Sustainable Packaging Indicators and Metrics: How Sustainable is Your Packaging?

Of all possible product components, packaging is one of the most pervasive. The decisions your organization makes regarding packaging span across the supply chain of nearly all products. 

Besides being incredibly common, packaging is also very visible to customers and can help communicate your brand’s sustainable efforts to eco-minded consumers. But how do you know the true environmental and social impact your packaging has on the world? You measure it, of course.

As you will see, there are lots of different indicators and metrics used to assess packaging sustainability—because there are lots of different ways to define what sustainable packaging is. To make sure you are collecting the right data, measuring the right impact and telling the right story, it’s important that you first understand what sustainability means in the context of packaging. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) envisions and defines sustainable packaging as:  

  • Is beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
  • Meets market criteria for performance and cost
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy
  • Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  • Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
  • Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles  

Indicators and Metrics for Assessing Packaging Sustainability

What do we mean by “indicators” and “metrics” anyways? Indicators describe a concept and can express positive or negative movement towards a goal; metrics express indicators (typically as a numerator and a denominator, i.e. A per B. For example, “% of total material used” is a metric that could be used to quantify and express the indicator “recycled packaging content.” Together, indicators and metrics allow stakeholders to understand the current state of their packaging program, establish baselines and objectives for future packaging initiatives and determine how much further they need to go relative to each stated goal.

In its Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability (GPPS), the Consumer Good Forum provides over 40 different sustainable packaging indicators and metrics that span material use, water use, energy use, material health, clean production and transport, cost and performance, community impact, worker impact and other areas that are touched and impacted throughout the packaging supply chain. These include:

Choosing the Right Sustainable Packaging Indicators and Metrics

According to the Consumer Goods Forum, “Just as it is not necessary to use every word in the dictionary in every conversation, so it is not necessary to use every metric in each discussion about the sustainability of packaging.” Unfortunately, there is no single formula in determining how many or which indicators to use. Instead, you will need to choose the indicators (and corresponding metrics) that best help answer the range of environmental, economic and social questions you are asking about your packaging. The Consumer Good Forum recommends stakeholders and decision-makers consider the following points to help determine which indicators are the most appropriate and impactful:

  1. Relevance and significance – What is the business question being asked? What are the most significant areas of activity and influence related to packaging? Priority indicators are those that are the most relevant to the question(s) at hand and pertinent to the organization’s actual packaging materials/processes.
  2. Life cycle phases – In selecting attributes and indicators, attention should be given to those that address multiple stages and touch-points throughout the packaging life cycle, including upstream, use phase, transportation and end-of-life characteristics. A more holistic, “cradle-to-grave” approach can also help packaging designers and other stakeholders make packaging decisions that reduce environmental and social impacts.
  3. Level at which indicator is used – Stakeholders engaged in the process of selecting appropriate sustainability indicators must first determine the level at which each indicator will be used. Indicators and their corresponding metrics can be assessed at the individual functional unit level (e.g., packaging component or product), at the business unit level (e.g., marketing or logistics) or at the corporate level.
  4. Alignment with other objectives and processes – Ideally, sustainable packaging indicators and metrics should be adopted if they are in close proximity to decision points that are already considered as part of the design or design-approval process. This ensures measurement and the gathering of relevant data is already being done. Alignment with other objectives and processes can also give sustainable packaging indicators more weight and influence in relation to packaging decisions.
  5. Availability of data – An indicator is only as impactful as the data behind it. Therefore, the availability of data (and of resources to obtain the necessary data) must be considered when selecting indicators to adopt and the value of each corresponding metric. If certain data is not readily available or obtainable, yet necessary for a key packaging indicator, you will need to work with other internal departments and/or external suppliers to get the required information.

How to Develop, Implement and Oversee a Sustainable Packaging Program

Operating with sustainability as a priority can have a powerful impact on brand perception, efficiency and your bottom line. When packaging plays a central role in your business, developing a sustainable packaging program is the first step toward reducing your company’s environmental footprint. If you’re interested in making your packaging program more sustainable, you can find tips, advice and resources to get you started in our ebook Designing a Sustainable Packaging Program. Download your free copy to learn why sustainability in packaging matters, how sustainable packaging translates to greater revenue and how you can deploy and measure a sustainable packaging strategy that’s good for the planet and great for your organization.

Developing, implementing and maintaining a sustainable packaging program can be hard, especially if you are limited in terms of the resources at your disposal. Fortunately, that’s where BillerudKorsnäs comes in. From design and engineering to sourcing and distribution, our teams make the complex world of packaging simple so global brands can focus more on the benefits of better packaging and less on the day-to-day aspects of managing packaging overseas.

Customer engagements begin with a no-obligation, no-cost audit of your packaging and shipping operations in Asia to identify savings opportunities.

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