Aveda and Wal-Mart. A few years ago, it would have seemed that these two companies had little in common. One built its brand on natural products and the promise of eco-friendly practices, the other on the promise of low prices. But shortly after Hurricane Katrina, environmental issues became a chief talking point for Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, who laid out three environmental goals for the company: to be supplied 10 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain not only company resources, but the environment.
With more than 60,000 suppliers around the world, Wal-Mart aims to reduce overall packaging by 5 percent by 2013. It’s an admirable goal, one that would remove 213,000 trucks from the road and save 76 million gallons of diesel fuel in a year. And to achieve it, last month the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer formally introduced an environmentally minded packaging scorecard that evaluates suppliers based on the sustainability of their packaging and rates them against their competitors. Buyers use those scorecard results to inform their purchasing decisions. Although experts in sustainability circles say the scorecard is far from perfect, all agree it’s a positive start and long-term results of this corporate commitment could be enormously beneficial to the environment.
“When Wal-Mart sneezes, the world catches a cold,” says Donald Carli, a senior research fellow with the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communication in New York and president of consultancy Nima Hunter. “The fact that they’ve made sustainable packaging and sustainability in general a governance priority has tremendous impact. Among other things, they have the largest truck fleet in the world, the largest electric bill in the country and more people in uniform than all the branches of the military combined.”
The ripple effect that Wal-Mart’s initiative could have on the way products are packaged is enormous. The scorecard evaluates metrics including greenhouse gas emissions, product-to-package ratio, the amount of renewable energy used in packaging production and transportation emissions.
“It is probably the most significant initiative that is transforming the whole packaging industry,” says Marc Alt, president of Marc Alt + Partners, an agency dedicated to sustainable innovation, and a founding co-chair of the American Institute of Graphic Artists’ AIGA Center for Sustainable Design. “Companies like P&G and Unilever have to look at their packaging in order to get the incentives at Wal-Mart. It’s a good way for the industry to get gently prodded into rethinking its supply chain.”
Small changes can mean big results. Last year, at the Clinton Global Initiative, Wal-Mart announced its commitment to sell only concentrated liquid laundry detergent in all of its U.S. stores by May of this year. Pointing to Unilever’s introduction of All Small-and-Mighty laundry detergent, Wal-Mart executive Leslie Dach told the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in January, “We hope our commitment will help move the industry from standard-sized to concentrated-liquid detergent bottles.” Estimating the annual purchases of all Wal-Mart consumers, he added up the impact over three years, saving more than 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic resin and 125 million pounds of cardboard. “Think about it,” he told the audience. “This is just one product category. What if retailers changed the game across their products? What kind of effect could that have on climate change?”
While Wal-Mart, which will hold its annual invitation-only Sustainable Packaging Exposition this month to join vendors and suppliers, is pushing manufacturers to examine their practices, designers are leading the push for change on a micro level. Valerie Casey, a designer at Ideo in Palo Alto, Calif., is founder of the Designers Accord, a year-old coalition of designers, educators, researchers, engineers, consultants and corporations that are working together to create positive environmental and social impact. More than sixteen thousand members strong, the initiative has been endorsed by the design community’s two largest professional organizations, the AIGA and the Industrial Designers Society of America.
“Knowledge is what the design industry is really lacking,” explains Casey, who says she began the initiative to facilitate conversations that will ultimately implement change. “I created it as a way to accelerate our ability to learn about this topic and create enough of a dialogue in the community so we can start innovating around the knowledge we have rather than spending all our time trying to attain that knowledge.”
Members must pledge to publicly declare participation in the movement; initiate a dialogue about environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with each client; rework client contracts to favor environmentally responsible design and work processes; provide strategic and material alternatives for sustainable design; and measure the carbon footprint of their own firm and pledge to reduce it annually. Casey notes the group just signed its first corporate adopter, Autodesk, a design technology company that announced its alliance at the recent Ted Conference, and is in the process of adding paper companies such as Mohawk, New Leaf and Sappi. “Billion-dollar companies are saying it’s important to band together to leverage the power of the collective,” she says
Carli, a marketing and strategy expert who has worked with companies such as Xerox, Kodak and DuPont and is sustainability editor for Graphic Arts Monthly, says from his perspective the sustainable design movement has seen a “sea change” in support over the last two years and some improvements. The first wave of change in packaging design, he says, was all about reducing packaging, downsizing and dematerialization. “There are tremendous advances in print and electronics that we believe will enable the next wave of change in packaging,” he says. “Packages are now active rather than passive objects.”
Carli cites the developments of a Swedish company named Cypak. “They are printing a package for pharmaceuticals that contains circuits and antennas so you can monitor and manage compliance and efficacy,” he explains.
“This is radically changing the nature of packaging. The sustainability of the package is about something far more important than it was made of recyclable materials or whether it reduced the amount of energy required to transport it,” he says. “It’s about improving the quality of life itself.”
From the smallest changes, like Hamburger Helper downsizing its packaging by straightening its noodles, to innovative designs that allow products to be reused in innovative ways, the interest in sustainable design is growing. One skin-care company, Pangea Organics, literally allows consumers to grow herb gardens out of their discarded packaging, made from 100 percent post-consumer paper and organic seeds like sweet basil.
Generally, says Wendy Jedlicka, a Roseville, Minn.-based designer who has written extensively on the subject of sustainable design, manfuacturers have done a “horrible job” in this area. “Mostly because they are appreciating it from a superficial place,” she says, pointing to companies that simply upgrade one element of a product rather than “approach the problem with a holistic eye. They need to look at the whole of their supply chain, like Aveda and, strangely, Wal-Mart.”
Jason Pearson, president and CEO of GreenBlue, the Charlottesville, Va.-based parent of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, says he is unable to point to any product or package that is sustainable. “None,” he says. “I don’t think the word should be applied to packaging but to the health of the planet.”
The coalition urges its diverse membership, which includes companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, to uphold a more “ambitious” definition of sustainable packaging inspired by the crade-to-cradle philosophy. According to the organization’s Web site, the goal is “to create a world where all packaging is sourced responsibly, designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle, meets market criteria for performance and cost, is made entirely using renewable energy and, once used, is recycled efficiently to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations.”
The inherent design challenge, Pearson says, comes from the complexity of all that is involved in sustainable design, from the materials that are available to the systems, or lack of systems, that are currently in place to support those solutions. “Designers have a really important role to play because designers are trained to look at that,” he says. “When you have constraints, when you really don’t know how to do something, you try new options, new ideas and provide new ways of doing things.”
The question to ask, he says, is: “As an individual or a company, am I working hard to move my products and packaging in a direction that is helping the industrial economy to become sustainable? Until we can say that, we all have a lot of work to do.”