The world is changing. Society is increasingly aware that consumption and production need to be more sustainable.

That said, it is now generally recognized that the management of environmental impact must go hand in hand with social and economic considerations to achieve long-term sustainability. However, says the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), the interplay between the various factors influencing sustainability are complex and potential solutions are only beginning to be understood.

Concerns about impacts such as global climate change mean that ensuring the efficient use of energy and resources is paramount. A progressively smaller reliance on fossil fuels and larger emphasis on developing a “low carbon economy” will have an effect on the whole product supply chain, INCPEN says.

New ways of thinking about packaging — whether designing a package for the meat and poultry industry or any other retail package for that matter — and its role in the product supply chain, are required to meet the challenges we face. Society needs to feel confident that companies are responsible. INCPEN defines a sustainable-packaging and product-supply chain as a system that enables goods to be produced, distributed, used and recovered with minimum environmental impact at lowest social and economic cost.

INCPEN says packaging must be considered in the context of the design and manufacture of the product, the supply chain and consumers’ needs, because these all dictate the functions required of the packaging. An advantage of considering the whole supply chain is that it opens the potential for finding better ways to meet the needs of society.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, based in Charlottesville, Va., ( envisions 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, and is made entirely using renewable energy. Once used, the packaging is recycled efficiently to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations. The SPC is an industry working group with over 180 member companies from across the supply chain.

The mission of the coalition is to advocate and communicate a positive, robust environmental vision for packaging and to support innovative, functional packaging materials and systems that promote economic and environmental health. The SPC is a project of GreenBlue, a non-profit institute that stimulates the creative redesign of industry by focusing on the expertise of professional communities to create practical solutions, resources and opportunities for implementing sustainability.

Designing sustainably

The design of packaging influences the entire packaging supply chain, from material sourcing to material recovery, says GreenBlue. With this in mind, the SPC published “Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging,” a resource for packaging designers and engineers working toward new sustainability objectives, including optimizing resources, responsible sourcing, material health and resource recovery. The resource is free for SPC members and available to the public for purchase at

Designers who understand the flow of materials are in the ideal position of optimizing a package for its entire life cycle. Also, says GreenBlue, designers understanding the relationships within the flow of packaging materials can identify strategic partners who can help them work through problems along the way to designing sustainable packaging.

According to Curt McNamara, P.E., product designer, member of the o2 Global Sustainable Design Network (, and faculty for Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s groundbreaking Sustainable Design Certificate Program (, a package design has many attributes — some visible, others invisible.

“It advertises its contents, protects them against shock and the elements, adds security, and has a life after death. All of these attributes are points in time where innovation can happen,” he says.

So what is a sustainable package? In the best case, McNamara says, it is one that does its job without leaving a footprint. That footprint comes from material creation and processing, transport and material recycling. McNamara says bigger opportunities come from rethinking the package itself.

“Is it part of the product?” he explains. “Is the product part of the package? Could the package live forever and be useful? How about a package that composts and adds nutrients to the soil? A package that sprouts in the garden?”

All of these and more are possible, he says. John Thackara’s book, “In The Bubble,” lists 10 ways to innovate sustainably: lightness, speed, mobility, locality, situation, conviviality, learning, literacy, smartness and flow. Can a package do more than passively sell? Could it also teach about sustainability and science? Packages retain mobility when they transport the product time after time, says McNamara.

“Local packages are unique to your area, produced and linked to each region,” he says. “They make your product stand out amongst the others and give that increasingly important local connection.”

Ultimately there is no “one size fits all” package, says McNamara, as municipalities in different markets handle a package’s distribution and afterlife in very different ways.

“But nature has found ways to allow single species to evolve and adapt to seemingly contradictory environments,” he says. “By being open to drawing inspiration from all around you, opportunities can be nurtured organically, resulting in truly innovative solutions.”

Sustainable packaging

• Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle.
• Meets market criteria for performance and cost.
• Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.
• Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials.
• Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.
• Is made from materials healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios.
• Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy.
• Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial cycles.

The criteria presented here blend broad sustainability objectives with business considerations and strategies that address the environmental concerns related to the life cycle of packaging. These criteria relate to the activities of SPC membership and define the areas in which the organization actively seeks to encourage transformation, innovation and optimization. SPC believes that by successfully addressing these criteria, packaging can be transformed into a cradle-to-cradle flow of packaging materials in a system that is economically robust and provides benefit throughout the life cycle — a sustainable packaging system.

Source: Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). The SPC “Definition of Sustainable Packaging,” has become a well-regarded industry standard and a helpful vision for companies striving to improve the sustainability of their packaging.
Note: Comments supplied by Curt McNamara originally appeared in an article he composed for Packaging Design Magazine.