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4 reasons businesses should set sustainable packaging goals

Plus, some practical ideas for achieving them.

It seems that nearly every day there is a new headline about companies setting ambitious sustainable packaging goals in areas such as recycled content, responsible sourcing and recyclability.

Momentum around sustainable packaging is at an all-time high, and companies are taking action to get ahead of regulations, respond to public outcry over ocean plastic pollution, sign on to global commitments such as the New Plastics Economy and set their own company-level sustainability agenda for the coming decade. In many cases, the deluge of goals is an effort to revise past commitments, which were either unrealized or not ambitious enough to respond to heightened marketplace demands for packaging sustainability.

While doing research for its newly released Goals Database, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) found that 86 percent of the close to 100 companies surveyed have either concrete goals or statements of support that address one or more concepts in sustainable packaging.

Many goals center on recyclability, material and volume efficiency, responsible fiber sourcing, eliminating unfavorable materials and using post-consumer recycled content and renewable materials.
It’s critical to ground ourselves and ask: Why should companies create sustainability goals? There are a host of reasons they should create sustainability goals broadly and sustainable packaging goals specifically. Those range from economic motivators to social and moral drivers. Four of the most important reasons we believe companies should set goals:

1. To get ahead of regulation: Setting and working toward sustainable packaging goals is a great way of setting your company up to meet or exceed regulations. In the European Union, companies must comply with ample legislation around packaging. Canada has many provincial-level legislative requirements. In the United States, while a few states are using policy to impact change in packaging, we see a greater presence of cities and municipalities using regulation.

2. To be proactive against reputational risk and losing social license: This is a large component of why companies should and do craft sustainable packaging goals. For example, if you know activists target companies on deforestation issues, it serves you well to be able to say that you have a goal for responsible fiber sourcing to help demonstrate your commitment to preventing deforestation and removing deforestation from your supply chain. Alternatively, if you know that perceptions around single-use plastics are coming to a boil, it’s valuable to say that your company has been voluntarily working on ways to improve plastic packaging in the form of a corporate commitment.

3. To anticipate market changes: Sustainability is now mainstream, driven by millennials and younger generations that are gaining purchasing power. In the most recent Deloitte Millennials survey, almost 40 percent of respondents stated that the goal of business should be to "improve society" (second only to "generate jobs" in terms of priorities). There’s also more consumer engagement with brands on social media, and more of a demand for transparency, which has a direct impact on packaging. In terms of risk, businesses cannot succeed in a world of environmental, economic and social instability. Companies and some investors today increasingly recognize these risks as threatening supply chains and stable markets for future growth.

4. To do right by the environment: Last, but certainly not least, a critical reason to develop sustainable packaging goals is to save the planet, be ethical and do the right thing for its own sake. There are real threats to business and society in terms of climate change impacts and availability of resources that affect this and, even moreso, future generations. Forward-looking corporations are active corporate citizens, positively affecting the future of the planet.

We believe that companies that set goals are more likely to succeed in achieving sustainability outcomes.

It’s clear that it’s becoming more expected for companies to publicly commit to implementing sustainability broadly and sustainable packaging more specifically. Out of the largest 250 companies in the world, 93 percent report publicly on sustainability and 75 percent of mid- and large-cap companies report publicly on sustainability.

What goals are companies making?

SPC’s Goals Database includes 640 entries of goals and statements of interest from 100 brands and retailers. Of the 640 entries in the database, commitments to more sustainable packaging only account for about half and the other half are broader commitments to sustainability made at the corporate level.

Sustainable packaging goals are, as the name suggests, more specific to packaging. They include goals around recyclability, material and volume efficiency, responsible fiber sourcing, eliminating unfavorable materials, using post-consumer recycled content and using renewable materials. The chart below offers a breakdown of goal categories and their relative popularity.

Packaging sustainability goals

Activating goals

So, the vast majority of companies are publicly committing to making their packaging more sustainable. Great! But how can your organization develop a roadmap to achieving these ambitious goals?

While setting goals is a critical first step, we need to take additional steps to ensure that industry commitments to sustainable packaging are not just aspirational and instead focus on implementation. How might we move the conversation from aspiration to impact?

Strategies are different for different goals and also for different companies depending on their corporate culture and how audacious they are. Success stories are out there, but many companies are just beginning to understand strategies for how to implement their sustainable packaging goals.


Packaging strategy

Under the sourcing umbrella, the most popular goal category in the SPC Goals Database was recycled content, which refers to using or increasing the amount of recycled materials in packaging/reducing virgin materials used. The feasibility of incorporating recycled content into various packaging applications depends on many factors such as performance, aesthetic, cost, processing and supply.

Companies that wish to use high levels of recycled fiber or plastics might evaluate if their performance and aesthetic specifications allow for that or if they need to be adjusted. SPC’s free Design for Recycled Content Guide lays out many examples of design strategies for using this material in packaging.

In an alternative strategy, companies are starting to invest in new technologies to overcome the many challenges of using mechanically recycled materials by investing in chemical recycling. PepsiCo, for example, committed to double its use of recycled content and signed a multiyear sourcing agreement with the chemical recycling company Loop Industries as part of this execution.

Once you know the rules, you can make good choices.
In the recovery umbrella, the most popular goals in the Goals Database were around designing packaging to be recoverable (recyclable/compostable/reusable). Companies that wish to design their packaging to be recyclable might use the How2Recycle label and its back-end member platform, which gives each package a recyclability assessment and guidance. They can also refer to guidelines such as Walmart’s sustainable packaging playbook and the APR Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability.

Once you know the rules, you can make good choices. In one example, Colgate Palmolive overhauled its full-body shrink sleeve, as these often interfere with recycling since shrink sleeves are often a different material than the actual bottle. Colgate Palmolive created a new shrink sleeve made of the same material as the bottle and took steps to pass the appropriate Association of Plastic Recyclers critical guidance tests. It was a finalist in SPC’s Innovator Awards.

What’s clear from the growth of corporate sustainable packaging goals is that an ever-growing number of businesses are actively trying to make their packaging more sustainable. If we can equip these companies with the right information, resources and partnerships, we can help them develop an operations plan to actually meet these goals and in the process tackle some of the biggest sustainability challenges facing the world today.

Interested in learning more about how to execute your sustainable packaging goals? SPC’s new event, SPC Engage, is created to be an incubator for industry action with the dedicated purpose to help organizations activate their sustainable packaging goals. SPC Engage will take place June 17 in Minneapolis, co-located with the GreenBiz Circularity 19 event. And be sure to check out our webcast, Circular Packaging: The State of Play, on May 21.

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