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Sustainability crossroad

In 2006, ordinances in California called for a ban on the use of foam polystyrene for food packaging and mandated biodegradable replacement products.

Pw 5593 Cal Poly Packaging

These ordinances by local jurisdictions have prompted similar mandates throughout California.

These and other governmental mandates are driven, in theory at least, by the desire to bring about a world that is more sustainable. But too often these mandates are driven by emotion rather than by scientific data. It’s gotten to the point that the very notion of sustainable packaging is at a crossroads. Companies offering genuinely sustainable packaging solutions are seeing their would-be customers hi-jacked by an excessive emotionalism that threatens to undermine everyone’s credibility. Unscrupulous and opportunistic firms make claims of sustainability that are either exaggerated or downright untrue. Recent research has shown that products manufactured as “green” may actually contribute more to greenhouse gases and landfill waste than traditional substrates. Additionally, there is little oversight to verify claims of post-consumer content or biodegradation as labeled by the manufacturer.

As a result, a tension now exists between the science of sustainability and a near-religious environmental zeal. Companies that invest in legitimately sustainable products and those who peddle the illusion of sustainability compete for the same customers, who struggle to distinguish between the two. In many cases, companies that are ethically compelled to deliver products that match their claims are at a disadvantage to those that have seized the market’s apparent willingness to assign altruistic motives based on environmental and sustainable claims alone.

In lieu of a clear understanding of the market, this imbalance between what the marketplace wants and what it gets will continue. At the source of the conflict between cynical emotionalism and rational product design is a fundamental misunderstanding of the marketplace. While companies have raced to meet the perceived demand for “environmentally friendly” products, they have neglected a fundamental requirement of any long-term business success: a clear understanding of the customers they look to serve.

To date there is no reliable and honest assessment of the market for sustainable or environmentally friendly products. Various researchers have attempted to forecast the size of the market, but this work is often agenda-driven and tends toward optimistic assumptions about customers’ willingness to pay for these products, with little understanding of how customers make such decisions. Such an analysis is not only required to target the right products using the right messages, but to reliably assess return on investment in the design of those products.

It’s time both buyers and suppliers of packaging materials tuned out—or at least turned down—the emotional element that seems to have gained the upper hand in our ongoing quest for greater sustainability. Let science and thoughtful analysis shape the discussion.

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