Bob Lilienfeld
Two articles relating to global agriculture crossed my desk the other day. One stated that packaging is the solution to sustainably providing food to those who need it most (See World Packaging News).

The other stated that the solution is to learn to efficiently grow food in places where it currently doesn’t grow – like the Ukraine and Uganda (See NPR). Not a word about packaging.

These two articles represent the current state of packaging awareness. On the one hand, we have those who fully understand that a little packaging can help feed a lot of people. On the other side are those who would rather spend an ungodly amount of time, money and resources to develop an unwieldy solution simply because they hold a dim view of packaged goods.

Let’s say that you and your family are starving Somalians. What is your perception of sustainability? My guess is that because you’re living at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, your definition can be summed up in one word: Survival. Thus, any solution that allows your family to continue to exist is a sustainable solution. Having to worry about a bit of used packaging is a much smaller issue than having to worry about what to do with the bodies of those loved ones who died of starvation.

However, if you’re a Self Actualized First Worlder who is at the top of the Hierarchy, it makes perfect sense to expect others with less to learn how to produce for themselves, and do so with only the most fashionably sustainable methods and processes, regardless of the price (listen up, China, India and Africa!). This means creating a Zero Waste Home Grown Agricultural System in some of the world’s most inhospitable meteorological, political, economic, and ecologic climates.

If I sound a bit exasperated, it’s because I am. We in the industry need to do a better job of explaining the value of packaging in the context in which that value is being questioned. In the Third World, the equation is simple. Packaging = food = survival.

But in the developed world, the equation is different.  We need to find those applications where packaging holds a strong emotional appeal to people who are lucky enough to live higher up on the Maslow Hierarchy. Think sterile medical equipment. Tamper proof caps and lids. High value electronic equipment protection. Traceable food sources by production facility, date processed and packaged, date picked, and source by grower.

Thus, our job is to ensure that the public understands both the relevance and importance of packaging to them in terms of personal economic, social, and environmental impact. Only then will they be able to appreciate the sustainability benefits that we insiders automatically take for granted.

Robert M. Lilienfeld is a Fox TV environmental commentator and Editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a newsletter dedicated to conserving resources and reducing waste. Along with Dr. William J. Rathje, he co-authored the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are and the 1995 landmark New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled Six Enviro-Myths. His website is Use-less-stuff.com