Defra sustainable packaging report dodges regulation question

The Government raises the profile of sustainable packaging design, but stops short of supporting the introduction of mandatory regulations in its long-awaited eco-design review, Making the Most of Packaging: A Strategy for a Low-carbon Economy.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report, unveiled by Environment Minister Hilary Benn last week, says, ‘This is an opportunity for the packaging industry to show the way…; the public expects to see low-carbon living addressed in the design of all packaging.’

It adds that IBM and Asda have both recently engaged in what Defra consider to be exemplary packaging-reduction programmes, aided by design groups such as Elmwood, which works with Asda.

Elmwood group design director Torben Dunn claims that the supermarket, which, he says, ‘puts eco-design considerations at the heart of all of its briefs’, invites the consultancy to play a central role in generating its packaging innovations.

Dunn is even willing to extend a watered-down version of this compliment to the manufacturing industry in general. ‘Sustainability is almost a ticket to the game now. I don’t know anyone that does not put eco-design considerations into packaging briefs, even uber-luxury clients – and if they didn’t, we would question it,’ he says.

However, Three Trees Don’t Make a Forest founder Sophie Thomas believes that it cannot be left to industry to voluntarily reduce packaging and innovate reusability and recyclability. She is concerned that the report fails to advocate the creation of compulsory UK-wide packaging regulations.

Although the review is fodder for consultation, it does state that the Government ‘has no intention of moving to mandatory carbon-based targets for packaging before the [EU] Packaging Directive is reviewed’ in 2014.

‘Without compulsory rules, we are not going to significantly reduce packaging,’ insists Thomas, who is willing to lay responsibility in the laps of designers as well as brands. She adds, ‘Designers believe rules restrict creativity, but if the doors to using some materials are shut, you start to influence your supply chain, increasing the power of design to change the status quo.’

The Brand Union chairman Dave Brown welcomes the report’s emphasis on the role of design consultancies, which he says are ‘in the perfect position to drive change’.

However, Brown feels that the report fails to weigh up ‘the challenge of consumer expectation on one hand and value on the other, as packaging design is a sensitive issue, with profiteering pitted against good practice’.

Brown’s argument contradicts the report’s findings, however, which suggest that good practice now equates to profit-making.

IBM, the report claims, has reduced its costs for materials and transport by £2.2m by replacing polystyrene with cardboard inserts in its computer boxes.

Similarly, Asda’s packaging-reduction programme is claimed to have saved the supermarket more than £10bn in less than 18 months.

‘The move to light-weighting – or right-weighting – saves phenomenal amounts of money, so there are huge commercial arguments for reduction,’ says Dunn. He speaks of manufacturers now voluntarily embracing ‘virtuous circles’ of cost-saving and re-investment, planet-saving and pleasing customers’.

Continuing in its spirit of cajoling rather than coercing, the report promotes brands’ and designers’ use of diagnostic tools like Waste & Resources Action Programme’s Evolving Guide to Packaging Design, and Envirowise’s Packaging Indicator Design Tool, which compare designs against a range of Green criteria.

Elmwood reports that clients are eager to use such tools, which, Dunn says, ‘can unearth companies’ hidden virtues so that they can be used in marketing, and can also suggest improvements to the supply chain that will both save the company money and save the environment’.

Making the most of packaging report:

  • Contains the Government’s claim that it ‘wants to see a greater proportion of packaging designed with sustainability principles in mind across its life cycle’ Envisages packaging design embracing reusability, recyclability or recovery in mind as standard
  • Urges the delivery of real reductions in packaging under existing and new voluntary agreements
  • Encourages market innovation and development that meets the growing demand for reuseable and recycled packaging


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