Measuring and Managing: A Look at New Sustainability Metrics for Packaging Life Cycles and Practicies

Posted: January 21, 2010 by
Katherine O'Dea

Everyone is familiar with this adage: We value what we measure. In other words, what gets measured gets managed. Several factors are driving the need to measure the sustainability of packaging systems.

Packaging is an essential and visible part of product delivery and marketing. It is an icon of consumption and has an intimate relationship to customers. Packaging consumes a significant amount of resources and has a short lifespan, so consumers persistently perceive it as waste. Additionally, like products, packaging is often designed in one country, manufactured in another, and sold in yet another.

This system of commerce creates a host of economic, environmental, and social impacts that can vary in terms of regional and local severity and implications. Burning fossil fuels to produce energy contributes to global climate change, and the mining of oil and coal has an acute local impact on soil erosion, biodiversity, and land rights. Water is considered globally renewable but locally scarce. In addition, labor practices are typically well regulated and managed in developed countries but less so in developing economies, resulting in abuse of workers’ rights.

In response to the need for a packaging sustainability management system, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) is releasing in December of 2009 a new tool for packaging directors and engineers—The Sustainable Packaging Indicators and Metrics Framework (or SP Metrics Framework). The Framework is the outcome of an 18-month project that involved extensive research, stakeholder engagement, and a comprehensive review process. It provides a comprehensive palette of indicators and metrics divided into eight categories related to: 1) material use; 2) energy use; 3) water use; 4) material health; 5) clean production and transport; 6) cost and performance; 7) community impact; and 8) worker impact.

The SPC’s Definition of Sustainable Packaging informed the development of the SP Metrics Framework because it establishes a definitive set of objective criteria that delineate the specific areas (impacts and attributes) that are important to measure. Secondary principles that guided the Framework development included life cycle thinking and the availability of international standards or protocols to guide the data collection and sharing processes.

While the SP Metrics Framework offers a common approach to benchmark and measure progress toward sustainable packaging, the Framework is not a standard for public reporting, and use of the indicators and metrics is entirely voluntary. It can be used by any member of the packaging supply chain, but was developed with two primary audiences in mind—brand owners and retailers.

The reason for the targeted audience is because stakeholders (including consumers) primarily look to these groups for packaging sustainability information. They are best positioned to engage upstream supply chain partners in the collection of data. Given this audience focus, not all of the metrics in the Framework are relevant for all companies. Some are not applicable for certain types of packaging. Others are not relevant to some supply chain functions.

The SP Metrics Framework also serves as a complement to the SPC Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging and the SPC’s comparative assessment packaging design software—COMPASS®. The Design Guidelines are intended to spur innovation beyond traditional packaging design criteria. Through accessible visual comparisons across a set of key performance indicators, COMPASS uses the scientific rigor of life cycle assessment to inform packaging design and material selection and highlight the potential environmental benefits and impact of each design.

Once packaging has been designed and is in the marketplace, the Framework provides a common approach to requesting and collecting performance data to gauge a company’s actual progress towards the vision of more sustainable packaging systems. In December, the Sustainable Packaging Indicators and Metrics Framework will be available for download at

Katherine O’Dea is a senior fellow for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue. Contact SPC at