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Headphones … and packaging

By Jonathan Wright | 10/05/2009 | 5:15 PM

I had intended to take a look at carbon labelling this week, but got distracted with packaging – I just bought a new set of headphones, and saw again just how much packaging there is with these kinds of things, which inevitably got me thinking…


My new headphones are pretty small, perhaps  10 cubic cms in freight terms – but I ended up with a much greater volume of blister packs, cable ties, and inserts in my recycling bin – probably 10 times the cube of the headphones, plus presumably a small amount more cube from transit packaging which was left at the warehouse or store.


Clearly, while it seems like there are a lot of over-packaged products in the world, packaging does have a role to play – hopefully, packaging is only added when it is saves more than it costs.  Those savings can include the environmental benefits of less waste resulting from damages and so on, as well as adding value through consumer information and marketing, improved ease of handling etc.


It’s also pretty clear to me, however, that many organizations do not yet have a clear packaging strategy – a way to manage the best fit compromise among the numerous parties involved – from Quality Assurance to Procurement, Marketing to Store Operations , Manufacturing to Distribution, Suppliers to Customers – and not forgetting the Corporate Social Responsibility team.  I think that organizations will increasingly need this coordination, as they look to balance the trade-offs among Logistics, Marketing and CSR to achieve the best possible balance for the customer.


I’m always surprised to see just how much cost is associated with packaging as compared with product. Lifecycle modelling of a carbonate drink seems to suggest packaging is over 10% of total product cost.  In the US, about 15% of all waste is consumer waste from packaging.


Thinking about that in carbon emissions terms, for many processed foodstuffs, packaging totals about 7% or 8% of the total carbon footprint.  The New York Times reported earlier this year that packaging contributes about 15% of the emissions produced by a half-gallon of Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice (How Green is my Orange?).


Applying the traditional 3Rs (REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE) hierarchy to this, there is a lot we can do across the end-to-end supply chain – not just in the consumption phase – to reduce waste.



-   Applying Design for Environment principles to transit packaging as well as consumer packs

-   Optimizing box fills and managing minimum order quantities

-   Improving planning and order consolidation

-   Using postponement strategies



-   Switching transit packaging types to reusable types from card boxes

-   Using multi-trip pallets instead of one-ways

-   Equip the supply chain to manage re-use of returnable consumer packaging



-   Implementing waste stream separation in DCs and stores as well as in manufacturing sites

-   Taking back packaging materials from stores and home delivery locations to DCs for recycling

-   Renegotiating contracts with waste vendors to include specific service level agreements on recycling


Across the wider supply chain, more collaboration, more smart thinking about re-usable transit packaging – and potentially switching to dematerialized supply strategies and postponement – can yield big benefits in reducing unnecessary packaging. 


My headphone packaging was recyclable, but I can’t help thinking that much of the packaging could have been reduced or reused – rather than recycled (or disposed of in many cases) – had there been more of an integrated packaging strategy at work.


On a lighter note…….. I was recently reminded about the ultimate packaging reuse strategy – an edible plate that was launched in Japan a few years back – the idea being that you ate dinner from it, and then ate the plate afterwards.  This has evolved into the corn-based, 100% biodegradable packaging materials now seen in many coffee shops (see Biodegradable GreenGood® PLA Products as an example).  Although you can still get the edible plate too if you want it……. 


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The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

About Jonathan Wright

Jonathan Wright

Jonathan Wright is a Singapore-based senior executive in Accenture's Supply Chain Management practice with global responsibility for the company's supply chain fulfillment client work. With 17 years' experience, he is a recognized thought leader in supply chain transformation and sustainability. He joined Accenture in 1997 after five years with Exxon Mobil Corp. Since joining Accenture, Wright has worked in the retail, communications, high-tech, and aerospace and defense sectors. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transportation.


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