Several environmental standards such as ENERGY STAR© and LEED© emerged in the early 1990's in an effort to encourage less wasteful design practices in the consumer electronics/appliance and building industries, respectively. Fortunately, the ENERGY STAR and LEED standards were broadly adopted, which has led to significant savings in energy and materials used to source, manufacture, transport, use, and recycle these products and reductions in pollution and toxic byproducts. For example, according to the EPA, ENERGY STAR prevented more than 277 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 alone. The time has come for a similar standard to be developed and adopted to promote sustainable retail packaging.
While it's hard to quantify how much needless waste there is in retail packaging, a simple inspection of the packaging during your next shopping trip will confirm the amount is staggering.
Some of the waste, such as those annoying and impenetrable “blister packs,” were designed to reduce damage and deter theft. While this is a valid concern for retailers, many blister packs are designed in a wasteful manner, and still others could be avoided altogether.
Another form of wasteful packaging serves no purpose other than to create distinctive “branding.” Hopefully, companies will soon come to realize that offering consumers a colored matte paper bag 10 times the size of the object inside just so people can be seen walking with it through the mall is more harmful to the planet than it is helpful to their brand.
There are efforts afoot to promote sustainable practices within select industries in the packaging supply chain. One seeming good example is the Forest Stewardship Council which certifies that the wood used to make certain products has been grown, harvested, and processed in a sustainable manner. As commendable as these efforts are, a bag made from sustainably harvested paper is still wasteful when it is 10x larger than it needs to be and coated with matte and glossy finishes.
What is needed is coordinated leadership by the National Retail Federation (“NRF”) to create a standard that all retailers can use to rank the sustainability of the packaging used to protect and market the products they sell. Leadership by the NRF will force suppliers who wish to have their products sold by its member retailers to comply with these new sustainable packaging standard.
The details of such a sustainable packaging standard would obviously need to be worked out by consumer, government, retailers and their suppliers, but I will research the topic and explore what a rough framework might look like in a future post.