Executive Chair, OPRL Ltd
People are increasingly aware of the imperative to live more sustainably and to have a lighter footprint on the planet. But how do you tell genuine sustainability claims from greenwashing?
By its nature, sustainability is complex; combining health, social, environmental, resource and economic issues. There are trade-offs and synergies, so making the right decision requires lots of information, but most of us want clear, reliable signposts to make ‘doing the right thing’ easy.
Brands and retailers are providing consumers with an increasing array of sustainability information on packaging, although packaging contributes less than 3% of a product’s carbon footprint. Many are based on recognised, audited standards. A few are little more than marketing.
Responsible businesses design packaging to the well-established resource hierarchy (avoid>reduce >reuse >recycle >recover >landfill). While reusable packaging is the Holy Grail, the plastics used in many are not recyclable at end-of-life and some are over-designed, using excessive material.
Single-use packaging is increasingly light-weight, uses compatible and recyclable materials and gives consumers information on disposal. Can it be recycled? Where? Does it need to be rinsed first? Do food or product residues matter?
Careful attention to sustainability claims is vital. Getting it wrong is disastrous for brand value, erodes consumer trust and, worse still, undermines consumer confidence in taking pro-environmental action.
But many symbols found on packaging, mistaken as recycling advice, actually mean the producer has paid a levy or indicate the polymer used. Others are generic and don’t reflect whether the UK’s recycling infrastructure can handle them. ‘Recycle-ready’ almost certainly means it can’t be recycled here.
‘Plastic-free’ is often applied to packaging made from bioplastics: still plastic but made from wood, bamboo or agricultural by-products, not fossil fuels. They may or may not be sustainably sourced, recyclable or compostable and can cause equal harm in the environment if not disposed of responsibly.
Compostables work well in closed systems like the Olympic Park, but not at home or on-the-go. The UK doesn’t yet have household collections. Industrial composters and anaerobic digestion plants handling garden and food waste can’t risk contaminating their end-products with plastic fragments. They can’t distinguish compostable from conventional plastics so remove everything for landfilling or incineration. Oxo-biodegradables leave micro-plastics in the environment and are being banned in Europe.
Sustainability claims affect brands
Whether packaging procurer, marketeer or consumer, careful attention to sustainability claims is vital. Getting it wrong is disastrous for brand value, erodes consumer trust and, worse still, undermines consumer confidence in taking pro-environmental action. That’s why the Advertising Standards Authority and Competition & Markets Authority are both, rightly, taking a lively interest.