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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Summer 2005 : Inside Out

Innovation

Leaders of the Pack

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is bridging vision and implementation, with impressive participation from throughout the industry’s value chain.

by Phil Storey


Can an industry with a ubiquitous presence and far too many stakeholders to count somehow come together to make real progress on environmental issues, irrespective of regulatory demands? Can a small group of leading companies with a shared vision move an unwieldy industry toward sustainability?

Two years ago a small group of professionals gathered in Charlottesville, Va., to explore these questions. Their interest was sparked by a cover story in Packaging World magazine on the application of a cradle-to-cradle approach to the design and use of packaging, and by a U.S. EPA-sponsored Cradle to Cradle Design Challenge focused on e-commerce shipping packaging and logistics. What began two years ago as a workshop to discuss these issues—hosted by the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, sponsored by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and conducted by the newly formed non-profit GreenBlue—has begun to take shape as a dynamic and increasingly visible forum for collaboration and outreach.

The beginning of the 1990s saw increased public and government focus on the environmental effects of packaging, and many companies invested significantly toward reducing their packages’ environmental burden. Yet consumers’ focus eventually waned, even as the growth in convenience-sized packaging complicated the issue. (Think 20-ounce bottles of soda, consumed and disposed of on the go, instead of two-liter bottles of soda consumed at home, where they’re easier to collect for recycling.) Now, however, there is an increasing realization that the environmental issues associated with packaging are only going to grow in importance—especially as the huge populations of China, India and other developing countries transition to a Western-style consumer culture. Not even the largest of companies, with their enormous volume of packaged products, can adequately address these challenges alone.

Following nearly a year of planning and discussions, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition was formally created in March 2004, as a project of GreenBlue, with a handful of corporate members. Even before the coalition’s official launch, the group was attracting increasing attention and inquiries from companies all across the packaging industry’s value chain. At its own events—now a regular schedule of biannual
meetings—and at other industry gatherings, such as Pack Expo, the largest packaging show in the western hemisphere, the vision and activities of the coalition attract growing numbers of prospective corporate members, as well as interested non-profits and policy-makers.

The coalition’s membership of companies, non-profits and government agencies now stands at 34. Corporate members include heavyweights from throughout the value chain: materials producers such as Dow, NatureWorks, MeadWestvaco and DuPont Soy Polymers; branded product companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson and Kraft; and merchants Target, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Albertsons.

Vision

One of the driving purposes for the coalition is the fundamental need for a shared vision of an environmentally sustainable future for packaging. So while individual firms will always formulate their own priorities and strategies for dealing with the environmental issues of packaging, there is a need for a collective understanding of the issues and the desired outcome. This is a valuable role for the coalition, as it “helps industry articulate the concepts of sustainability as it applies to packaging,” according to Angie Leith, of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Solid Waste.
“The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is helping to achieve a major shift in focus toward a cradle-to-cradle approach of looking at resources, processes and products.”

This cradle-to-cradle approach is what originally drew together the group that eventually formed the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and it remains the core of the group’s vision for packaging. Using nature as a model, this approach outlines a vision for how materials can sustainably cycle through industry, providing safe and productive resources for society and commerce without becoming an environmental burden.

To meet in a concrete way the need for a shared vision, one of the first projects of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is the creation of a definition of sustainable packaging. (See inset: Sustainable Packaging Coalition Projects.) The coalition is also involved in raising awareness, and in outreach efforts that include co-sponsoring the inaugural Sustainable Packaging Forum this October in Philadelphia. And the coalition will increase its external communications significantly as it matures.

Implementation

A shared vision only gets you so far, no matter how compelling it is. So the coalition is also focused on practical tools for implementation. “We have a very progressive vision, but we’re grounded in the real things that we have to do now with the materials that currently exist,” said Anne Johnson, the coalition’s director. “Of course we want better, more sustainable materials, but we have to deal with the here and now. How do you bridge vision with implementation? How do you operationalize all of this?”

Coalition member and 30-year packaging industry veteran Bob Giangiorgi, vice president of Priority Metrics Group, agrees.
“Sustainable packaging is not simply an environmental play,” Giangiorgi said, “and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition can provide leadership in understanding the concept and providing practical guides on how to advance your sustainable packaging initiatives.”

To begin to bridge the gap between vision and implementation, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is working on resources and tools that will allow packaging developers to apply cradle-to-cradle principles of sustainability as they design products and systems. (See inset: Sustainable Packaging Coalition Projects.) These projects are carried out by committees of coalition members that meet frequently, leveraging their diverse expertise and positions in the value chain.

Collaboration

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition also provides valuable opportunities for informal collaboration and discussion between member companies. Because the group includes companies from throughout the value chain, the interaction between members can spark innovative problem-solving difficult to achieve in many other contexts. “Sharing best practices, challenges and solutions to our material sourcing and package development issues (is) invaluable,” said John Delfausse, coalition board member and vice president of packaging development for Aveda.

To sustain the coalition’s momentum in its projects and outreach, and to create the kinds of informal interactions members find so valuable, the coalition holds meetings twice a year. Its fall meeting, which will be hosted this year in November by Nike in Oregon, is a members-only gathering. The spring meeting is also open to non-members. (The most recent one was held in March and hosted by MeadWestvaco in Charleston, S.C.)

In the end, collaboration gives the Sustainable Packaging Coalition perhaps its greatest potential. Catherine Goodall, of coalition member company Environmental Packaging International, certainly believes so: “In my opinion, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s strength lies in the willingness of its members to share their experiences in an effort to minimize the risks, real and perceived, of trying new packaging designs and technologies.”

Johnson agrees, and is encouraged by the high level of member participation and motivation. “We’ve had very strong member participation. To be effective, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has to be a member-driven organization,” Johnson remarked. “Members really have to engage and move it forward, because it’s the leverage of their organizations that will make real change happen.”

So far, the coalition’s prospects for creating positive change look good.


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