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Products and Design
Surprises in Smaller Packages:
What Sprint Learned From an LCA of Its Packaging Improvements

For the millions of customers who purchase wireless devices and accessories each year, packaging is one of the most tangible ways to understand a company’s commitment to environmental responsibility. It’s often our first chance at a good impression, and it’s an area where small changes can add up to big differences — in everything from brand recognition to our bottom line. At Sprint, we’ve invested considerable time and resources into creating greener packaging solutions; as a result of our careful research and analysis — and our partnership with Deutsch Design Works (DDW) — we’ve overhauled packaging across nearly all Sprint-branded product lines.

For the millions of customers who purchase wireless devices and accessories each year, packaging is one of the most tangible ways to understand a company’s commitment to environmental responsibility. It’s often our first chance at a good impression, and it’s an area where small changes can add up to big differences — in everything from brand recognition to our bottom line. At Sprint, we’ve invested considerable time and resources into creating greener packaging solutions; as a result of our careful research and analysis — and our partnership with Deutsch Design Works (DDW) — we’ve overhauled packaging across nearly all Sprint-branded product lines.

Some changes are immediately evident: smaller packages, removing bulky User Guides and using unbleached paper stock. We’ve also made a number of changes that aren’t so obvious, like beefing up the recycled content and switching our inks and adhesives. Today, each Sprint device is delivered in a package that’s no more than necessary for protecting the device and getting customers started (additional user information has been migrated to Sprint.com).

All of these changes have taken place over a short three years. At the end of 2012, we commissioned a life cycle assessment (LCA) by Quantis International, as part of our effort to more fully understand the impact of these improvements on both the environment and on our business.

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The full LCA, available for download at Sprint.com/packaging, confirmed the value of our redesign efforts: Sprint reduced the environmental impact of its branded packaging by 55 percent between 2009 and 2012. Reductions were seen across all categories examined. The LCA gave us a powerful story to share with consumers about exactly what we achieved; it also taught us a lot that we can use internally in our future planning.

Design changes

Though we’re proud of our successes, there were a few surprises. While some of the savings were in areas anticipated, others were unexpected. The large majority of improvements across all indicators were linked to the change in the volume of the box alone. Because our devices are transported all around the world, the impact of transportation is directly linked to package volume; simply put, smaller packages mean more packages on fewer planes and trucks. We hope this finding influences others to focus on looking for smaller packaging options, especially in products transported from overseas. And we’re already hard at work looking for ways to further reduce the volume of our shipments.

A second surprise was that some of the changes we worked hard to achieve weren’t showing all the benefits that we had hoped. For example: Switching to soy-based inks, low-VOC adhesives and higher recycled content all showed relatively small improvements in the packaging footprint. Our colleagues at Quantis pointed out that the lack of detection of an improvement doesn’t necessarily mean these weren’t positive steps. There are significant limitations in available data for comparison in this area, so we need to consider what other evidence is available beyond the LCA in deciding whether these are good things. We're convinced, based on the other evidence around these topics, that our new design is indeed providing environmental benefits in ways that aren't fully shown in the LCA. We’re eager to continue supporting Quantis and other partners to further devolop data for LCAs so we can see a more complete picture of improvements in the future.

The third surprise was in the rigorous process required to support the broad communication of the LCA’s findings. A stack of data does not typically lend itself to consumer-facing brand communications. From the start, we wanted to be able to fully support our communication of the results with the highest degree of confidence. This meant not only assembling a great team, but also complying with ISO standards around how to complete such an analysis to support public communication. Quantis led us through getting the work peer reviewed by a third party to confirm that we’d complied with these standards. This consumed both time and resources, but we value knowing that we’re supplying our customers with the very best and most credible information available. In seeing first-hand some of the challenging issues that come up in an LCA, we understand why this type of internal audit is important for ensuring credibility. We then looked to turn this stack of data into a meaningful story that’d be relevant to the average consumer. We identified infographics as an ideal way to present this complex information quickly and clearly, helping tell our story in a visually engaging and relevant way.

None of these achievements would have been possible without a robust and talented team of experts. In addition to Quantis, we received thoughtful and strong support from the design group at DDW, sustainable advisor Rory Bakke (Sustainable Concepts Studio) and our external peer reviewer, Scott Kaufman of PeerAspect.

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