Will it surprise anyone to learn that there’s no universally accepted definition of “sustainable packaging”? Probably not, but the extent of the confusion raises eyebrows all the same. Readers of Packaging Digest discovered this when they scanned the results of a recent survey by the magazine and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) into what’s standing between packagers and their desire to make their products more sustainable.

“The enemy number one,” wrote SPC’s Adam Gendell, “is the lack of a common understanding of what exactly ‘sustainable packaging’ means.” To converters, he explained, making packages “sustainable” is about taking weight out of them and reducing manufacturing waste. Retailers focus more on recyclability. Brand owners don’t take as holistic a view of packaging life cycles as converters.

“As a consequence, sustainable packaging goals are rarely harmonized and efforts to make packaging more sustainable are disparate and, occasionally, at odds with each other,” Gendell observed.

Is there such a thing as too much thinking outside the box when it comes to sustainable packaging? It’s not as if sanctioned criteria for sustainability didn’t exist. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition is broad, but straightforward:

“Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

This concept is the keynote of EPA regulations and practices for sustainable business activity, many of which apply to printing and packaging.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) needs no introduction to printers and packagers who want to operate at the highest levels of efficiency and competitiveness. ISO endorses the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a framework for uniform reporting by companies and organizations about the economic, environmental and social impacts caused by their everyday activities. The standard-making body has published guidelines for integrating GRI procedures with ISO 26000, its protocol for socially responsible conduct by businesses and organizations.

If the 10,000-foot view of sustainability and its mandates is this clear, why is it so difficult to apply them with clarity to practical matters on the ground? Eight years ago, in a scholarly article titled, “Reclaiming the Definition of Sustainability,” a quartet of expert authors warned:

“‘Sustainable development’ is now a term which is increasingly regarded either as internally self-contradictory (an oxymoron) or, at best, plagued by ambiguous or distorted definitions. As a result, there are many constituencies which perceive the term ‘sustainable development’ as a vehicle to perpetuate many and varied corporate and institutional interests...most of which do not necessarily have the well-being of the planet’s supportive ecosystems, or that of people in the developing world, or future generations, at their core.”

Printers and converters who have committed to sustainable packaging have no interests other than minimizing the environmental impact of what they produce in the most cost-efficient and resource-conserving manner possible. The fact that they are able to do so in the face of so much confusion about the ultimate goal makes their achievements on behalf of sustainability all the more admirable.