War on waste


It’s an all too familiar scene for shoppers in large-scale supermarkets. Four tomatoes on a small, perfectly shaped cardboard tray, sealed in transparent cellophane. What is wrong with loose tomatoes?
And how many parents tear their hair out every Christmas, fumbling with small screws that hold a toy car in place on a little card square? The car is then secured to the same card with little plastic wires. And to make it look more impressive, it all comes in a sizeable cardboard box with a see-through window.
It’s a frustrating business, least for the shopper or parent in question, and more for those having to deal with the removal and disposal of all the rubbish. Never mind the fact that the cardboard, cellophane and plastic could be recyclable or biodegradable, it’s more a question of necessity.
As for the environmentalists – they are having a field day. Gone are the days when the focus of attention was on the green credentials of a product alone. Initiatives such as the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive have spearheaded the issue of product disposal and now the disposal of the packaging itself has entered the mainstream arena.
What has all this to do with the office products industry? Quite a lot, according to Mike Wright, director of marketing communications at ACCO Europe: "The debate today surrounds two key issues: Relevance and waste management. Historically, the OP industry has been bedevilled with a view that everything must be four-colour, retail appropriate and loud in order to ‘grab the attention’ and get one (perceived) step ahead of the competition.
"This approach has been further promoted due to a lack of product innovation so the packaging has become the choice driver as the products themselves have become more and more me-too, and own brands have been seen by the distribution channel as the panacea for all evils."
Up until about 18 months ago, the driving force that was influencing packaging decisions and choices was legislation. This was certainly the case in Europe where the European Packaging and Waste Directive of 1994 required European Union (EU) member states to register for appropriate packaging collection and packaging management programmes.
Market forces
More recently, however, it’s been market forces that have driven packaging policies. In other words, consumer pressure and demand for less or ‘better’ packaging. As such, product packaging is increasingly becoming an integral part of many a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) message.
Typical performance indicators for packaging include a minimisation of resource consumption, a preference for renewables in both material and energy source and less waste for final disposal, as well as production processes that are generating lower amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Wal-Mart in the US was one of the first retailers to jump on this particular CSR bandwagon with its Packaging Scorecard, first announced last September and formally launched in February. The scorecard measures suppliers’ packaging credentials based on a number of different metrics.
In the main, however, concerns about packaging remain one of the lesser talked about corporate subjects in the US. This is mainly because there is no federal legislation enforcing initiatives and because of the existence of plenty of disjointed and little-publicised state-run schemes.
About 30 countries at present have laws designed to reduce the burden on landfill sites and encourage reduced packaging and greater recycling of packaging discards. Many of these countries require manufacturers to take back packaging or pay for their recycling and recovery.
The majority of these countries are in Europe and it’s safe to say that – with the possible exception of Japan – Europe could well be described as the packaging-conscious hotbed of the world at present, with a variety of legislative as well as voluntary programmes in place.
The UK is one of the few countries where packaging initiatives are a shared producer responsibility between retailers and manufacturers, as opposed to being largely manufacturer-driven. Of late, there has been a considerable amount of pressure on the big retailers to cut down their packaging waste. And they are rising to the challenge.
Wal-Mart’s UK subsidiary Asda is one of several operators in the country that, as part of signing up to the Courtauld Commitment, has recently come out with the pledge to cut its packaging by 25 percent by 2008. With that figure, it’s one of the leaders in the field (Tesco pledged the same amount, but by 2010, Sainsbury opted for a more conservative five percent by 2008).
Initiatives like the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), and within that the Courtauld Commitment, have catapulted the packaging debate very much into the public domain and away from just corporate, or even legislative, eyes.
Julian Carroll, managing director of the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN), an industry and trade organisation that promotes sustainable development in packaging and packaged goods, says: "This packaging retail hysteria is happening primarily in the UK and in North America because market forces are driving it. You don’t get this in the rest of Europe."
Low-hanging fruit
CaRroll refers back to the EU packaging directive and explains why in the UK in particular the public debate revolves around retailers rather than manufacturers. He says: "One of the countries where the directive is working the least well is in the UK, because it decided to take a different approach FROM most other countries. Companies figured that they could meet the directive’s targets by going for the low-hanging fruit – transport and secondary packaging.
"As a result, the UK never really established a system comparable to other countries, which dealt with household packaging waste – ie primary packaging – and now that’s coming back to haunt it.
"That’s why you get all the pressure on retailers now – you don’t get those kind of media headlines in Germany, France or Belgium because there’s already an established system that deals with household packaging."
But, it appears, the current focus by the retail fraternity in the packaging war is rather selective and concentrates chiefly on food products.
Asda spokesperson Ed Watson told OPI: "It’s all down to customer feedback. We conducted a trial where customers could leave all their excess packaging at the checkout – none of it was stationery."
He continued: "The concerns of our customers currently revolve around too much packaging in food products and homewares, and those are the areas we’ve been concentrating on. So we’re starting off with the high-volume areas such as food and general merchandise and then we’ll be looking at other opportunities throughout the store."
Because of this lack of direct customer demand, it’s unlikely that retailers will be calling on their OP suppliers to tackle the packaging issue in the short term. So the onus is on the manufacturers to take charge and make sure they are ahead of legislative, as well as consumer, pressure.
And there are many companies that are addressing the issue. Germany-based Tesa, for example, has launched a glue stick with no packaging whatsoever (as opposed to the alternative blistercard version), just a hoop to hang it up on in the shop.
Blistercard heaven
Several writing instruments manufacturers are also favouring the little or no packaging approach. Don Skelton, managing director of Pilot Pen in the UK, says: "We should try for as little packaging as possible, but even the little packaging that we do use should be from a sustainable source. So if we have to blistercard products, the card and the plastic used should be recycled."
As for encouraging retailers to sell loose pens instead of blistercarded packs of two, three or four, these manufacturers have their work cut out. Asda’s response? "We’re a volume retailer and we tend to sell in bulk – three pens, five pens, etc. That aside, selling them loose is not possible, because they just get stolen from the store."
But even with a certain shrinkage rate, Skelton is adamant that it makes sense, from an environmental as well as financial point of view: "The point is that when you have a product that is blistercarded, there’s an additional cost for the manufacturer.
"We as a manufacturer would be more than happy to pass on part of the savings to the retailer.
"Chances are that the difference in the cost of packaging would be significantly more than the shrinkage rate a retailer experiences. So, in fact, the supermarkets could see that they are making more money, not less, from selling loose pens."
Surely, here’s a competitive advantage for small independent retailers that do sell loose pens. Firstly because customers like to try out pens on test pads, which is not possible if they’re packaged, and secondly because, given the choice and financial parity, consumers will, more often than not, choose the environmentally sound product.
As Skelton adds: "Pilot Pen’s Begreen products are the same price as the equivalent products in our standard range. Our parent company in Japan has taken the moral stance that we will not charge more for an environmentally friendly product, thereby not treating it as a cash cow, where you charge a premium for those products. We want to give consumers a like-for-like choice, even if it does cost us more to make the greener product. Otherwise it’s not much of a choice, is it-
Transport issues
It’s not just what’s visible on the retail shelf, however – far from it. The transport of goods is equally important and ramps up a company’s packaging total immeasurably.
Louise Marshall, corporate risk manager at Brother UK, believes it’s all about keeping packaging to a minimum and using plain common sense. She says: "We’ve started to ship spare parts in bulk rather than shipping them individually from our manufacturing sites in Japan all over the world. We now ship them in crates to our various plants and they are broken down into smaller packages nearer to their final destination."
And while Marshall agrees that keeping down the weight of packaging is important, legislation like the EU directive, which works largely based on the weight of packaging, can also be counterproductive. "It’s not weight alone that matters. A lot of companies have started to reduce the weight of packaging, but in doing that, they’ve ended up replacing it with something that’s not as environmentally friendly.
"At Brother, for example, we’ve tried to steer away from styrofoam packaging and migrate to cardboard inserts in the boxes. That’s heavier than styrofoam, but much easier to recycle."
And, as EUROPEN’s Carroll adds, it’s not all about less packaging: "Of course, from an environmental point of view, the objective is to reduce the impact of packaging and that can be translated into people saying less packaging. But it’s also important to note that if you have too little packaging, you may get wasted products and the impact on the environment of wasted products is ten times worse than the impact of a little packaging."
For now, consumer feedback in the OP industry has focused largely on the end product rather than its packaging. But, such is the unanimous opinion of those polled by OPI, the media interest that currently scrutinises the retailers and food products will eventually migrate to other products and OP commodities will be among those.
And, as Marshall says, manufacturers need to be prepared for it. "It’s up to the manufacturers to get involved sooner rather than later, because what we don’t want to see is the problem that a lot of the retailers have now and that is that they are being shamed into it. We need manufacturers to take responsibility now."
Changing attitudes
A whole new attitude is needed, agrees ACCO Brands’ European packaging manager Paul Brunning: "With our focus on product innovation has come a new view on how we should package and that view is much broader and more all-encompassing than ever before. It challenges those accepted norms and it does so by looking at different sets of criteria, some of which are home-grown, some imposed and some visionary.
"A practical example of this in packaging terms is that of multilingual boxes. There are two contradictory facts: If one wishes to sell Rexel staplers, for example, in the French market it is much better to focus on the French language alone. But the other incontrovertible fact is that the more variations of the same product you have, the more waste you will have.
"ACCO Brands Europe is fast moving the vast majority of its brand ranges to a consistent, universal, multilingual format because we firmly believe the emphasis should be on waste management and environmental responsibility."
Understanding the full scope of the legislation available, and implementing it to its intended purpose rather than viewing it as a bureaucratic burden, is vital. Given the absence of strict international packaging laws, and the existence of plenty of local schemes, this isn’t easy.
All packaging entering the EU should ostensibly comply with the aforementioned packaging directive, but there’s no doubt the reality is somewhat different, especially when products – and their packaging – come from emerging markets.
Lastly, it’s important to avoid ‘green window dressing’. If companies are not genuine about their motives and achievements, any conflicting messages or, worse, wrong doings will come back to haunt them. And apart from getting bombarded by environmental NGOs about misleading consumers, your entire CSR message will not be worth the paper it’s written on.