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RETAIL PRODUCT PACKAGING IN THE OUTDOOR INDUSTRY - THE BEST AND...NOT SO BEST. Attractive and durable packaging is one thing; green packaging is quite another. The best companies have both. View the gallery by clicking on a thumbnail to see our votes for the best and worst of what the Outdoor Industry has to offer.
THUMBS DOWN! ICEBREAKER MERINO. While the product may be green, the box certainly isn’t. Each garment is housed in a shallow box that slips into another and is covered from end to end with ink. As one Icebreaker sales rep at the 2008 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market put it, “An expensive product demands an expensive package.” Really? Although the attractive packaging may have won design awards from others, it certainly gets a low mark from us.
THUMBS DOWN! PLATYPUS WATER SYSTEMS. The amount of packaging that goes into delivering this product outweighs the product itself. While these hard plastic, materials-intensive packaging systems (called “blister packs”) have lightened up in recent years, using less plastic in the construction, the use is still as prevalent as ever. Though this type of packaging is recyclable, plastic recycling is limited in many communities, making its likely destination the closest trash can.
THUMBS DOWN! DALE NORWAY THERMALS. Cardboard, heavy inks, and Velcro go into this single use, single garment, non-reusable container. The sturdy construction of the packaging - a product in and of itself - makes us wonder whatever happened to ... hangers?
THUMBS DOWN! SIGG FLASKS. The hard, semi-opaque plastic boxes that hold the flask also have spacers and plastic wrapping on the inside. The beauty of the bottle is thus completely hidden from the consumer. The box collapses easily and is somewhat awkward, making reusing it before recycling it difficult and unlikely. The company plans to rework the packaging of the flask, and we look forward to seeing what they come up with. (Sigg redeems itself by landing a product on our Thumbs Up! list as well.)
THUMBS DOWN! CAMELBAK WATER SYSTEMS. Hard plastic and cardboard? Seems like a lot of packaging for a pretty minimalist product. We'll concede that soft water bottles need some type of protection to prevent damage in transit, but isn’t there a better way?
THUMBS DOWN! BRUNTON BLISTER PACK. Again with the hard plastic. According to some retailers, blister packs are sometimes the only way to package and sell a product in the store without damaging it...which we find disingenuous. These products are made to be taken into the wilderness and heartily used, so if normal in-store handling results in product damage, perhaps its wilderness utility should be questioned. The reality is this: Commodity accessories, like the ones sold by Brunton and dozens of others, are distinguished primarily by a company's ability to market them, especially as we see an increasing number of brands using the same factories for manufacturing commodity products that are becoming increasingly homogenized. Marketing is one of the few ways they have to differentiate themselves.
THUMBS DOWN! CAMELBAK WATER BOTTLES. We couldn't resist the temptation to include one company twice on our Thumbs Down! list. Shrink wrapped Lexan bottles? Say it isn’t so! In addition to the shrink wrap, you also get two stickers and a nifty little metal chain connected to the multi-page, glossy, catalog-style tag. Other Lexan bottle companies don’t shrink wrap their products. Nalgene, the most recognizable manufacturer of Lexan bottles, utilizes a single sticker and hangs the bottle in the store by the funky little lid-leash.
THUMBS DOWN! OUTDOOR RESEARCH - AND JUST ABOUT EVERYONE ELSE - CATALOG TAGS. Paper, plastic and ink intensive, these tags are (sadly) the norm in the outdoor industry when purchasing higher-end technical gear and apparel. This sample from Outdoor Research is representative of many brands. The multi-page tag tells you everything and more about the product, which some consumers like. However, the same information can be found on their websites, in their (big) printed catalogs, and in the millions of printed catalogs from their different retailers. In addition, not all catalog tags are made with recycled paper, soy inks or can even be recycled at all. If you have to use them to sell your product, an eye towards something smaller, or at least recyclable, will score a few more points with us.
THUMBS UP! PATAGONIA THERMALS. Top of the list is the most innovative packaging we’ve seen so far: Two rubber bands and a piece of 100% post-consumer, 100% recyclable tag delivers this product to the consumer. While we do realize that rubber bands aren’t entirely eco-friendly, they are certainly reusable and a better alternative to any other materials-intensive thermal underwear packaging we’ve seen.
THUMBS UP! PATAGONIA FOOTWEAR. While reusing shoeboxes to store odds and ends around the house isn’t a new concept, having a good looking one that you’ll want to display is. Unfold the box and re-fold it inside out to find attractive modern designs for adults and fun animal designs for kids. 100% post-consumer materials and soy inks make this box 100% recyclable. Even the additional spacers and paper that come with the shoes are recyclable.
THUMBS UP! TEKO SOCKS. When this company decided to use greener, smaller packaging, they also found that they could ship more socks in the same amount of space and stock more product in retail stores. A simple 100% post-consumer, 100% recyclable tag printed with soy inks tells you everything you need to know about their organic socks, while delivering even more information on the company's green ethics. Very slick.
THUMBS UP! SIGG WATER BOTTLES. Redemption! The simple - dare we say artistic? - design of a Sigg bottle screams to be allowed to sell itself to consumers without heavy tags, boxes, or packing. The only drawback is that the sticker, which is hidden on the bottom of the bottle, unfolds to reveal a multi-page tag. The company is looking to further reduce this one piece of packaging to a smaller, simpler sticker in the future, making the packaging for this product almost completely non-existent.
THUMBS UP! TIMBUK2 BAGS. One piece of recyclable plastic is used to hang these bags from displays in stores, in addition to the tags. The one square inch tags are recyclable and allow consumers to pick up, handle, and even try on the bags prior to purchase. Thankfully, this type of packaging is typical on what is often our heaviest pieces of gear: backpacks, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats - so long as the manufacturers do not succumb to the temptation to attach mini-catalogs to each product.
THUMBS UP! KEEN FOOTWEAR. When Keen first came onto the market, their shoeboxes were made of heavy black cardboard and filled with spacers and plastics. Now the popular company has done a complete turn-around with their lighter, 100% post-consumer, 100% recyclable, soy inked box that even uses water-based, non-toxic glues to hold it together. The lighter weight of the box means less fuel consumption to ship the products. Responsible, attractive, and practical (nicely reusable, for a shoebox), Keen gets noticed.
THUMBS UP! BULK PACKAGING. Yes, it is possible to sell some products in bulk. Tent stakes? Rope? Bolts? These things do not need their very own plastic and cardboard containers. You can find some of the necessary backcountry bits and pieces being sold out of large bins and containers, depending on the retailer. Check with your local retailer to see what they offer, as manufacturers are unlikely to offer bulk packaging to the end consumer.
Going light can be addictive.
You start by slowly reducing your gear and redefining what you truly need for backpacking. The extra miles, happy knees and ankles, and more enjoyable trips feel great, so you dive in deeper. You make lists, buy a scale, and start bugging sales clerks about the weight of each piece of new gear. You even start making your own “adjustments” to your gear - a little snip here, a small hack there.
Then, before you know it, you start lightening the load in other areas of your life.
You pitch belongings out of your car, purse, briefcase, desk and gym bag, all too happy to throw out those excess ounces and grams...until you go after your kid’s school backpack with a pair of scissors, and your spouse jumps in to tell you to take a break from the lightweight thing.
But what’s so wrong with taking lightweight principles into mainstream everyday life? At Backpacking Light, we are happily preoccupied with how to make things lighter, stronger, and better for backpackers and the planet. It is a daily obsession that easily grabs our attention no matter where we are. So, when outdoor industry companies started reducing the weight of their retail packaging, and looking for ways to leave less of an impact on the planet, we took notice.
Trends Toward (and Away From) Greener Waste
At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2008, it was nearly impossible to find a company that wasn’t on the “better and lighter” packaging bandwagon. Whether it was reduced packaging, eco-friendly soy inks, 100% post-consumer paper, or even reusable bags and boxes, nearly every exhibitor there was doing something to reduce their impact, and subsequently, their own costs.
Some claim that one-third the volume of America’s solid waste is retail packaging, so this trend toward lightening up shouldn't be a surprise, especially in the outdoor industry, where eco-consciousness reflects not only good stewardship, but also intelligent and trendy marketing.
Being green is a central tenant when marketing to a demographic that is, by and large, focused on and concerned about the environment. What these particular consumers do and buy in order to visit the wild places they love may impact how long those places will exist.
From a marketing standpoint, having greener, more eco-friendly products and packaging caters to the beliefs and practices of the consumers who are a part of the ever-growing $33 billion dollar industry for outdoor recreation consumer goods. To ignore the concerns and beliefs of a consumer base is normally considered bad business.
However, not all companies are reducing their packaging or switching to greener packaging materials.
For example, the increasing use of miniature catalog-style tags that promote not only the product to which they are attached, but also other products offered by the company, reflects a significant shift in product tagging practice from “product support and information” to “catalog marketing.” Such “catalog” tags adorn garments, sleeping bags, backpacks, and are even tucked into shoe boxes.
Other companies continue to over-package their products, such as encasing durable Lexan bottles in shrink-wrap under the pretext that it is for sanitary reasons, while other Lexan bottle companies use only one or two stickers. Even still, some companies produce a product that is green, then sell it to consumers in packaging that isn’t eco-friendly. Worse yet, companies who recognize the changing, greener landscape of the outdoor retail market are producing packaging that looks green while selling a product that certainly is not.
The Hidden Agenda of Green Packaging
However, so-called "green packaging" is not just about serving a more eco-conscious customer base. If a company reduces packaging, it also reduces costs, making going green a money-saving operation. Retail giant Wal-Mart is projected to save $3.4 billion dollars in five years after reducing their overall packaging costs by only five percent. Numbers like these make other manufacturers and distributors take notice, and a trend of packaging reduction can be found in all major retail industries throughout the first world.
Legislating Green Packaging
In 1991, Germany enacted the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law, which held the manufacturer responsible for the disposal of all of its products' retail packaging. A first of its kind, the law stated that upon purchase, a consumer could give the packaging back to the retailer, who in turn would return it to the manufacturer for reuse or recycling. This law developed into what is known as the Green Dot, part of a non-profit that collects, separates and recycles the packaging through a curbside recycling program. Through this system, the manufacturers take responsibility for the disposal of their packaging without having to involve the retailer. In its first four years, overall packaging in Germany decreased by seven percent.
Three years after the inception of the EPR law in Germany, the European Union (EU) enacted similar laws aimed at reducing packaging. Canada, Australia and most of South America have also established EPR laws. Asian countries, including South Korea, China and Taiwan have also adopted EPR laws and have taken steps to reduce their overall packaging beyond producer responsibility. Most recently, China has banned the use of lightweight, white plastic grocery bags nationwide, calling this particular kind of waste “white pollution.” At the time the ban was put into effect in June 2007, the Chinese plastic bag habit was up to three billion bags per day. In the United States, the first city to ban plastic grocery bags was San Francisco, with American stores, such as the grocery chain Whole Foods, banning the bags as well.
However (perhaps unsurprisingly), as the world's most demanding consumer of packaged retail goods (and perhaps, the greatest sucker for what is printed on that packaging), the United States has yet to adopt EPR standards or legislation.
Defining Green Packaging
So, what does it mean to have a better, or greener, retail package? (While a marketing company might believe that "better retail package" means a package that moves more product or increases brand awareness, we are using "better" in regards to a package's environmental impact - a less-is-more approach.)
How can a company create a package that costs them less to produce and ship, while at the same time being better for the environment? For some companies, being green means reducing the overall weight of the package, thereby reducing their transportation costs (e.g., the amount of fuel used to deliver goods to consumers). For others, a green retail package means using more post-consumer materials in packaging, then ensuring the finished packaging product is recyclable as well. Some companies are focusing their efforts on making a retail package that can be reused by the consumer before it is recycled, allowing for a longer life for the materials.
The widespread move to more environmentally conscious packaging in the outdoor industry has been well received by both consumers and retailers.
Outdoor apparel giant Patagonia has introduced the minimalist “sushi roll” concept for packaging its base layer apparel. The underwear is rolled into a tight, cylindrical form, which is then bound by two rubber bands and accompanied with one, post-consumer based, 100% recyclable cardboard tag. Previously, the thermals had been sold in plastic bags that cost about twenty cents per unit to produce. After switching to the sushi roll, the packing cost fell to six cents per unit, and sales went up. Eco-conscious Patagonia customers still recognized the product (a key factor in most packaging is brand awareness), and they liked that they could touch the product prior to purchase.
Swedish-based bottle company Sigg is another example of the minimalist packaging that is possible when a product uses nothing more than a price tag and the mandatory information set forth by the country in which it is sold. A multi-paged accordion-style sticker and occasionally a tag are the only packaging needed for the company's water bottle. Add to that a variety of colorful designs that take the place of a fancy box, and you have one of the most minimalist yet functional retail presentations on the shelf. In-store displays for the bottles hang them in neat rows, allowing customers to both see and handle the product. According to Robert Rheaume, VP of Sales and Field Marketing for Sigg USA, plans are underway to further reduce their packaging by converting to a single sticker.
Reduced packaging adheres to the monetary and sustainability benefits of going lighter, relying on the product to sell itself on its apparent merits, rather than on a manufacturer telling the consumer what the product's merits might be.
For companies whose products require more packaging to protect the product prior to consumer purchase, using greener, more sustainable materials is another green packaging strategy.
The shoe company Keen and the sock company Teko both use 100% post-consumer paper in their packaging, which is also 100% recyclable. Soy and vegetable inks are used to print minimalist labels, a stark contrast to the multi-page mini-catalogs that are becoming increasingly popular with other shoe and sock manufacturers. In 2008, Teko's recycling and reduction efforts cut their total packaging by forty-five percent.
While the idea of “reduce - reuse - recycle” is not a new concept, the practice of reusing as much as possible before recycling is becoming a popular trend (the fewer times a piece of cardboard is recycled, the less energy is consumed by the act of recycling alone).
Shoeboxes, for example...most of us, at one time or another, have used an old shoebox to store photographs, baseball cards, vacation souvenirs, or seashell collections. Shoebox storage aficionados complement their reuse habit by adding décor to their shoeboxes: wrapping paper rescued from old presents, scraps cut from the pages of old magazines, or even leftover house paint.
In fact, reappropriating old shoeboxes in American society is so popular that it has spawned an entirely new (and ironic) industry in the past two decades: decorative shoeboxes, sold empty.
Patagonia Footwear is currently selling its shoes in a shoebox that is designed to be reused after the consumer purchases the product. The box, which is made entirely of post-consumer materials and is 100% recyclable, can easily refolded inside out to reveal a trendy and attractive design. Patagonia Footwear's children's shoes are have animal designs on the inside that a child can color and decorate.
Patagonia remains committed to exploring responsible packaging technologies by setting the goal to have zero packaging for its footwear. Skeptics have said it cannot be done, as they said when the idea of the thermal sushi roll was first introduced, but the company remains diligent in its efforts.
Messenger bag company Timbuk2 is also using packaging that is meant to be reused. When a bag is purchased online, it arrives in a recyclable plastic bag, as opposed to a traditional cardboard box. The company’s bags, which are well known for their durability, require no protective packaging - the plastic bag is all that is needed to protect the product during shipping. Once the bag arrives, the consumer can cut out one side of the shipping bag to find a waterproof bike map of the San Francisco area. The remnants of the packaging can then be recycled. While a neat idea, we question how many of Timbuk2's customers actually need a bike map of San Francisco. So, while the idea is innovative enough, it may lack the widespread appeal required for mass incentive to reuse packaging.
Providing packaging that has been recycled typically costs more for the manufacturer than packaging made with virgin material. In addition, offering recyclable packaging puts most of the burden to be green on the consumer and essentially absolves the manufacturer of any responsibility for their packaging waste.
The use of reusable packaging (e.g., boxes and bags) also puts the burden of responsibility on the end user, who can as easily toss the packaging in the dumpster as find a useful purpose for it later. Reusable packaging may be a more viable long term option than recycled packaging for slowing the filling of waste dumps, and it is certainly consistent with the lightweight philosophy of using items that can serve multiple functions.
However, the real appeal of green packaging lies in the reduction, even elimination, of packaging altogether.
Reducing packaging leads to lower fuel costs and resource use and costs less for the packager. However, it comes at the risk of having less materials available for marketing the company and its products. Consequently, the manufacturers that will be most successful at reducing their packaging will be those that offer the finest products that easily sell themselves based on their readily-apparent merits, or as often as not, their perceived merits based on the reputation of the company.
For the lightweight backpacker who adheres to the core tenet of our philosophy - doing more with less - purchasing products with reduced packaging is an attractive option as we continue to evaluate our answers to the question “How green can waste be?”