Is It Wise to Go Package-less?

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Sustainability is such a hot topic, so important an initiative that businesses are looking to up the ante on green these days. The question is: will some of these ideas do more harm than good?

Three brothers in Austin Texas have formed an LLC called the Brothers Lane with an ambitious goal: to become the first package free, zero waste food retailer in the country. Their idea: to sell every product in bulk, that is, sans packaging. Customers will simply bring in their own containers from home and fill them. Does this idea have legs and will it ever get off the ground? If it does, will it be successful?

This idea isn’t new. Bulk foods have been available in natural product stores for eons. Nuts, dried fruits, legumes and grains are scooped into individual plastic bags, sealed, weighed and sold at a price per pound. Bulk foods were sold in retail stores for a long time before packaged products appeared. Then, products and brands exploded as populations did, giving rise to a new problem: massive amounts of packaging ended up in landfills.

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In response, manufacturers have been whittling away at extraneous packaging for some time; Wal-Mart debuted its “Packaging Scorecard” in 2006, putting pressure on over 66,000 suppliers to reduce packaging. The impact of this decision had huge ramifications for the entire consumer product industry. Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Unilever among other product companies pledged to cut consumer packaging in a measurable, transparent manner. And they’re doing it.

Result? Lighter, often smaller packaging that requires fewer truckloads to get to market, saving money, precious natural resources, fuel costs and carbon emissions. Even with these efforts, millions of tons of packaging waste hit U.S. landfills annually. Given this, zero packaging might seem like a good idea, but let’s remember why it appeared in the first place—and it had little to do with marketing.

Are the ideas that made packaging viable still meaningful or have cultural shifts made it expendable? Why package?

  • To protect products so they don’t degrade and lose nutritional value quickly.
  • To prevent food spoilage.
  • To prevent the transference of bacteria and viruses in raw products.
  • To ensure safety against the transference of germs in the atmosphere and among customers.
  • To prevent merchandise from getting “shop worn” and less saleable.
  • To ensure freshness.
  • To prevent possible contamination from containers consumers think are clean and put foodstuffs into to take home.
  • To prevent tampering.
  • To ensure traceability and transparency: retailers and consumers alike should know which brand of product they are purchasing and where it came from.
  • Consumers need the assurance of quality and recourse if a tainted food issue occurs.

There’s another concern: will a “no packaging” policy lead to law suits? Stores filled with unbranded bulk products might lead to more taint (or perceptions of it.) Will that lead to lawsuits if consumers become ill? Especially if testing of products yields evidence of harmful bacteria?

“Is no packaging for food products the right way to go?” It’s easy to passionately embrace an idea that’s a cultural hot button issue. It’s equally important to stand back and look at things rationally. With the cost of consumer products: is it prudent to waste food or take a chance on more tainted food in lieu of having some packaging waste?

Rather than zero packaging, how about continuing to do the following:

  • Cut down on extraneous packaging.
  • Recycle as much as possible, cutting down dramatically on the manufacture and use of virgin materials.
  • Design packaging that can be repurposed or reused.
  • Continue to find new biodegradable materials from renewable sources.

It seems to me that doing these things will yield highly functional packaging and viable, safe, fresh products with measurably less packaging material going into landfills on an ongoing basis.

Ted Mininni

President of Design Force, Inc.