Sustainability issues in packaging continue to generate headlines for many audiences — The latest biobased packaging material innovation. Food waste prevention. The most recent adoption of new labels to empower consumers to recycle packaging. But if your company is like most, you’re still finding it challenging to incorporate sustainability goals into the packaging design process. In this article, we build upon PE International’s white paper on implementing a sustainable packaging initiative to take a closer look at what it takes to change the way your organization thinks about driving more sustainable packaging. The punch line? Don’t underestimate the importance of integration to the way your company does business.

How to determine your objective

In our white paper, we talked about the importance of starting your packaging sustainability effort by clearly articulating your objectives. Before you can determine the role of innovative materials or new designs in your sustainable packaging strategy, you must have an understanding of what sustainability means to your organization and what your plan is to drive it. Without this vision and strategy in place, it becomes difficult to know where to focus resources and whether what you are working on adds business value. Diving straight into conducting footprinting or design may give you an answer to a question, but without a context in which to leverage those results, you may find yourself wasting time chasing after the small details with no clear end in sight.

It may sound simple, but what does determining your objectives, vision and strategy actually entail?

A few key steps include:

1. Determine what is material.

What are the environmental and social impacts of your packaging throughout its life cycle? How does that impact compare to the product it protects? What issues do your customers and stakeholders care about most? Whether it’s carbon, petroleum, waste or others, it’s important to know who cares about what, as well as what your competition is doing and communicating. This input is critical to evaluating which issues are important to your business. Life cycle assessment is one tool to evaluate the environmental impacts of your packaging; the social hot spot database may be an option for you to evaluate the social impacts of your packaging supply chain. Consider materiality assessments for understanding what stakeholders care about for your companies — link with your GRI G4 reporting materiality considerations if that’s part of your reporting strategy. Or, simply starting a dialog may be enough to get you started.

2. Determine your own business objectives with sustainability.

Brand, revenue, cost and risk are the core parameters of value from sustainability. Which parameter drives your involvement in sustainability most? How does this objective fit into your other business objectives related to growth and profitability? How will your efforts in packaging contribute to this value? Considering sustainability in your design process might be able to reduce material or transportation costs, it might increase the performance or life of your product, or it might enable you to surprise and delight your customers and increase brand loyalty. It might even achieve all three — when Kraft redesigned its YESPack with the company’s ethic of sustainability, it was able to increase yield and ease as well as sustainability. Consider which value drives your company’s overall strategy now — every company is slightly biased towards one of the four sources of value articulated above — and start there to shape your own business objective and language for sustainability.

3. Determine your long term goal.

Given stakeholder concern and your goals within sustainability, what position will you take? Will you be reactive to market requests, or will you drive innovation to achieve big hairy audacious goals? Pressure for responsible sourcing of biobased plastics, for example, could drive you to different activities based on whether you are seeking an innovation position, driven by customer requests or focused primarily on recyclability and end of life issues.

These goals can be regular reductions in key indicators or far-reaching targets that reflect how you envision your packaging in the future. Keep in mind there is no right or wrong way to set goals — it depends on what’s right for your business. Where is your competition? Do you want to be in line with them, or pushing ahead? What is best practice in other industries, or according to NGOs or governments?

4. Determine key performance indicators (KPIs) to track your progress on these goals.

As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” KPIs are critical to enable you to evaluate progress toward your goals. For example, if reducing packaging carbon footprint is one of your goals, you may want to measure reductions using life-cycle assessment in order to address both packaging materials and conversion. Alternatively, if you want to reduce waste sent to landfill — something that’s often difficult to measure directly — you may instead want to define metrics that influence packaging design so that consumers are more likely to recycle the package. Keep in mind that KPIs may need to encompass both packaging and product as the primary purpose of packaging is to protect the product during distribution. Lightweighting your packaging, for instance, doesn’t reduce waste if doing so increases product damage.

Execute, Execute, Execute.

The number one roadblock to successfully realizing the value of a sustainability strategy — be it for packaging, the overall enterprise, purchasing, or otherwise — is incomplete implementation. The following elements are critical to success with any sustainability strategy:

1. Build internal knowledge and confidence by allocating resources of time, money and people.

If sustainability is new to your business, new tools, new people, additional budget and time may all be necessary in order to ensure success. Therefore, it’s important to identify the right people within your organization — or hire them — and provide training and time for them to learn to do the work.

The majority of opportunity to drive sustainability into packaging is during the design phase (versus manufacturing or end-of-life management). Investing in training and tools to influence how packaging engineers think about and evaluate their designs has a huge impact on your ability to meet your goals.

There are numerous sustainability-related design tools available so it’s important to reflect on the objective and target for your effort in evaluating your options. Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is the primary mechanism for evaluating certain environmental metrics like carbon and waste; if you’re interested in LCA, there are both simplified and fully featured tools available. For example, PE International offers a full suite of LCA tools in its GaBi platform; from expedited scenario comparisons in Envision to full detailed models in GaBi Software. Tools don’t have to be limited to sustainability either: software that incorporates other packaging design goals such as cube utilization may be better received since it will help engineers achieve other objectives.

2. Establish clear incentives.

Investing in tools and training alone is not enough to guarantee success. One company we worked with recently committed to improving packaging sustainability. They defined packaging objectives and purchased a customized packaging sustainability design tool and training on the use of the tool for their packaging engineers but uptake for use of the tool was slow. Reasons included the fact that use of the tool was optional, there was no report out expected from use of the tool, and there was no explicit sustainability target that using the tool would help achieve. In short, there was no reason for them to use a new tool or adopt a different approach to making design decisions, aside from their own personal desire to drive sustainability. If just one of these elements had been implemented — an assessment was required in the stage gate process; the goals were set such that assessment was needed to show progress; the culture was established for how the assessment information could be used for innovation or marketing — the tool would have been much more successful.

Incentives, such as building sustainability metrics into the packaging design process or making sustainability part of the annual performance review, are necessary to drive change and successfully incorporate sustainability into packaging design. 

No matter how mature the sustainability program, every company striving to drive packaging sustainability encounters some kind of barrier in achieving the full potential of their effort. Yet every company also stands to gain significant value from their efforts to improve the sustainability of packaging. Understanding the goals of packaging decisions, how those decisions link to impacts and stakeholder concerns and establishing clear internal systems for leveraging those decision points to improve designs are critical factors to success.