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Sustainable Innovation

By: Sara Mason
Posted: December 6, 2010, from the December 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

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Many consumers believe that products have too much packaging. Because of this, brand owners are downsizing and lightening the protective covering that goes around their products. Those brand owners are seeing benefits from these efforts by realizing material savings and increased demand from consumers. For today’s brands, it is a profitable business model that holds to principles concerned with stewardship of the environment. Resources are used more productively and efficiently, waste is eliminated and sustainable profits result, and the secondary rewards include consumer retention.

Greek brand Korres, for example, claims that by adopting a streamlined design, it has managed to save 11 tons of plastic manufacturing material a year, simply by cutting the amount of material used. Looking outside the industry for inspiration, Puma’s innovative shoe bag packaging and distribution system will hit stores in late 2011, and reduces the paper used for shoe boxes by 65% and carbon emissions by 10,000 tons per year. The company’s remaining packaging materials used will be fully sustainable by 2015. Ideas like this can inspire new ways of thinking “outside the box.”

In terms of market segmentation, recycled material accounts for the largest packaging category. Neal’s Yard Remedie uses postconsumer regrind (PCR) PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, while Burt’s Bees is going even further, making commitments to use only recycled materials. The U.S. company has also pioneered the use of TerraSkin wraps, a paper alternative packaging for bar soaps. Aveda is well-known for its efforts, increasingly translating its sustainable ethos for formulation into its packaging. According to the Organic Monitor, Aveda is the largest user of PCR plastic in the industry, claiming to save more than one million tons in virgin plastic every year. The company has also reduced its carbon footprint by recycling an estimated 37 million polypropylene caps, ensuring that all its packaging is made up of at least 80% recycled materials and also reducing energy consumption by using wind power at its Minnesota manufacturing facility.

A new report from the U.S.-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition guides companies on how to boost recycled content in plastic packaging, and highlights practical solutions for overcoming common technical challenges. Lack of material collection and sorting infrastructure are identified as the main difficulties in securing a reliable and plentiful supply of recycled material. Additional hurdles can be material quality, price volatility and process modification needs, notes the study. Those involved with packaging decisions are advised to consider adjusting their design to allow for PCR content but cautioned against designing in unintended negative environmental impacts in the process. The best way any company can explore increased use of recycled content is to discuss goals and objectives, performance requirements and technical capabilities with their supply chain partners, according to the report.

In a unique recycling endeavor that resulted in a successful marketing venture, Preserve, a consumer goods company that markets toothbrushes and razors, recently teamed up with Continuum, a global innovation design consultancy headquartered in Boston, to create the Mail Back Pack. The lightweight package, made from a combination of polypropylene and polyethylene, doubles as a return envelope. Consumers simply place the toothbrush after use in its original package and mail it back to Preserve, free of charge, so it can begin its next life stage. The innovation is also in how the company presented the product on the shelf, without even being able to see the toothbrush inside the package. The value presentation to the consumer is that the toothbrush is made primarily from recycled materials and can be recycled itself. The results reveal that consumers have taken notice. Within three weeks of a two-stage launch at Whole Foods and Target, the package is outselling Preserve’s previous package by 37%.

Bio-based and Biodegradable