Food Matters Live 19: When sustainability, isn’t sustainable

Amongst the sessions trying to divine what the future might look like post ‘peak’ vegan, or exploring the on-going rehabilitation of cannabis, a thought-provoking seminar took a closer look at packaging (particularly ‘sustainable’ packaging) at Food Matters Live last week.

Several important points, amongst the dozens made by each speaker, jumped out.

Firstly, confusion abounds. It’s almost impossible for ordinary shoppers to discern the difference between ‘good’ packaging and ‘bad’, not to mention the horrible grey areas in between.

As much as something might be labelled as recyclable, biodegradable, compostable or ‘made from recycled materials’ the reality of actually making the best choice for the environment is challenging to say the least.

Rupert Wyllie, industrial product designer and circular economy expert, talked about the issues with so-called ‘sustainable’ packaging and how those issues are communicated – or not – to consumers.

He pointed out that the focus on plastics since David Attenborough’s devastating expose of ocean plastic had led to a plethora of solutions from retailers and brands – not all of them very satisfactory. He showed his audience a variety of plastic packaging – all, to the uninformed naked eye, pretty much similar. Except some could be recycled, some composted. One could even be dissolved in hot water – but not recycled – and inevitably, some only fit for landfill. How on earth are ordinary shoppers meant to decipher all this?

But it gets worse. Rupert also used two ‘biodegradable’ shopping bags as an example of carriers pretending to be environmentally friendly, when in fact they merely break down into micro-plastic (after a very, very long time) – potentially as harmful to the environment as any other kind of plastic.

Perhaps even more disconcerting for consumers (and brands) looking for alternatives to plastic, is the fact that many currently being touted as the answer, are using valuable food resources. Rupert pointed to Richard Branson’s UAE Virgin Megastore, which is now making carrier bags out of cassava – the staple diet of millions of people worldwide. “I think essentially there are sufficient numbers of people on the planet now that a leap into bio-based alternatives to fossil fuels could have very serious consequences for the provision of food…some of the poorest people in the world, who are going to be the most impacted by climate change, rely on this for their staple diet. If they are living a subsistence lifestyle already and they are challenged in their environment, the last thing they need is someone coming along making plastic bags out of it…even worse making plastic bags that are going to be single use,” he said.

Essentially, the point Rupert was making is that brands (and retailers) are introducing more and more things into the market without considering what’s going to happen to them, or the wider implications of any effects they might have, simply to satisfy a knee-jerk reaction to the extremely emotive issue of plastic pollution.   

His view is that it’s the responsibility of the brands to “get real” about what they are putting into the market (and the environment) and put more effort into reducing the amount of packaging they produce: “The reality is that from a sustainability point of view, the number one thing you can do is to have less packaging, or not use it at all. Recycling is the least preferable because it requires not only transport and processing and more energy, but also re-processing. If you (brands) are designing for recycling, then you are designing for a pretty poor outcome.”

Brandality often works with brands to help them design truly sustainable, beautiful and functional packaging. If you’d like to know more about how we can help your brand get the sustainability message right then drop us a line at  nb@brandality.co.uk.