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When it comes to packaging, is it possible to be 'too' green?

When it comes to packaging, is it possible to be 'too' green?

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Earth Day Special Feature 2011: Sustainable packaging initiatives could wind up costing your company money in damages if you don't think things through end-to-end. Here are suggestions for minimizing the risk.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the experience I had with a digital frame that shipped to me with very minimal packaging. That minimalism was something that thrilled me during the unwrapping phase of the consumer experience but less so when I plugged the gadget in and it didn't work. Because of said minimal packaging. (That blog was called "Minimize packaging, don't minimize product protection.")

My story had a happy ending in the form of a product exchange, but my experience offers a cautionary tale: in their rush to make one portion of a product or service or supply chain practice either greener or more sustainable, businesses have to look at the entire end-to-end process. Or they risk a misfire. The place where there are the most glaring examples of this come in green packaging initiatives, which is why you will see companies like Dell -- which is innovating with both bamboo and mushrooms as alternative packaging materials -- experiment carefully before doing a widescale launch.

I had a chance to debate this topic a bit with Gene Bodenheimer, senior vice president of product lifecycle logistics for Genco ATC, which offers supply chain and product lifecycle logistics services. Bodenheimer's company puts two data points that you have to absolutely consider when you are thinking about messing with packaging in order to make it greener.

  • For every one product that is damaged and needs to be dealt with, a company might have to produce up to seven new units in order to offset the cost of that damage. Ouch.
  • Sometimes, an initiative to minimize packaging (put aside the green benefits for a moment) can result in damages that are 10 to 20 times greater than the value of the initial savings. He cites the example of a baby-food company that messed with the tray and shrink style of its boxes, only to find that many of its glass bottles were cracked or broken during transport. Bodenheimer notes: "What looked like a good thing ended up in having a catastrophic end result."

So how do you reduce the risk that your green aspirations -- especially when it comes to getting product from the point of manufacture into the hands of your ultimate consumer -- will wind up costing your company money? Bodenheimer offers these tips and suggestions:

  1. Remember that what works in one region won't necessarily be appropriate for another. For example, a material that holds up find in dry conditions might not perform the same way when introduced into a humid or tropical climate.
  2. What works for one product won't work across your entire line. Dell's policies offer a great example of this. While bamboo might work as a cushion for some of its lighter products like netbooks, it can't handle heavier things like hardware servers.
  3. Get everyone's input. Make sure the packaging experts talk to stakeholders throughout the entire supply chain.
  4. Regularly update your system for handling less-than-perfect product.
  5. Figure out if the waste management system can handle alternate materials. One of the things that perplexes me about the compostable packaging used for SunChips, as an example, is the fact that very few people I know actually have a compost pile. So I am sure many of its bags are winding up in landfills anyway. I would love to be proven wrong on that assumption.
  6. Monitor, monitor, monitor. Check for damage at every step of the process, not just at the end, so you can figure out where the breakdown might be occurring. That way you can tweak your green packaging process as necessary.

More from SmartPlanet's Earth Day Special Feature 2011:

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure