Flicking through various CSR reports, it’s interesting to note how often packaging is highlighted as an area in need of more attention. It’s hardly surprising given the complexity of applying lifecycle thinking to a material that needs to protect the product inside it while also delivering a satisfying consumer experience.
The metrics are also evolving, too — it’s not simply about carbon and material optimisation anymore. The emergence of circular economy thinking for instance, means lightweighting a product may not be the best option. Heavier, more durable packaging materials tend to work better under a circular economy, both from a refillable/reusable perspective and also so recovery rates can be maximised.
Societal trends are also having an impact; the rise of smaller households, greater connectivity and on-demand access are changing consumer expectations around packaging. As a result, brand owners are increasingly looking to their supply chains — particularly to packaging suppliers and designers — to unlock the level of innovation needed to address these issues.
Marks & Spencer (M&S) regularly runs packaging innovation sessions with suppliers — these workshops focus on the cultural, functional and emotional relationship customers have with packaging.
Another British retailer, the Co-operative Group, is also working closely with its product suppliers and packaging providers to develop solutions that take into account social dynamics as well as resource-efficiency factors. For some of the more persistent challenges, this has resulted in the need for wider stakeholder engagement.
“[We] are working with the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee and The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management to bring together partners to find solutions to packaging issues which create challenges for local authorities and recycling,” says Cathryn Higgs, food policy manager at the Co-operative Food. “This work involves working with all the parties involved in the life of a piece of packaging, from our packaging suppliers, to local authorities, materials recovery facilities and reprocessors.”
One of the Co-op’s key customer concerns is food wasted in the home. The company is working to help consumers with this in a number of ways, through portioned pack designs, resealable containers, on-pack storage advice and tips on how to use up leftover food.
Higgs adds that packaging recycling must be made easy – 85 percent of Co-op’s customers say recycling is important to them. However, recyclability isn’t always a key consideration when purchasing a product.
“Only 6 percent of people say they would choose another product if the packaging wasn’t recyclable,” she says. “We accept we have a responsibility to make recycling as easy as possible for our customers, which is why we committed to increasing the amount of Co-op own-brand packaging that is fully recyclable and working with stakeholders to ensure we have an infrastructure that supports this ambition.”
At-home recycling is also a key focal point for Kingfisher Group. “A lot of our research shows that people’s homes are getting smaller, they’ve got less space to play with, so the more that we can reduce packaging at every opportunity, is a good thing to do,” notes Dax Lovegrove, Kingfisher’s director of sustainability & innovation. “But we also need to provide more recycling opportunity; across our product ranges we already provide collection facilities that take back certain materials from the customer.”
Reverse logistics is also becoming part of the solution. Kingfisher’s DIY retail brand B&Q, for instance, now uses reusable, padded delivery bags for the transit of kitchen worktops.
“They were inspired by pizza delivery bags,” Lovegrove says. “You take the worktop into the home, slip it out of the padded bag, and we take those bags back into the business to reuse them for future deliveries.”
Meanwhile returnable packaging strategies are becoming the backbone of supply chain logistics for manufacturers. For many of its factories, Philips uses returnable packaging such as crates for delivery of parts from suppliers.
“These crates are reused over and over again. This reduces large amounts of packaging waste,” says Eelco Smit, director of sustainability at Philips.
Smit says that the company’s alignment with the circular economy is now delivering a competitive edge to its packaging strategy.
“We need to ensure that packaging is designed based on the circular economy model that best fits the application. If packaging is to be recycled, it should be made of recyclable materials. If it is reused, it should be designed on durability.”
Smit points to one product example, whereby various parts and materials of old X-ray tubes are reused for the production of new X-ray tubes.
“A robust and reusable transport box has been designed to transport new X-ray tubes to customer sites and to return the old tubes back to the production facilities,” he says. “This assures the cycle is closed for both the product and the packaging.”