Bakers Journal

Sustainability – It’s About Balance

May 20, 2008
By John R. Burke President Foodservice & Packaging Institute

It takes a three-pronged approach to create a better current – and future – world.

“Sustainability” has become quite the buzzword, and it’s not just with the foodservice packaging industry. You can’t pick up a publication without finding an article about the “greening” of the foodservice, packaging or any industry, for that matter. Whether you think sustainability is an opportunity or a threat, one thing is for sure. This buzzword may very well have an impact on the future of the foodservice packaging industry.

Before gazing into the crystal ball to see what this will mean for the foodservice packaging industry, let’s start with a more immediate challenge: the lack of understanding of what “sustainability” really means.

According to William R. Blackburn, author of The Sustainability Handbook, “sustainability is a concept describing mankind’s ability to create a world for humans and non-humans that environmentally, socially and economically provides for a current population’s needs without damaging the ability of future generations to take care of themselves.”

As Blackburn suggested, which is also supported by the United Nation’s Commission on Sustainable Development, sustainability should be a three-pronged approach to creating a better current and future world.

Sustainable actions – whether for a corporate or non-corporate entity – are those that demonstrate a concern for society (social responsibility), a concern for economic growth for society (economic responsibility), and a concern for the environment (environmental responsibility) that all of society’s creatures need to survive. All three sustainable responsibilities should be of equal value, and no one responsibility should supersede or be more valued than the others. For society to be sustainable, it must be in balance.

Unfortunately, too often when discussing sustainable packaging – whether for foodservice or other applications – environmental responsibility is given more weight than the other two.

Without a doubt, one of the key drivers in the recent sustainability initiative has been Wal-Mart. First came its expansion of the “3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle,” to the “7 R’s of Packaging: Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Renew, Revenue, and Read.” This evolved into the Wal-Mart Sustainable Packaging Scorecard, which compares packaging, based on the following criteria:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions during production;
  • Transportation;
  • Ratio of product to package;
  • Recycled content;
  • Recovery value of the package material;
  • Amount of renewable energy used during packaging production;
  • Cube utilization, or the efficient use of space in pallets and shipping containers;
  • Innovation; and,
  • Injury rates under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Wal-Mart’s criteria might very well become the de facto guide when it comes to sustainable packaging, for lack of other options. But it’s not a balanced approach to sustainability.

Further evidence of a non-balanced approach to sustainability is from some packaging manufacturers themselves. Their claims of sustainability for their products, based solely on the perceived environmental superiority of one packaging material or manufacturing process over another, are often as much subjective values or perceptions, as they are hard, scientific fact.

All packaging materials have an environmental footprint. They have an “upstream” environmental footprint when the base material is extracted, harvested, produced and distributed into commerce. And, they have a “downstream” footprint when they are disposed into municipal systems, whether this is a landfill, composting facility or waste-to-energy plant. This cradle-to-grave methodology creates a more holistic picture when comparing materials. But, again, even this doesn’t present a balanced approach to sustainability.

Besides proving environmental responsibility, organizations need to demonstrate their social and economic responsibilities:

  • Social responsibilities show respect for people, including the respect of employees; diverse and fair hiring practices; responsible governance; respect for stakeholders; and fair dealings with customers.
  • Economic responsibilities include the wise use of financial resources, to allow for a company’s economic prosperity, as well as a community’s economic prosperity.

Only when you are satisfied with the evidence that all three responsibilities are met – equally – will a customer or consumer actually be making a sustainable choice.

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