Sustainable packaging ‘red herring’ should be ‘scrapped’

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

The term ‘sustainable packaging’ is a red herring, claims new research
The term ‘sustainable packaging’ is a red herring, claims new research
The term ‘sustainable packaging’ is a red herring and should be scrapped, according to leading retailers, manufacturers and consumer groups.

New research from PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) concluded: “The idea that anyone can come up with a single meaningful definition of sustainable packaging is largely proving to be a red herring and has been consigned to history. The reality is that it has been substituted with a more balanced view of efficient packaging.”

This marks an about turn after years in which food and drink brands have embraced the concept and, in many cases, used it to market their sustainability.

Packaging manufacturers have long argued that the role of packaging in creating sustainable supply chains, for example by reducing food waste, has been forgotten in the chase for what some have referred to as “cheap greenie points”.


The message appears to be getting through, however. PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that many fast moving consumer goods companies (FMCG) and retailers are taking a more holistic view of the product, the package and their use from inception to end-of-life.

This has also resulted in “far greater”​ levels of collaboration in the supply chain to find solutions, though some retailers are making over the top demands regarding environmental data.

The research, titled ‘Sustainable packaging: myth or reality’, was the third in a series of surveys (following those in 2008 and 2010) carried out among a group of non-governmental organisations, FMCG firms, packaging producers and retailers.

Speaking to, PWC packaging expert Maya Bankovich said that since 2010 there is evidence that the thinking had “moved on”​ with far greater collaboration up and down the supply chain. 

In the corrugated packaging industry, for example, there had been a move to substitute virgin materials with recycled ones resulting in “significant” financial benefits that are shared among those involved.

She said: “The educated stakeholders we spoke to understand the place packaging has in the supply chain and many are beginning to relent on the insistence for ‘greener’ packaging.”

Nestlé head of packaging

Nestlé head of packaging, Anne Roulin, said in her interview for the report that companies were working to find “the sweet spot”​ where consumer needs, environmental impact, technical and business capabilities merge.

But, there was evidence of tension too, largely between FMCG companies and retailers. The latter were making what some companies viewed as excessive data demands as they sought evidence of everything from carbon footprinting to ethical sourcing. “Compromise” was the order of the day, said the report.

The findings have been welcomed by those in the packaging industry. Environmental consultancy AEA practice director for waste management resource efficiency Adam Read said the report “ … has captured the debate and mood very well. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the use of the term 'efficient packaging' which is probably a more accurate reflection of the drive and direction in the sector”.

To read more about changing attitudes to eco labels, click here​.

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