An Examined Life: Understanding the eco impacts of a package requires designers to take a holistic view.

Posted: August 7, 2012 by
Minal T. Mistry

Brands eager to showcase the green attributes of their packages often focus their designs and messaging about those designs on current trends and things consumers can identify with, such as the use of recycled content or source-certified materials—SFI- or FSC-certified fiber, for instance. Taking into account everything that goes into making a package—from the extraction of raw materials to converting them into a usable form and shape, using the packaging to sell and protect products and, ultimately, discarding the package—is far more complex. But understanding the lifecycle of a package can deliver a more holistic view of the packaging’s eco attributes.

The packaging community has created life-cycle-assessment (LCA) systems and tools to help brand managers and package designers understand package lifecycles. For example, tools are available that allow a designer to take into consideration environmental burdens early in the package-
development process—as early as the concept stage. Our COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) online design software helps packaging designers make more informed material
selections and design decisions by providing quick visual guidance using consumption metrics,
emission metrics, packaging attributes and data about the lifecycle phases, such as material manufacture, conversion, distribution and end-of-life.

The Consumer Goods Forum has written the Global Protocol for Packaging Sustainability (GPPS 2.0). The industry group, which includes consumer-packaged-goods companies, their suppliers and service providers, wrote the GPPS guidelines from an industry point of view instead of an individual company’s perspectives. GPPS 2.0 aims to create a common language and measuring system for packaged goods.

The GPPS guidelines don’t look at packaging in a vacuum. Instead, they examine the sustainable attributes of a packaged product as a whole—including how packaging’s primary roles of protecting and promoting products can prevent the negative impact of a product going to landfill before it’s ever even used. For example, packages that are too lightweight to protect a dinnerware set during transit can result in the plates and bowls becoming trash before ever having a useful life. Meat packaging that does a poor job of marketing the product can result in slow turnover, resulting in more product ending up in landfills and not on consumers’ tables.

The international group behind the Earthster website ( wants to make it easier for companies to share sustainability metrics in a visual format that’s easy for consumers to understand. This beta project is definitely one to watch.

Designers can make positive impacts on the environment today by using existing LCA tools to fully examine the true eco-impacts of packaged goods and, by encouraging the industry to continue to develop emerging tools such as Earthster, help and develop more robust sustainable design strategies for packaging, where costs, performance and aesthetics all play a role in a package design’s evaluation.  


Minal T. Mistry is a senior manager with GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition ( in Charlottesville, VA.