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Give the People What They Want: Four Emerging Trends in Sustainable Packaging

A box of straws, made from materials certified by the Forest Stewardship Council | Image credit: Migros

Asia Pulp and Paper's Forest Conservation Policy (FCP), announced in February 2013, came about in large part due to NGO pressure and the resulting concerns of our customers. The FCP marked an immediate halt to all natural forest clearance across our supply chain and is designed to help fulfill growing demand for sustainably sourced packaging material and environmental stewardship. We believe that the execution of such environmental policies strengthens business performance, enhances customer relationships and, most importantly, ensures the long-term sustainability of our operations.

Since then, it’s become clear to us that retailers and manufacturers across many industries — from food and beverage and pharmaceutical to consumer products — that continually innovate and utilize new forms of packaging, need to be ever-mindful of the associated sustainability implications.

Consumers are heightening their focus on business environmental practices, signaling their demand for sustainable packaging (the market for which is projected to hit $244 billion by 2018), as well as broader corporate transparency and accountability. Fortunately, with the emergence of new sustainable packaging technologies, businesses are finding opportunities to leverage these innovations to improve their environmental performance to meet this evolving consumer demand. At APP, we see four rising trends in sustainable packaging that companies would do well to note:

APP's Aida Greenbury,
speaker at
Sustainable Brands 2014
San Diego
  1. Traceability: For a long time, consumer purchasing decisions have been based in part on what happens to their packaging once they discard it. But more recently, we see consumers increasingly basing purchasing decisions on the traceability and sustainability of products and packaging through the entire supply chain. At the core, consumers want assurance that their packaging is from a legal, acceptable and sustainably managed source. As traceability is both an environmental and an ethical issue, brands are adapting their sourcing to enable them to communicate with consumers about supply chain traceability, from procurement to transport to end-of-life cycle. 
  2. Labeling: Consumers are insisting on clearer labeling — as witnessed, for instance, by the ongoing debate around mandatory labeling for genetically engineered foods. With regard to sustainability, consumers want recycling labels that provide clear instructions. Recyclable packaging is, after all, only as good as a user’s understanding of how to recycle it. Labels must provide easy-to-understand information about how to manage various packaging components at end of life. Improving on-package labeling supported by Internet and mobile app communications will help consumers get better information faster, and provide channels for brands to better engage their consumers. There are various initiatives underway to reform recycling labeling, such as the How2recycle label, a nationwide labeling initiative to reduce confusion and misinformation about recycling by creating universal on-package labeling.
  3. Reusability: Traditionally, reusable packaging was limited to manufacturer and retailer use of reusable pallets, racks, bulk containers and the like. While this contributed to a more efficient and less wasteful supply chain, similar approaches didn’t broadly extend to the consumer level. But more recently, reusable packaging for items such as retail food products is attracting consumer interest. For example, in 2011, fast food giant Pizza Hut introduced a 100 percent recycled, multi-use pizza box in Costa Rica, made by GreenBox: The box breaks down into four plates and a smaller box for leftovers. Customers appreciate this secondary use, engendering positive brand associations from a cleverly sustainable purchase decision. 
  4. Responsibly grown: Today, companies must consider materials derived from renewable resources, be it recycled material or plantation-grown fiber such as quick-growing trees in equatorial climates, waste wheat chaff or other materials. For example, demand for paper and board packaging made from virgin fiber sustainably sourced from renewable plantations is increasing. 

As consumers demand greater levels of transparency and accountability from companies, particularly in the sustainability space, the packaging industry must be cognizant of how its materials are sourced and implement sustainable practices across its supply chain. Consumers, NGOs and other third-party stakeholders have heightened expectations in this area and will continue to scrutinize the manufacturing and production of packaging materials. Those firms that are mindful of the aforementioned trends and properly integrate them into their overall business practices will be better positioned to satisfy evolving consumer needs related to sustainability.  

Ian Lifshitz is the North American director of sustainability and public affairs for Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP). He is responsible for leading the company's sustainability and media relations and other related stakeholder engagement programs across Canada,… [Read more about Ian Lifshitz]

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