KFC has been taking a lot of grief for its Double Down sandwich. Its packaging has attracted less attention, but two items recently crossed my desk. More...

Food processors have long known that restaurants are the place to look for trends. Popular new foods or entire cuisine genres often land on menus before they reach grocery shelves.

Now it looks like, in the case of KFC, that trendiness may extend to packaging.

The chicken chain has been taking a lot of grief for its Double Down sandwich. Its packaging has attracted less attention, but two items recently crossed my desk.

The first was positive: Like many companies, KFC is emphasizing (or at least talking about) sustainability. Unlike many companies, it’s incorporating reuse into its strategy. The company is using high-quality polypropylene bowls, with locking lids, for coleslaw, mashed potatoes and other sides. The new bowls, from Anchor Packaging, replace the foam clamshells that have come to symbolize wasteful packaging.

Good for KFC. Reuse is an aspect of sustainability that gets overlooked too often. Not only is it undeniably effective, but it’s one of the easiest principles for consumers to grasp: Every time they reuse a container, that’s one less disposable container. Plus, a reusable container is a value-add, and who doesn’t like that?

The second one, not so positive. As another aspect of sustainability strategy, KFC has been using paper-based packaging certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The mission of SFI is to certify packaging, as well as other forest products, that has a large proportion of fiber that is either recycled or “responsibly sourced” from replaceable forests. KFC has devoted an entire landing page of its website to SFI certification, complete with a big version of the stylized leaf-and-tree SFI logo.

However, KFC, wittingly or not, stepped into a controversy with this one. SFI has been slammed by environmentalists as a “greenwash” organization, i.e., one created by the paper industry as a rubber stamp. They charge it with condoning practices like large-scale clear-cutting and the use of toxic herbicides and fertilizers. (SFI responds that its standards are “rigorous and market-tested.”) Nine environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, have signed an open letter to KFC asking the chain to drop SFI certification. It suggested, as a replacement, certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which has been endorsed by organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank.

SFI seals have appeared on the packages of some pretty impressive companies, including Sara Lee. Both SFI and FSC have their supporters. But criticism from groups like the Sierra Club can’t be anything but a setback for a company that’s trying to be environmentally responsible.

Packaged-goods companies often can learn from restaurants. One of the lessons here is that, when it comes to sustainability, good intentions can’t protect you from the occasional backlash.

-Pan Demetrakakes, editor