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At a time when consumers are more concerned than ever about the environment and how their favorite products are manufactured and presented to the public, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), a project of the Charlottesville, Va.-based nonprofit institute GreenBlue, is helping to make a difference.

Formed in 2004 with nine initial member companies, SPC membership is now just under 200, according to the coalition’s director, Anne Johnson. “Our members span the packaging supply chain and include raw material producers, converters, brand owners/retailers, recyclers, and state and government agencies,” she notes. Among the CPG member companies are some of the most familiar names in the industry, including Kraft, Kellogg and ConAgra.

Uniting these various representatives is a common vision for sustainable packaging, outlined by the SPC and available for review at “The definition is a guiding framework adopted by many of our member companies,” says Johnson. “It also has provided direction for many of the projects undertaken by the coalition. The definition goes far beyond packaging and includes issues like energy, quality of manufacturing, chemistry of material and, of course, recovery. It speaks to everyone in the packaging value chain. What we find is that the opportunity for companies to take action varies. CPGs are in a position to specify more efficient packaging, work with their suppliers to select better materials and, perhaps most importantly, given their close connection to consumers, they have a role in encouraging better end-of-life management, as do retailers.”

As Johnson explains it, the concept of green packaging goes well beyond the vessel itself. “One can design an incredibly materially efficient packaging, but if it ends up in a landfill, by definition, that is not a sustainable use of resources,” she explains. “A package in and of itself cannot be ‘sustainable’; only systems can be sustainable.”

To spread its message, the SPC has done extensive outreach to the packaging and business community, including the 2007 launch of a two-day “Essentials of Sustainable Packaging” seminar.

Much of that message, as Johnson points out, is “very generic, like reduce, reuse, recycle.” She adds: “Source reduction or making packaging more lightweight is an important environmental improvement strategy as well as a powerful cost-reduction strategy. A recent AT Kearney report notes that one CPG saved $500 million over 16 years through packaging optimization efforts. The SPC does not prescribe what good packaging is; our definition outlines areas of opportunity to address and, depending on the company, their ability to capitalize on those opportunities varies. For instance, a material manufacturer may be looking into bio-based feedstock to replace fossil fuel feedstock, while a converter may be working on optimizing the layout of a package design or equipment operation.”

Retailers, which form part of the coalition’s membership, are also a crucial part of the mix. “Because retailers are such an important audience, we are currently trying to focus on more outreach to retailers, specifically related to education,” says Johnson. “The SPC has also been a contributor to the Wal-Mart SVN [Sustainable Value Network] over the past several years.”

The bottom line, however, is that more eco-friendly packaging practices can translate to a healthier bottom line. “Right now, sustainable packaging is also cost management,” notes Johnson. “What we are finding is that companies that have been committed to sustainability are better able to adapt to a changing business environment. The AT Kearney report found that these companies are doing better in an economic downturn. They have a better long-term vision for strategic issues; they tend to have better risk management and more rigorous corporate government. Whether it is having better insight into your supply chain or being able to deliver comparable value with less cost, sustainability is increasingly a powerful strategy to deal with a business climate that appears to be increasingly influenced by environmental issues like resource scarcity and climate change, as well as the specter of increased legislation.”