It’s Not The Size, It’s What You Do With It

6 01 2011

Somewhere in here is an Object of Desire

January is normally the time for reflection after the over-indulgence of the holiday season. A month where the individual will begin to be concerned about the conspicuous consumption of December which culminated in the giving and receiving of presents whilst wishing good health to all and sundry.

So what did Santa leave in your stocking? Did your virtual shopping actually produce physical product or did you decide that the traditional way of purchasing was the most effective means of showing loved ones that you cared?

It probably doesn’t really matter how you personally shopped. Whatever you bought wouldn’t have come naked and shivering but snugly wrapped in a protective coat.

Or packaging as it is known.

The end of the decade has brought many things and most of them have come through the continued growth of the Internet.

The information superhighway that allows us to maintain connectivity from the comfort of our own homes, a social network that provides community without the tiresome act of physical contact with other people and the accumulated knowledge of the world at the touch of a button.

A virtual world with virtual goods and services. Packaged online, this world seems to be in a constant state of flux, flowing with enthusiasm and the desire to make a difference.

But in the real world, everything comes in a package. A physical element that requires the individual to remove the object of desire and discard the irrelevant protection.

And all over the World, every day of the week, we discard tons and tons of packaging.

Not just presents bought for the holiday season but for everyday use. When you buy a new television or electrical appliance, it comes with a box and the vendor’s choice of polystyrene or plastic. When you order the latest Leonardo Di Caprio movie from Amazon, it comes in a cardboard box – which needs to be thrown away (the box, not the movie).

Take a trip to your local grocery store; see how many shelves are packed with items in brightly colored packaging. Need a cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts in the morning? Probably served in a Styrofoam cup.

Size is no barrier to the amount of extraneous waste that humanity can wrap around an inanimate object.

This Green & Pleasant Land

Styrofoam (a brand name registered by Dow Chemical in 1941) is Unrecyclable.

Each year Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam and/or Polystyrene cups. Polystyrene was discovered in 1839 and 500 years from now (when the ants will rule the world), that lovingly designed beverage holder will still be in roughly the same state as the day it was bought.

Americans use 100 million tins or steel cans a day. Every minute 9,000 cans are recovered from trash with powerful magnets whilst the average American throws out 6 pounds of tin every month. Just thrown away, most of it not even recycled.

So what is to be done? Where does the responsibility lie? With the individual or with the producers of the packaging? Consumer or Corporation?

The simple answer is that the individual can only do so much. Personal responsibility is dictated by the situations that the individual chooses to participate in – groceries need to be purchased (although using a recyclable bag rather than the plastic store bag is preferable), consumer electronics are not a daily purchase and there are an increasing amount of companies that are actively seeking to reduce the amount of waste material that comes with their product.

Take Wal-Mart. They are a multinational company that concentrates on reducing prices and competition in the same ruthless manner. They have been criticized for their working practices and for their business ethics, which dictate sales on Wal-Mart’s terms and, not by the provider of the goods and services.

But they have pledged to reduce the amount of packaging globally by 5% by 2013. By using a Packaging Scorecard, the company now insists that any company that wishes to deal with the Wal-Mart family must show that they can get a decent score on their card. According to the Company’s website, the scorecard:

  • Allows suppliers to measure how their product packaging helps reduce energy, eliminate waste and sell more sustainable products.
  • Currently contains information for more than 329,000 items carried in Wal-Mart stores and 11,000 items carried in Sam’s Club.
  • Has been introduced to suppliers in Canada and Mexico where they are in the process of adding their product packaging information into the system. We expect that by the end of 2011, buyers in Canada and Mexico will be able to use the information to influence their purchasing decisions.
  • Evaluates many environmental attributes of packaging, including greenhouse gas reductions, substrate material choices and chemical composition.
  • Gathers information to look at these factors through a “cradle-to-gate” approach.

Wal-Mart may become the biggest boys on the block, a recognized company that sees the potential in being “environmentally responsible”. Irrespective of what we think about the retailing behemoth, they are at least appearing to be willing to go down the right path. Time of course will tell whether their journey is nothing more than a publicity cul-de-sac.

Where Wal-Mart leads others will follow. That is the nature of retail, in the same way that the continued increase of packaging doesn’t reflect on consumer desires but on an established system of ensuring that the goods reach the customer in the manner intended.

However, the reliance of corporations on chemical compounds that not only damage the environment but then seem to want to spend more time not decomposing will be crucial in deciding where the consumer wants to spend their dollars.

Polystyrene may have been around since 1839 but there must be a better way to ensure that the packaging doesn’t outlast your new flat-screen television that it came in.

Someone, somewhere knows the answer. And it just needs to be packaged correctly.

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