

Loblaws is not alone in its efforts to reduce packaging waste. On June 3rd, U.K. grocer Waitrose launched an 11-week trial of its plastic-free Unpacked initiative at one of its stores in Oxford. So far, the store has removed packaging on over 200 lines of product.

The model encourages shoppers to bring their own reusable containers for a variety of products including pasta, grains, frozen fruit, cleaning products and even wine and beer. For those who don’t bring their own receptacles, Waitrose will provide bags and containers for purchase, much like the model used for grocery bags in many stores today. It seems as though consumers care about packaging waste as well – a recent study from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University found that 94% of Canadians are “personally motivated to reduce single-use plastic packaging” and that 71% of Canadians said they would support a ban on single-use plastics for food packaging.

So, it looks like Loblaws and others are attempting to get ahead of what could become a growing issue in the minds of consumers. The challenge will be that many consumers aren’t willing to pay the price for sustainable packaging – the same Dalhousie University survey found that fewer than 38% of consumers would pay more for an item with biodegradable packaging.

Considering that consumer interest and global trends are heading in the direction of sustainable packaging, retailers must take note and begin planning for how they can meet these demands. As demonstrated by Loblaws and Waitrose, there are a variety of options that can be explored to meet these demands.

This exploration will necessitate an innovative, test-and-learn mindset to find a solution that not only meets customer demands for environmental sustainability, but also stakeholder demands for financial viability within these solutions.

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By Rob Gizzie

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