Sustainability is a key priority for customers; in fact, a 2020 McKinsey study found that 67% of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials when they decide what brand to buy. To meet that need, many grocers have launched their own eco-friendly initiatives, and a foundational element is encouraging their suppliers to pursue sustainable practices themselves.
Yet sustainability can be confusing, and as consumers assess their options sometimes the best solution is not as obvious as they may think. Grocers can help their clientele by prioritizing efforts to ensure their offerings align with consumers' values. Here are three common sustainability myths that might be preventing grocers from making the best choices.
Myth No. 1: Paper is preferable to plastic.
While plastics, whether in straw or bag form, are increasingly maligned, often they can be the more sustainable solution when you look at the entire value chain of a product. If grocers' ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas generation, they will often find that plastics make more sense than paper substitutes in a life cycle analysis, explains Bob Lilienfeld, a waste expert with more than 30 years of experience investigating and reporting on packaging and the environment.
"When you look at greenhouse gas generation, nature doesn't care if it's plastic or paper…nature only keeps score in terms of how much pollutant is entering the atmosphere," Lilienfeld points out. From that perspective, there are a significant number of cases when plastic or flexible packaging actually has a net lower effect on the environment than paper.
One example of a small thing that can have a big impact is the "humble bread bag closure, made by a company called Kwik Lok," as Lilienfeld calls it. The Kwik Lok Eco-Lok uses less petroleum-based plastic than the traditional closure so companies that want to work on plastics reduction and also greenhouse gas emissions can choose it as an option that helps with both.
Myth No. 2: Recyclability is the most important factor in sustainability.
Recycling is an activity that can "feel" like it is doing more good than it actually is. That's because disposal is just one aspect of a product's lifestyle, which includes harvesting, production and use—all of which generate emissions down the line long before you end at disposal, says Lilienfeld.
As one counterintuitive example, a plastic closure might seem to be less environmentally friendly than its cardboard counterpart since it’s not readily recycled, not to mention that it weighs more and is made completely from virgin material.
However, manufacturing the Kwik Lok actually produces 92% less greenhouse gas than a cardboard closure. That's because it requires less energy to produce closures from polystyrene than from cardboard, and greenhouse gas generation is a byproduct of energy use.
That's not to say that considering recycling/recyclability and the use of renewable resources shouldn't factor into efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of packaging. Ultimately the most effective strategy is to use the material that generates the least amount of carbon dioxide overall.
Myth No. 3: The main cause of food waste is consumers who overbuy.
According to ReFED, a non-profit that works to solve the nation's food waste issues, 35% of all food in the United States went unsold or uneaten in 2019. This food waste causes problems not just at the consumer level but all along the value chain, from processing to transporting. In fact the carbon footprint of wasted food accounts for about 8% of all emissions. And while consumers should be cognizant of the amount of food they buy, inadequate packaging is actually one of the top reasons for food waste.
Lilienfeld's go-to definition of "sustainable packaging" is using one that allows you to get 100% of the value of what you purchased with the least amount of economic and environmental waste. That's where packaging companies can make a major difference as they innovate with products that minimize food waste and packaging that keeps food fresher and uses tamper-evident technology.
Reducing Carbon Footprint, One Choice at a Time
With so many factors involved in packaging choices, grocers have an important role to play, given that the vast majority of consumers don't have a high level of detail on these environmental matters. That's why it's up to the grocer to make a shopper's job easier by doing in-depth research into how their suppliers align with the grocer's sustainability goals.
Wondering how Kwik Lok is making a difference? Find out more about its sustainability initiatives, including its involvement with the U.S. Plastics Pact.