Simplifying sustainability

by Eric Schroeder
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Common language, including definitions and principles, agreed metrics and indicators on guidance and usage, will be key factors as food and beverage manufacturers tackle packaging and sustainability in the years ahead, according to a new report from the Consumer Goods Forum (C.G.F.).

The report, “A Global Language for Packaging and Sustainability,” is the first study to be released by the C.G.F.’s sustainability working group and draws on the experiences of executives from more than 650 retailers, manufacturers, service providers and other stakeholders in 70 countries. Based in Paris with regional offices in Washington, Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai, the C.G.F. was created in June 2009 by the merger of CIES – The Food Business Forum, the Global Commerce Initiative and the Global CEO Forum. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is among those who contributed to the report.

In its initial 24-page report, the C.G.F. highlighted the role of packaging, the principles of sustainability, how packaging may contribute to improving sustainability and the implementation of pilot programs.

“Our industry has a responsibility to review the packaging it uses and to ensure that any negative impact arising from its production or disposal is minimized,” said Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Unilever P.L.C. and board co-sponsor for sustainability for the C.G.F. “Packaging spans the entire value chain and is a shared responsibility for all trading partners. To be able to address this responsibility effectively trading partners need to have a common way of talking about packaging and sustainability. This project delivers that language and will enable more informed dialogue.”

Finding the balance between under-packaging and over-packaging should be the aim for all manufacturers, according to the C.G.F. Getting there, though, requires manufacturers to develop common language regarding sustainability.

“Businesses, whether they are manufacturers or retailers, judge the environmental sustainability of their products from different perspectives and use different approaches,” the C.G.F. said. “For example, some companies focus on weight reduction, believing it provides a reasonable proxy for sustainability through lower raw material inputs, reduced transport, less waste and lower CO2 emissions. But this emphasis on weight has some unintended consequences, including greater wastage if the packaging becomes too fragile.

“Other companies use life cycle analysis to help them measure sustainability. This is a more comprehensive approach, but it can be costly in both resources and time and there are not always commonly agreed measurement approaches.

“To support an effective industry response, there is a need for common metrics and definitions on how companies should measure the sustainability of their packaging — bringing together the work of existing programs that touch on similar areas and adding a global dimension and c.e.o. leadership to the issue.”

The benefits of a unified approach include cost reduction, reduced impact, improved consumer perception, improved decision making and extended influencing, the C.G.F. said.

While the primary role of packaging is to protect and promote the product while providing information on use, health and safety, the C.G.F. said manufacturers are finding it increasingly important to intersect the role of packaging and the principles of sustainability. For example, packaging may positively contribute to the sustainability of a product in several ways, including by being:

• designed holistically with the product in order to optimize overall environmental performance;

• made from responsibly sourced materials;

• able to meet market criteria for performance and cost;

• manufactured using clean production technologies;

• efficiently recoverable after use; and

• sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.

In addition, the packaging needs to meet consumer choice and expectations, be beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle, and meet market criteria for performance and cost.

“When these principles are respected, the impact of packaging is minimized and the benefits maximized,” the C.G.F. said.

To help manufacturers across the world work together on packaging and sustainability, the C.G.F. identified 52 indicators covering the environmental, economic and social pillars of sustainability. For each indicator, the C.G.F. provides supporting information that defines the indicator, gives the metric and guidance on what and where to measure. The measurement system is available at globalpackaging.mycgforum.com.

With the framework and measurement system in place, the C.G.F. said the next step will be industry implementation. More than 25 companies (including Coca-Cola Co., Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills, Inc., PepsiCo, Inc., and Nestle S.A.) began the implementation as part of a pilot program that started in April and continues through September. Feedback from the companies will be published in November and used to update and finalize the framework and measurement system for the global packaging project.

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