November 29, 2021
If you are an active reader of packaging industry news, you might have noticed how many articles or press releases announce a new packaging design or a packaging format change but leave one important aspect out— the reason why. The reasoning behind a packaging change is often made implicit, rather than explicitly stating the metrics for why the change is an improvement, which leaves the reader to fill in the blank with their own idea as to why.
Greenwashing is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.” While greenwashing can be overt claims that are unsubstantiated, providing a cover for consumers to continue believing something is better for the environment by relying on their incomplete preconceptions rather than transparency is also a form of greenwashing. Allowing a reader’s preconception to stand, rather than explicitly confirming or countering a previously held idea is a way to shield less sustainable solutions from merited scrutiny.
Without transparency as to the why of a design change, a consumer is left to assume a reason which can lead to either correct or incorrect assumptions about what makes something more sustainable than the alternative. By leaving the reasoning for the decision to the reader to interpolate, the organizations sharing these press releases are contributing to a culture of greenwashing rather than building a culture of transparency.
If the redesign is science based, rather than optics based, the organization will have the data to back up the design change as a solution. This is because data about environmental impacts is one of the most powerful tools in developing and introducing more sustainable packaging solutions. Methods to compare data about alternative designs, such as Life Cycle Assessments, are used to provide valuable insight into the scope of a design improvement. However, unless the discussion of the redesign includes the data based reasoning (i.e. both the assumptions and the results of comparisons to previous packaging), both the reader and the consumer are left without the ability to judge the merit of the new design.
This challenge in evaluation is especially obvious when changing a package’s material or format from a conventional, recoverable format, to a novel format without an existing recycling stream. For example, publishing press releases or articles about a redesign from plastic to a 3D paper based format, or glass without a comparison of relative recyclability or greenhouse gas emissions, leaves the reader to assume one material to be inherently better. Likewise, changing to a flexible plastic packaging design from a rigid one also should be accompanied by a disclosure of the tradeoffs. As sustainability is complex, press releases and marketing materials about redesigns can build credibility by leaning into the complexity of sustainable package design by illuminating the information about the tradeoffs that were made.
As we watch the packaging industry move to widespread adoption of reusable packaging systems, 3D paper packaging, and compostable packaging systems, transparency regarding the impact trade offs is more important than ever. Not every product is most sustainably packaged in a returnable, refillable container, a novel material application, or suited for compostable packaging. In order for a consumer to understand the trade-offs between packaging options, we need to talk about them. The willingness to share what trade offs are being made and what the environmental impacts of a package redesign are will help cut through the noise and empower consumers to better evaluate product-package systems’ sustainability.