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Survey: Debate over the Costs behind Sustainability

November 22, 2011 – 7:38 pm

daphne_102610While interest in sustainability may certainly be increasing, it is not a top concern for packaging professionals involved in pharmaceutical or medical product manufacturing. According to the 2011 Sustainble Packaging Study commissioned by PMP News sister publication Packaging Digest, “sustainability” did not even make it into the top ten business factors having the greatest impact on a related company’s strategic direction.  (In last year’s survey, sustainability placed sixth.) Of greatest concern this year? Managing costs, pricing pressures, and regulatory requirements.

But before you blame the economy, think again. When asked how the current economy may be affecting sustainability efforts, respondents offered conflicting perspectives on whether more-sustainable strategies even increase or decrease costs, making it difficult to blame any drop in concern on the economy. And, as you will see from verbatim comments submitted by survey respondents, sustainability may be a means to reduce costs.

The study included input from consumer packaged goods companies (including pharmaceuticals and medical devices) along with input from packaging material, machinery, and service providers. (For the purposes of this article, medical respondents will be the term used to describe any respondent who indicated they are involved in packaging pharmaceuticals and medical devices).

In this year’s study, 34% of medical respondents selected “managing costs” as one of the factors that will impact strategy, while 32% selected “pricing pressures” and 28% selected “regulatory requirements.” Compare these percentages to just 16% selecting “sustainability.” (Cost was the top concern in 2010, too, with 34% selecting it, compared with 24% selecting sustainability.)

Nonetheless, 51% of medical respondents say that their companies’ emphasis on sustainability has increased, while 46% say it has stayed the same and only 3% say it has decreased. In addition, 49% have found that customer interest in sustainable packaging has increased, while 42% say it has stayed the same and 9% say it has decreased.

There seems to be considerable debate over whether sustainability programs entail cost. Some see sustainability as a means to reduce costs. For instance, when asked about the economy’s impact, one respondent wrote that “competitive pressures, energy and raw material cost increases, and consumer demands have forced us to put more effort into sustainability in our operations.”

“In many instances sustainability activities are also cost-saving initiatives. As the economy continues to worsen, we are looking for more opportunities to save money and by doing so, have had some good wins in sustainability as well,” explains another respondent.

However, other respondents are finding added costs to sustainability programs. “Sustainable materials are more costly; however, packagers and consumers do not want to pay for increased costs,” explains one respondent, echoing input from several others.

A few pointed to the costs behind the effort. The downturn “has a negative impact on capital investments required for sustainability,” and it “has made any new process needing to be implemented out of touch due to cost related issues,” write two respondents. Says another: “Lay-offs have reduced staff to low levels–no extra staff to man such low ROI projects.”

“We need to see an immediate savings or return to implement a process,” writes another.

The kicker could be this one: “Let’s be frank: in this economy, company survival trumps sustainability.”

However, one respondent points out that the economy has even “made it easier to implement strategies that emphasize the REDUCE in reduce/reuse/recycle.”

Such comments exemplify these statistics: Just as in 2010, waste reduction is the number-one way medical respondents are pursuing sustainability. Sixty-eight percent are focusing on reducing waste, while 64% are recycling and 61% are conserving energy. Just over half (52%) are using recycled materials, and 40% are using renewable materials. Only 19% are using compostable/biodegradable materials.

One respondent sums it up this way: “All bio materials are more expensive, and with these economic conditions, my customers are not willing to engage in a more expensive package. However, it has pushed for packaging reductions, which in our case comes primarily in the form of gauge reduction.”

So, does less really have to cost more? Perhaps the best advice comes from this respondent: “Be more efficient. Best use of resources.”

To some, “resources” will mean capital; to others, materials or energy. But does it really matter? The days of excess have passed for most in this ongoing downturn, teaching us all to make better use of any resource.

Daphne Allen

Multiple responses were allowed from each respondent. For a complete presentation on the sustainability in packaging study results, visit . Also, watch for details of an upcoming webcast on the subject.

  1. One Response to “Survey: Debate over the Costs behind Sustainability”

  2. Wow! Nearly a third of respondents site “regulatory concerns” as a top-tier priority, yet nobody seems to have done anything about regulatory processes for the past three years. The Healthcare Compliance Packaging Council and the Pharmaceutical Printed Literature Association both had robust regulatory-affairs programs up until 2009-2010 but, since then, both have been virtually silent when it comes to FDA, EPA, CPSC, state governments and international entities. There could be some real big surprises lurking for packaging industry executives who figure some trade association somewhere is working on their behalf when it comes to managing regulations that are coming down the pike.

    By Peter Mayberry on Nov 23, 2011

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