Minimize packaging, don't minimize product protection

Consumer products and food giants plan another 2.5 billion pound reduction by 2020.

Last week, I ordered a new digital frame for my husband (because he still doesn't "do" the Internet and that's the sort of thing I do for him), and the box is still sitting on my dining room table. The reason for that is simple: the frame is flaking out, and I might need to rebox it and send it back.

I noticed that when I unwrapped the thing that the packaging was really quite minimal, at least when compared to the overdone policies of the past. At the time, I was impressed. But when I contacted customer support for this particular company (email online, BTW), I also noted that there was a note about the company not taking responsibility if the frame was damaged during shipment because packaging policies had changed. I was supposed to buy insurance to protect my purchase. Huh?

Here's the thing: Many many companies are making serious strides when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of their packaging. (If you don't count Del Monte, which is baffling many of us with its individual packaging for bananas.)

In two separate surveys conducted by McKinsey & Co. and Georgetown Economic Services on behalf of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, approximately 20 of the biggest U.S. food companies reported that they cut out 1.5 billion pounds of packaging waste since 2005. That includes roughly 800 million pounds of plastic and 500 million pounds of paper. The report, called "Reducing our footprint: the food, beverage and consumer products industry's progress in sustainable packaging," goes on to suggest that another 2.5 billion pounds of packaging could be avoided between now and 2020. That's about 19 percent of the total weight over the combined time period.

The obvious impact of this reduction doesn't just come in the form of lighter products and less stuff to break down and recycle, it comes in the form of fewer trucks needed to get this stuff around as well as less water and other resources.

I'm visiting Dell today for a sustainability advisory council -- they have flown me into Austin with some other journalists and customers -- and packaging is on the agenda. Dell has been experimenting with alternative materials , such as bamboo, and I'm expecting a progress report on its acceptance. (One of the biggest problems that Dell has encountered is helping consumers understand how to dispose of the stuff.)

Indeed, that's one of the biggest challenges that companies are going to have as they move to packaging models that make more environmental sense: adjusting consumer expectations. Remember all the fervor over how much noise the compostable SunChips bags make? It delayed the launch in the United States, although for some reasons Canadians weren't quite as adamant about the noise pollution.

A bigger problem, of course, is the one that I'm having: a company that has minimized the packaging to the point where it isn't doing its real job -- protecting a product from damage. And making a buyer purchase insurance just because your box might not be up to the task isn't going to fly with the general public.

So, when you're working on sustainable packaging, don't forget the original intention of that wrapper, box, bottle or other container. Protection.

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