Monday, August 13, 2007
Major retailers find good things come from greener packaging
This past month, a small change swept through the consumer electronics department at Target stores: iPod carrying cases came wrapped in cardboard. The seemingly irrelevant change -- when coupled with new packaging on several hundred other items -- adds up to a significant environmental impact that critics charge is long overdue.
Previously, iPod carrying cases came wrapped in two pieces of plastic bonded together. But earlier this year, Target, based in Minneapolis, decided this tough-to-open package -- known as a clamshell -- was a waste.
Worse still, it was made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which contains chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health problems.
So with the force of a retailer with 1,500 stores and $60 billion in annual sales, Target asked its packaging vendor to replace the clamshell with a recyclable cardboard package with a small plastic window. This single change will prevent an estimated 5,000 pounds of PVC from entering landfills each year.
For decades, big-box retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart Stores have used their extraordinary size to squeeze lower prices from suppliers, which have a vested interest in keeping them happy.
However, in a recent shift, they are exerting this power to eliminate oversized and over-wrapped packaging for their private-label products. As a result, everything from laundry detergent to cardboard boxes used for shipping cereal are shrinking in size. In some cases, environmentally harmful PVC packages have been replaced with recyclable material; in other cases, the packaging has been eliminated entirely.
About 18 months ago, Target pushed its seven private-label packaging companies to get rid of excess wraps. The result: Packages for more than 500 items, from dog leashes to toy rocket launchers, have been redesigned to be less harmful to the environment. In about 100 instances, PVC plastic was eliminated from private-label packages.
Wal-Mart has gone further. The retail giant based in Bentonville, Ark., has pledged to eliminate all private-label PVC packaging by 2009. The company also has set a goal of producing "zero waste" by 2025; which means that, through recycling and packaging reduction, Wal-Mart will eliminate all waste flowing through its stores and offices.
These commitments are not without substance. Containers and packaging account for approximately 32 percent of the waste that ends up in the nation's landfills, according to a 2003 report by the Environmental Protection Agency. A large portion of that waste comes from products sold at Target and Wal-Mart, which together account for more than 10 percent of retail sales in the United States, excluding autos.
According to Charles Fishman, author of a book on Wal-Mart, "hundreds of acres of trees have not fallen" in part because of Wal-Mart's decision in the early 1990s to eliminate cardboard containers for deodorant, which have now universally disappeared.
"What their efforts show is that the environmental benefits of even small changes to packages can add up pretty quickly," said Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships with Environmental Defense, which is working with Wal-Mart on its packaging.
Although environmentalists generally applaud the changes, they want more. They want the companies to put more pressure on consumer products companies, such as Procter & Gamble and General Mills, to reduce the size of their packaging.
More than 60 health and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, last year called on Target to phase out PVC in its private-label products and packaging. Others, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, want Wal-Mart and Target to assert greater scrutiny over the chemicals used by foreign packaging manufacturers.
Drive farther to get it
But there are others who see the recent flurry of eco-friendly packaging initiatives as a public relations effort designed to divert consumers' attention from the greenhouse gases and other harmful environmental effects created by big-box retailing.
"Retailers like Target and Wal-Mart have conditioned people to make these big, weekly shopping trips, and that's vastly increased the amount of pollution associated with shopping," said Stacy Mitchell, author of a book on big-box retailers and senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.
From 1990 to 2001, the number of miles that the average American household drove each year for shopping grew by more than 40 percent, according to the Department of Transportation. In 2001, Americans drove more than 330 billion miles going to and from stores, generating about 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Wal-Mart in 2005 produced as much carbon dioxide -- 15.3 million metric tons, according to a company report -- as 625,000 households, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
And while both retailers have taken steps to reduce PVC in their packaging, they still trail European retailers. Ikea, for instance, phased out all PVC in its products and packaging 10 years ago. Marks & Spencer, the largest clothing retailer in the United Kingdom, replaced all PVC in its packaging in 2002.
The Center for Health, Environment and Justice in New York said it recently found PVC in 71 product packages at Target, including 14 private-label ones. The group organized a May campaign, which included taking out an ad in USA Today, to protest Target's use of PVC in packaging.
John Butcher, director of packaging at Target, said many of its products are manufactured in areas of the world where alternatives to PVC are in short supply.
"I'd love to just snap my fingers and say we've enhanced thousands of items overnight," he said. "But this process takes time."
Critics note both companies can see huge benefits -- on the bottom line and in their public relations. Smaller containers cut down on shipping costs and shelf space, while boosting their image at a time when their labor practices and aggressive expansion have come under criticism.
Wal-Mart, for instance, estimates it saved 1,000 barrels of oil and $3.5 million in transportation costs in 2005 by making the packages smaller within its Kids Connection toy line. Wal-Mart also worked with General Mills to create a cardboard shipping case that has a window, which has 25 percent less cardboard and weighs less.
In November, Wal-Mart introduced a "packaging scorecard" for all of its 60,000 suppliers. The scorecard asks vendors to list the amount of renewable energy used to make their packaging, the greenhouse gas emissions related to its construction, along with other information. This February, buyers at Wal-Mart will began compiling data from these scorecards and use it in their purchasing decisions.
Though skeptical, some large environmental groups have begun working with Wal-Mart on its packaging initiatives. "The fact is, you can't not deal with the environmental impacts of the largest business enterprise in human history," said Jon Coifman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Wal-Mart's not going away, so you might as well be part of the solution."
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 • firstname.lastname@example.org
The EPA has classified vinyl chloride, the key building block of PVC, as a known human carcinogen. Breathing vinyl chloride over long periods of time can result in permanent liver damage, nerve damage and liver cancer. Studies suggest that infants and young children might be more susceptible than adults to vinyl chloride-induced cancer.
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