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Assessing the environmental impact of products and packaging

By February 8, 2021No Comments

How do businesses assess the environmental impact of their products and packaging across their supply chain and what is the added benefit of this?

With a rise in consumer awareness, surge in legislation and developments of standards, companies are under pressure to innovate in their design, transparency and reporting for their products and packaging.

But with multiple different ways to measure impact, how can businesses understand the different tools available, and provide better transparency on where and how their products are produced?

How to measure environmental impact?

There are currently multiple ways to assess the environmental impact of products. Various measurement tools can be used to find out how much water is used to grow a tomato or how much carbon is released during the production of plastic packaging.

To fully understand impact we need to measure the life-cycle of a product. The term ‘lifecycle’ is used to describe the entire process in which a product is conceived through to when it can no longer be used.

One method is a Lifecycle Analysis or Assessment (LCA) which evaluates the environmental, social and economic attributes of a product, material or process. It measures impact across the life stage, from the extraction and processing of the raw materials to final disposal.

However considering the rigour, it isn’t always feasible to conduct this for every single product. Some businesses currently don’t market their approach as an ‘LCA’ but rather imply their review has considered the lifecycle of the processes undergone to produce a certain product or category of products.

Companies like Unilever use a value chain model. Part of their Sustainable Living Plan, this approach helps them understand what parts of their value chain releases the most carbon emissions and what they can do to minimise them.

Many companies also work with sustainability initiatives and communicate the environmental impact of a product directly to consumers. These include logo’s from the likes of the Carbon Trust or the Soil Association. Some may use Environmental Product Declarations (EPD), recycling and waste statements or sustainable packaging solutions.

Garnier (L’Oréal) launched their own digital sustainability label which allows UK customers to track the environmental and social impact of its haircare products, based on data relating to emissions, water, biodiversity and other sustainability indicators.

Beyond the environmental imperative, what are some of the added benefits of measuring impact?

The added value of measuring environmental impact

At its core a lifecycle approach helps us make better choices. We can only change what we know. It enables decision makers, businesses and consumers to make informed decisions about their buying practices and correct where needed. They can improve product development and help companies identify performance indicators, but most importantly this approach also implies that everyone across the value chain has a responsibility and a role to play. 

Measuring impact helps businesses understand that once a product is sold to the consumer, its impact is still part of their responsibility. But it is not solely the responsibility of businesses, manufacturers, service providers or consumers – but to all those who can influence behaviour change and share knowledge of how to minimise impact.

Companies have at their disposal multiple different ways to assess the environmental impact of their products and packaging. These methods can help us make better decisions, but most importantly they bring to the fore, the shared the responsibility of minimizing our impact on the environment.

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