Our industry proves incredibly expensive! The ratio [quantity of product] / [quantity of packaging] is one of the most unfavorable, particularly for luxury brands. It is also the champion of programmed obsolescence, with a constant flow of novelties cannibalizing the previous novelties.
True, virtuous initiatives are ongoing: eco-design, reduction of resources consumption and of waste generation, and more generally limitation of the environmental footprint of the products are central topics in all stakeholders’ agendas.
The ingredient value chain was first to act, and has been working for years on developing natural, sustainably sourced ingredients. There’s more to do but the topic has gained substantial momentum. The packaging value chain was slower to get significantly involved but new initiatives are now popping-up daily: material suppliers proposing materials with lower environmental footprints; packaging manufacturers using post-consumer recycled material (PCR); brands repackaging legacy lines while lightweighing and simplifying their packs; packs designed for smoother end-of-life management; etc.
An incremental yet insufficient approach…
All these initiatives are commendable; however, even consolidated, they are still far from having significantly reduced the environmental impact of the whole packaging value chain, most notably for Luxury products.
Let’s take the example of the classical lipstick tube: for 3 to 4 grams of pomade, the pack typically weights 20 to 35 grams, that is 7 to 10 times more pack than product. At the end of its relatively short life, the user dumps a sophisticated object, composed of plastic, of metal, of various decors and finishes, of glue, lubricant, and sometimes magnets (containing rare-earth metals, limited and highly polluting). And it would be unrealistic to imagine sorting these materials each one within its own recycling stream – which by the way doesn’t always exist.
For fragrance bottles, most glass makers are now proposing glass formulations incorporating a part of PCR glass. This reduces the carbon footprint (CF) of the bottles and contributes to provide an outcome for waste that would otherwise most likely end up in landfill. But let’s look at data (in round figures):
- In a glass bottle, the typical CF resides for 1/3 in the material, and for 2/3 in the processing energy.
- A fraction of PCR reduces the CF of the material part – but doesn’t change the energy requirement. It is today still difficult to go over about 20% of PCR glass without jeopardizing the optical qualities of the resulting glass and making it inappropriate to meet the stringent quality criteria demanded by luxury brands. We can therefore expect a 6 / 7% improvement of the pack’s total CF through this approach – not taking into account decors and accessories.
- Those of the glass maker equipped with electrical ovens can, on top of that, reduce the energy footprint by sourcing ‘green’ electricity. But green or black, this still represents a lot of energy going into waste after the single use (most of the time) of the bottle.
- Besides, still a minority of brands choose to use these partially recycled glasses.
Without discarding these real progresses, which require R&D investments and significant industrial and logistical efforts, we can see that we’ll have to look elsewhere to significantly reduce the CF of glass packaging.
Amongst the three drivers allowing to reduce environmental footprint, the now classic ‘3Rs’ – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – the second is underexploited and perhaps underestimated:
- We see many Reduce initiatives: alternative materials, bio-sourced, coming from PCR, less energy-intensive; eco-designed packs, simplified and light-weighted; use of renewable energy…
- It may also be noted many Recycle announcements: single-material packs, easier to recycle; communication campaigns encouraging end-of-life sorting; initiatives from the Distribution or Brands to collect used packs; implementation of recycling streams; etc.
- There exist by contrast relatively few significant Reuse initiatives. Yet, before thinking about recycling a pack, wouldn’t it be better to ensure that it’s going to be used many times and for a long time?
This may look at first glance as a paradox, because Reuse could represent a very interesting route, especially for luxury brands.
Indeed, mass market brands can (and should) probably live with lightweighing and simplifying their packs, but for premium brands one should not neglect the desirability aspect inherent to the notion of luxury. And it would be challenging to cater to the desirability factor and to justify the price premium by reducing the weight of the packs to the strict minimal technically viable and by using the lowest possible environmental footprint materials (which, let’s be honest, sometimes lack the luster of ‘noble’ materials favored by luxury brands).
Re-using a pack rather than disposing of it instantly divides its environmental footprint by the number or re-uses (as a first approximation). 5 re-uses would create an 80% reduction of the pack’s CF – that is thirteen times better than the 6% saved through the use of PCR for a glass bottle. And we should be able to go well beyond 5 re-uses.
To be continued… the second part of this article will explore some routes that might be promising.