- Confronted with the challenge of achieving ambitious sustainability goals, enterprises will be forced to reframe their targets
- Focus will change to reducing carbon footprint, even if that means using more complex, harder to recycle, packaging materials
- Gartner foresees some opportunities for reusable packaging, particularly in B2B and closed-loop applications
With most public commitments to sustainable packaging at risk of going unfulfilled, 20% of organizations will shift their focus from recycling and eliminating plastics to reducing the carbon footprint of their packaging by 2026, according to Gartner, Inc.
While the pivot in focus leaves organizations with unmet pledges vulnerable to greenwashing backlash, early movers that successfully educate stakeholders, customers and investors on the benefits of life cycle assessment (LCA) as an alternative sustainability metric will be better prepared to address and defend their contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
“The packaging ecosystem has not advanced at the pace that organizations setting targets back in 2017 and 2018 had hoped for,” said John Blake, senior director analyst with the Gartner Supply Chain practice. “Organizations face operational and financial challenges that were discovered only through the attempt to deliver their goals, but meaningful progress on sustainability can still be made with more realistic frameworks in place.”
The most popular commitments to sustainable packaging have centered on 100% of packaging being reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. However, Gartner previously predicted that 90% of companies with such commitments would see their objectives unmet. Additional non-governmental organization estimates confirm that future scenarios focused on mainstream disposal, collection and recycling will fall short, leading to targets that will almost certainly be missed by most organizations.
“The problem with many of today’s sustainable packaging commitments is that they have little-to-no viable paths to becoming reality,” Blake wrote in a related blog. “The other problem is that this information is not getting to executive leaders.”
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as an alternative measure for sustainable packaging
Due to these multiple headwinds, Gartner anticipates enterprises will switch focus from increased use of recyclable packaging and elimination of plastics to lower-carbon packaging. Using less packaging material and/or materials that are more efficiently produced, transported, and processed can lead to an affordable reduction in carbon footprints.
Over a decade ago, LCA of packaging was piloted by several organizations, but the complexity of data analysis and a lack of relevancy at the time hampered adoption, according to Blake. Now, new data analysis tools are making packaging LCAs more accessible.
When asked by Reusable Packaging News if this marked a return to something more like Walmart’s packaging light weighting strategy from years ago, he indicated that it might play a role. “Tactics to achieve lower carbon footprint of packaging often include using less material through redesign or light weighting, he said. “Light weighting often consists of keeping the same packaging format and functionality, but being more efficient with how much packaging by weight is used.
“This has been a common practice to optimize the costs of packaging. Optimizing packaging through light weighting with an eye for sustainability may result in the removal of some layers of packaging. However, in some cases, a life cycle assessment may prove that a hard-to-recycle multilayer film has a lower carbon footprint than traditional alternatives such as rigid plastics, metal, or glass.”
Anticipating potential backlash for missing stated targets, organizations are expected to develop messaging around the carbon footprint of packaging and how actions are being taken to offset GHG emissions and mitigate the risks of global warming.
“While missing targets will have repercussions in the public eye, organizations that come to terms with the unfeasibility of their previous brand-driven targets and embrace a more realistic, affordable, and effective approach will have more progress to show on their sustainability goals than those who remain in denial,” said Blake.
What about reusable packaging?
We asked Blake about the role of reusable packaging, which he did not mention. He sees some limited applicability.
“Studies show that reusable packaging can have the least impact on the environment under the right circumstances,” he said. These include assuring minimal losses and maximum reuse, efficient supply chains for return, cleaning and refill, and scale.
“Reusable pilots are showing promise but there is work to be done to overcome the reuse, supply chain and scale requirements. I do see successful implementations in business-to-business applications and where companies have closed-loop systems such as movements within the direct control of the manufacturer or brand owner. These examples are directly decreasing packaging waste and reliance on single-use packaging.”
Gartner clients can learn more in: Predicts 2023: Sustainability — It’s Complicated.
Nonclients can register for the on-demand webinar: Turn Supply Chain Sustainability Into a Reality.