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It’s Not Easy Being Green – But It’s Worth It

Press release from the issuing company

The packaging industry is changing, driven by consumers and legislators. According to Naomi Stewart, Marketing Manager at Easyfairs, that's why sparks of innovation are needed more than ever.

In 1962, US President John F Kennedy famously turned the tide of the space race by saying, "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Now, some 60 years later, humanity finds itself needing to capture that pioneering spirit once again – not to catapult us towards unexplored, distant worlds, but to save the one we live on.

And packaging can be the rocket fuel that propels us into a more sustainable future. It’s so often painted as the villain in sustainability narratives, but, through remarkable advances in sustainable materials and designs, packaging has the potential to be the hero of our planet’s future. For that to happen, we need to be able to separate genuine, substantive sustainable choices from paper-thin greenwashing claims.

Language matters when dealing with important issues, and there is no more important issue than the future of our planet.

Packaging has to continue to evolve, yes – but the way the industry communicates has to evolve, too. It will not always be easy, but consumer preferences and tightening regulations mean it is absolutely crucial.

What is sustainable packaging?

Consumers have been voting with their wallets on sustainability for some time. Study after study, from the likes of Mintel, Deloitte, and McKinsey, show consumers not only prefer products they perceive to have a smaller environmental impact, but also that they will happily pay more for more sustainable packaging.

The only question is: what is sustainable packaging?

‘Sustainability’ is a fairly vague term – one that implies a degree of business ethicality and eco-friendliness that does not necessarily stand up to closer scrutiny. Is ‘sustainable’ packaging made of recyclable materials? Is it made of recycled content? Is it locally sourced, meaning it offers lower transport emissions? Does it actually do its job through the supply chain, reducing product waste by protecting and preserving its contents?

The answers to these questions are not always simple, and often contradict each other. If a company moves to a locally sourced, recycled pack, but in doing so incurs an increase in product waste, is that really the most environmentally beneficial move? And, therefore, is it accurate to market that pack as ‘sustainable’ at all?

The only solution is for businesses to ensure that they truly, deeply understand their packaging solutions, and how they are produced. While advertising a pack as ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ might make for a compelling marketing message that today’s consumers will respond to, these messages are too vague to have any substance behind them. And, increasingly, consumers are growing more aware of misleading ‘greenwashing’ claims, - a recent survey found only 20% of consumers trust sustainable claims made by brands[1].

This level of cynicism can be toxic to debates about our environment. As the organisers of London Packaging Week and Paris Packaging Week, as well as Packaging Innovations, we see genuinely groundbreaking innovations take to our show floor every year. Many of these innovations have the potential to shake up the packaging world and deliver the functional yet sustainably produced solutions that today’s consumers demand. But their impact will only be limited if consumers instinctively do not believe the claims they make, assuming it is yet more greenwashing.

Developing a green brand identity, ESG policy, and other sustainable trappings is the easy part. The hard part is adding substance to those trappings. But increasingly, the industry will find the hard road is the only one available.

Doing what must be done

Lawmakers are listening to their constituents. There is an emerging trend of regulations that attempt to pin down a linguistic framework of how to make green claims accurately and therefore in a way that genuinely informs consumers.

The UK has already implemented a green claims code, while the EU is set to follow suit, with proposals moving through the parliamentary process as we speak. We’re entering a new era of authenticity, where the onus is on businesses to innovate and continue to minimise the impact their packaging has on the environment. The direction of travel is clear – and not just in Europe. The US Federal Trade Commission launched a review of its Guides for the Use of Environmental Claims in December of 2022, while several states have adopted some form of green claims guidance, with some – such as California – going as far as to codify it in state law.

There is a lot that still remains unknown about how these green codes will work with one another in the international market. However, the UK’s regulations and proposed EU code give businesses a good idea of what to expect, and what they should start preparing for.
In short, claims like ‘carbon neutral’, ‘net zero’, or ‘recyclable’ will need to be qualified with information that supports them. This information will have to represent a product’s entire life cycle, from production to disposal, and it must make clear whether any green claims refer to a whole pack, or simply a part of it.

Making the changes necessary to collect this information – or even to adjust packaging so that it can continue to make the same claims it previously did – may prove to be challenging for some businesses, at least in the short term. But meeting those challenges today puts businesses in the best place to meet the demands of consumers and lawmakers around the world tomorrow. By engaging in these difficult discussions in good faith, and by innovating where necessary in every tier of the supply chain, the packaging industry can have a huge say in the direction of this future.

But just as it’s easy to slap a ‘carbon neutral’ label on a product that isn’t necessarily true, it’s easy to talk about innovation. It’s much harder to make it happen in reality – to make the kind of often risky investments that are required, to overcome new material sourcing challenges, and to shake up key processes that a business has relied on for generations.

That’s why shows like Packaging Innovations – next held in its spiritual home of the Birmingham NEC on 21 & 22 Feb – are crucial for the industry. Every year, sparks of inspiration and light bulb moments light up across the NEC show floor at networking events, talks, debates, and booths, as the best and brightest of the world’s packaging industry gather under the same roof.

No, the kind of innovation that’s required to educate and satisfy consumers, ease the concerns of legislators, and continue to grow a business in a challenging economic climate, all at the same time, isn’t easy to come across.

But, as JFK realised all the way back in 1962, that’s exactly why challenges like this are worth taking on.

To learn more about Packaging Innovations, and to register for a free visitor’s ticket, visit www.packagingbirmingham.com

[1] https://wwd.com/feature/greenwashing-fashion-sustainability-compare-ethics-1234626171/ 

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