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True packaging sustainability: Understanding the performance trade-offs


Sustainability of packaging materials varies by which sustainability elements are prioritized. Companies in the value chain will need to understand the trade-offs across carbon footprint, recycle-ability, and waste reduction.

Sustainable-packaging efforts are often centered around a desire to decrease leakage, improve circularity, reduce carbon footprint, or a combination of the three. Although brand owners, retailers, and regulators are aware of the need for sustainability, there is no global alignment on how to measure sustainability across these interlinked elements. Recently, major consumer-facing companies have ambitiously committed to goals of zero or significantly reduced greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions to improve their overall corporate sustainability performance. At the same time, their focus on packaging has so far mainly been around improving recycle-ability and increasing recycled content. To understand the true carbon footprint of packaging, we believe it is important to take an end- to-end view of the value chain and apply a science- based approach to quantifying emissions profiles. To do this, we have developed a methodology that recognizes both the direct and indirect impact of packaging materials. In this article, we will focus on the carbon-footprint aspect of packaging sustainability and its trade-offs with recycle-ability and recycled content.

One key finding, which is not always well understood by consumers, consumer-facing companies, and regulators, is that the lowest-carbon material does not always have the highest recycle-ability or use of recycled content, requiring a decision on which aspects of packaging sustainability get prioritized. Sustainability in packaging can be broken into the following three main elements: eliminating leakage of packaging into the environment, increasing the recycle-ability and use of recycled content in the packaging, and reducing the carbon footprint of packaging.

This article was originally published on the McKinsey & Company’s website.

Date: July 28, 2021

Author: David Feber; Wenting Gao; Thomas Hundertmark; Daniel Nordigården; Jeremy Wallach

Tags: Green Business, McKinsey

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