In my previous posting “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie: Best Left to Bikinis?”, I noted how bigger is sometimes better when it comes to information when it offers some real in-depth coverage and details. However let’s also look at the other end of the spectrum; when smaller is much better and when less is more. For example, when it comes to packaging (all the containers and materials used to hold and ship most products) even small reductions can result in huge savings of energy, pollution and materials.
“Incredible Shrinking Packages”, a May 12, 2007 New York Times article, says many companies are now emphasizing what they are taking OUT of their products rather than what they are putting in. Their marketing campaigns point out their reduced packaging for everything from soda bottles to toothpaste tubes. Computer maker Dell recently announced they are “doing more with less” by “packing large numbers of systems in fewer boxes, helping it save on costs and cardboard consumption.” In a smart design move, these new boxes will also have a built-in corrugated pallet, removing the need for a wooden one and Dell will only send out one set of product manuals and CDs per box rather than one per server. This is a small step perhaps, but it is in the right direction.
For me, one of the key attributes for sustainable success is the concept of enlightened self-interest; that is, “doing well by doing good”. I’m heartened that these packaging initiatives are being done because they make good sense and have direct benefit to those who reduce packaging.
Imagine if what was good for the planet was also good for business? Sound impossible? I don’t think so. My good colleague and friend Murry Christensen recently reminded me about how Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s largest financial services companies where Murry worked for many years, was built on the philosophy of being “Long Term Greedy”. As I often like to say, “What if the impossible isn’t?” What if we are we are seeing the early signs of a future where short term greedy or unenlightened self-interest is replaced with being long term greedy and practicing enlightened self-interest?
In my experience, enlightened self-interest usually means very high degrees of sustainability and engagement. Think about it. If something is in YOUR best interest and YOU gain substantially and tangibly from doing it, then aren’t you much more likely to do so? Even more so, won’t you be motivated to work on it with gusto, conviction and effort over the long term?
Enlightened self-interest models are not only more likely to succeed, but they are sustainable and lasting, not just fads or the “initiative of the month”. Intriguingly, sustainability is the long-term goal of all planetary conservation efforts—living in harmony with our planet. How we can meet the needs of the present without depleting resources or harming natural cycles for future generations. Besides reductions in packaging, planetary conservation promotes the use of more organic materials (such as cotton), sustainable agriculture (wild caught fish versus farmed), and reduced energy consumption (such as replacing low-efficiency incandescent light bulbs with more efficient LED and compact fluorescent light bulbs).
But what do these enlightened self-interest models look like in reality? Wal-Mart, for all of their other well-publicized problems, is setting some very ambitious packaging and sustainability goals for themselves, influencing others around them as well. Their goal is as simple as it is powerful: “To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain our resources and the environment.” Given the sheer volume of their business globally—over $1 billion in sales EVERY DAY—you can begin to understand the leadership effect they can and will have on supply chains overall. On this scale, even a small percentage of change adds up to very big numbers. Next year (2008), Wal-Mart will start reducing their overall packaging by just 5%. This initiative will produce the following results:
- Prevent millions of pounds of trash from reaching landfills
- Reduce carbon dioxide emissions equal to taking 213,000 trucks off the road annually
- Save 323,800 tons of coal and 66.7 million gallons of diesel fuel from being burned
- Create $10.98 billion in savings
Wal-Mart alone is poised to save $3.4 billion.
Even Dell’s initiative to put more servers in fewer boxes, according to PaperCalculator.org, will eliminate the following per year:
- 2,000 tons of cardboard
- 1,000 tons of wood pallets
- 300 tons of paper
- 80 tons of polyethylene
- 40 tons of plastic
As reported in the New York Times article above, an even smaller initiative from Nestlé Waters North America, which owns Poland Spring, Deer Park and other brands, “saved 20 million pounds of paper in the last five years by using narrower labels on many bottles.”
These changes might be small overall, but the benefits are very BIG and very tangible. They also offer some smart business reasons for making sure such initiatives are successful and continuous. As I said, finding such enlightened self-interest makes me VERY optimistic that these programs will be sustainable. Of course, real results will speak much louder than these projected numbers. With the increased openness of information and the growing attention to these concerns, we will all be able to monitor this progress and change our own patterns of consumption and purchasing choices.
As concerned and interested as I am in these specific initiatives to reduce packaging and increase sustainability, my true and keen interest is about how to incorporate packaging into the design of the products themselves. How can products be designed to require little or no packaging? For example, product shapes can be made to be self stacking and to fill up a greater percentage of any standard rectangular storage shapes for larger containers they may need to be shipped in.
Check the shelves in your cupboards and refrigerator to see how much wasted space results from all the different product shapes and sizes in your fridge. If the product containers and packages were designed with storage in mind—for example, shaped to fit better with each other and with other products—you could either fit more onto each shelf or better yet, have smaller shelves and refrigerators. Another saving of energy and materials!
And please DO NOT think I’m suggesting that we have some “standards” for packaging or containers, nor that they should all be the same! I’m arguing for greater diversity of design, greater visual appeal and emotional design, AND using design as the solution for greater sustainability. My suggestion is to challenge product and packaging designers to create fabulous designs that appeal to us visually, emotionally, and ecologically. It turns out that there is a whole category for this, and it’s called sustainable design. Cycling back to where we started, doing more with less, the motivation for sustainable design is articulated famously in E. F. Schumacher's 1973 book Small is Beautiful.
However, to keep this posting a little smaller (and hopefully better) and to improve YOUR sustainability, I’ll cover sustainable design next time!