Three Key Insights into Voluntary Sustainable Packaging Commitments, Courtesy of the SPC Goals Database

April 2021

It’s no secret that the packaging community has ramped up their commitments to making packaging more sustainable. Given the current climate that surrounds issues such as plastic waste and recycling, it’s considered a base-level expectation that companies put forth bold aspirations aimed at solving these challenges through better packaging. Amidst the press releases and attention that each new ambitious commitment receives, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. How has the overall landscape of voluntary commitments evolved? If bold aspirations are truly table stakes, is every company anteing up? 

Recent updates to the SPC Goals Database bring that landscape into focus with a searchable, filterable catalogue of more than 1,000 commitments made by nearly 400 prominent companies. The sheer number of included commitments suggests that voluntary commitments are widespread, but nuance is everywhere and a little data analysis is always in order. 

First, a quick primer about the SPC Goals Database: only publicly-stated commitments are included, and every commitment is classified as either a “goal”, which is a firm and specific commitment with quantitative measures, or a “statement of support”, which is a softer, less structured kind of commitment. Goals indicate the largest extent of voluntary accountability. Statements of support are looser and harder to quantify, but they still signal a voluntary acknowledgment of the importance of the issue and often indicate the presence of an internal quantitative goal that has not been made publicly available.

With that in mind, let’s start by exploring the goals and commitments made by brand owners and retailers, and dive into three big takeaways:

1 – Recycling reigns supreme, and companies are leaning into both halves of the equation

Of the nine categories of sustainable packaging goals included in the Database, the most goals have been set around designing packaging for recovery. Over one-third of brand owners and retailers have made public goals around design-for-recovery, with an additional 10% making a statement of support. In total, 45% of the companies included in the database have made a commitment in this area. 

A strikingly similar 46% of brand owners and retailers have committed to increasing the amount of recycled content in their packaging, with exactly one third making goals and another 13% making statements of support. At face value, this suggests that industry “gets it” and accompanies their push for recyclable packaging with a pull for recycled content, but there’s a little more nuance to be unfolded here. Nearly 20% of the commitments for recycled content are extensions of those companies’ responsible fiber sourcing commitments and are therefore exclusive to paper. Unsurprisingly, none of the design-for-recovery commitments are exclusive to paper – in fact, 18% of the design for recovery commitments are exclusive to plastic (with the remainder being inclusive of all materials). 

If only the recycled content commitments including plastic are considered, the percentage of committed companies drops to 38%, suggesting a slight disconnect between the push for recyclable plastic packaging and the pull for recycled content in plastic packaging. Then again, an amazing 40% of the recycled content commitments are exclusive to plastic, and we should always be reminded that most recycled plastic packaging ends up in durable goods and other non-packaging markets, so this is not necessarily an alarm bell that needs sounding.

Other odds and ends that deserve attention here:

  • Design for recovery and recycled content are the two categories with the highest proportion of goals relative to the number of statements of support. Brand owners and retailers have chosen to make firm, specific commitments in these areas – or, at least, more than they have in any other area in sustainable packaging.
  • Despite these two categories reigning as the most committed-to areas in sustainable packaging, these commitments are considerably less prevalent than those addressing core areas of corporate sustainability like greenhouse gas emissions (61% of brand owners and retailers), manufacturing/operational waste reduction (52%), or water consumption (49%).
  • The other two goal categories related to recovery – increasing recycling rates and improving recovery infrastructure – both land in the bottom half of sustainable packaging commitments. One quarter of brands and retailers have committed to taking action directly aimed at increasing recycling rates, and only 14% have made commitments to improve recovery infrastructure.
  • Of the slightly less than half of brand owners and retailers with design for recovery commitments, 49% include compostability and 59% include reusability, suggesting that although “recyclable, compostable, or reusable” has become the go-to phrase, recycling is still viewed as the most actionable form of recovery.

2 – A fair number of companies are committing not to do something (but there’s room for improvement)

Yes, you read that correctly. Perhaps the quirkiest category in the SPC Goals Database is to eliminate unfavorable materials, a catch-all category for everything industry says they won’t use in packaging, ranging from additives like BPA, to plastic types like PVC, to any type of plastic packaging whatsoever. Looking at the simple measure of the number of companies who have committed to eliminating something, this category of commitment lands squarely in the middle of the pack: less prevalent than four other categories (including design for recycling and recycled content); more prevalent than another four categories. 

About one quarter of brand owners and retailers were found to have pledged to eliminate something unfavorable. Of those companies, roughly half have committed to a meaningful reduction or total elimination of plastic packaging (for reference, that’s 21 companies, or about 14% of all the brand owners and retailers studied). The other half has committed to eliminating something a bit more specific, with most focusing on eliminating BPA, EPS, and/or PVC.

For all the attention PFAS has received in the media over the past couple of years, a shockingly small number of companies has pledged to remove it from packaging. Only three companies – that’s right, three out of 152 – specifically mention PFAS in their commitments, and of those three, two are considered statements of support. Only one brand owner or retailer was found to have put forth a firm, specific, actionable target around eliminating PFAS: Taco Bell (part of Yum! Brands), who has pledged to eliminate any PFAS from its packaging by 2025. Given the prominence of the PFAS topic, the lack of voluntary commitments is perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire database.

3 – Everyone likes the idea of “less packaging”, but industry may have commitment issues

Packaging reduction has been on corporate minds since before sustainability was cool, so it’s not a tremendous surprise to see it land fourth on the list of most prevalent sustainable packaging commitments (behind recycled content, design for recovery, and responsible fiber sourcing). Nearly one third of companies have committed to reducing their packaging on a weight basis, but of those companies, only one third have made a commitment tangible enough to be classified as a goal rather than a statement of support (that’s one third of one third, or about 11% of all brand owners and retailers). This gap between goals and statements of support is larger than any other category (except one, and we’ll get to that in a minute), suggesting that while industry generally acknowledges that reducing packaging is a worthwhile pursuit, there may be a lack of confidence around the ability to meet a hard target. Several factors could be at play here. Is there awareness that the push to exit plastic packaging may result in heavier alternatives? Is there apprehension due to the vast majority of lightweighting measures having already been exhausted? Is industry simply unwilling to sacrifice packaging that is perceived to be important for conventional business reasons? The reasons aren’t clear. The data certainly suggests that industry acknowledges the importance of reduction, but perhaps can’t find the best line of attack.

No matter how the database is analyzed – number of goals, number of statements of support, ratio of goals to statements of support – one category always ends up in the bottom: volumetric efficiency. This category serves to capture all the commitments aimed at reducing the amount of wasted space, be that air space in the package, unused space in the truck – anything that relates to smarter shapes and sizes of packaging – and it shouldn’t be a surprise that companies aren’t clamoring to make the boldest, most ambitious commitments here. For all its importance, it’s simply not an exciting category. Consumers, activist groups, and government agencies get excited about recycling. They get upset about toxicity concerns and deforestation. Wasted space in a truck? Meh. That said, volumetric efficiency is a meaningful pursuit in sustainable packaging, with gains in volumetric efficiency usually accompanied by reductions in packaging weight, fuel usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and more. Only eight companies (5% of the brands and retailers studied) made commitments in this area, and only two of those companies made a firm, measurable goal. If this is an important area in sustainable packaging, an injection of excitement will be needed to spur more companies into matching the level of aspiration exhibited elsewhere.

If all these statistics add up to anything, the sum is a complex landscape open to interpretation. We can be encouraged by the idea that ambitious commitments are on the rise, and we can be apprehensive about the idea that commitments aren’t being made by the masses to solve everything. Most importantly, we hope that the Goals Database brings context and clarity to the discussion around voluntary industry commitments to keep them accountable. Each brand owner and retailer has an average of five commitments in the Goals Database so get in there and start exploring!