This article titled “Revamped packaging is a convergence between sustainability and innovation” was written by Leon Kaye for the Guardian Professional Network, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 22nd December 2011 13.23 UTC
More retail companies are realising the advantages of using recycled materials and eliminating unnecessary packaging. Revamping packaging can reduce costs and bring benefits for the environment and this has, at least in part, led to the growing convergence between sustainability and innovation. This is especially true of REI, the Seattle-based outdoor recreation gear and apparel company. Having tackled the low-hanging fruit by slashing excessive use of cardboard, plastic wrap and other materials, the company has now taken a more granular look at how it encases and presents its products.
To that end, REI’s managers have reviewed the small things that can at the least annoy consumers and at worst can cause injury. For a company that targets consumers who love the outdoors, the most optimal use of resources became a leading business driver, beginning in 2007.
REI brought on Eric Abraham as the company’s packaging manager. For Abraham, taking a second look at the REI’s product packaging was not about “being green”. Instead, Abraham views the company’s initiative as total process improvement, from the farthest reaches of the company’s supply chain to how the products are displayed in 110 stores across the US. Abraham took a microscopic view of every single aspect of packaging, including those pesky twist ties, plastic bags, tape and staples.
The task was not easy: even though Abraham and his colleagues questioned every area of REI’s business, it was important for REI not to compromise the quality of its products or burden stores with shipments of broken and unusable goods. Clearly packaging is necessary, but how much is really vital and what is completely useless? Abraham and REI first had to measure the amount of packaging materials the company consumed.
Hangtags, those pesky cardboard tags that display the retail price, brand and basic information about the product, ranked high on Abraham’s list. An analysis of REI’s operations revealed that the company’s consumption of 7m to 8m hangtags a year used 59,000kg of paperboard and up to 36,300kg of plastic. So the question arose: what could be done to ameliorate the environmental impact of these materials, or even better, eliminate it completely?
REI reached out to Avery Dennison, one of its packaging and labelling suppliers, to sort out a solution. While solving the riddle of a little string of plastic may not seem complicated, engineering a new solution that would satisfy REI’s product designers and consumers took six months. The result: fasteners made from a recycled resin sourced from used polypropylene clothes hangers. As for the paper hangtags, now all of them are made from 100% post-consumer recycled content.
Abraham then took on other projects that eliminated packaging and offered improvements for consumers. Bicycle tubes are no longer sold in small cardboard boxes, but instead are wrapped in a compostable bio-plastic film that are easier to carry in a pocket or seat bag. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) clamshell packaging for even the smallest products like luggage locks transitioned to paperboard-based holders that are entirely recyclable. Abraham also worked with a Chinese supplier to eliminate the 27g of staples and tape that bound up each bicycle shipped out of the factory. Overall, these improvements will help the company decrease REI-branded products’ packaging by 25% by 2013.
REI is still compiling the financial savings from taking all these small steps, and expects the cost reductions to add as new packaging scales throughout all of its product lines. What is more exciting for Abraham and his team is the sharing of its ideas with other companies, which in part is conducted through its participation with the Outdoor Industry’s Association Eco Working Group. With 180 brands collaborating, watch for more improvements from retailers – and more demands from consumers who want their products to truly reflect the ideals expressed in their brands’ messages.
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