How important is packaging in ethics?
Packaging is usually one of the factors to consider when deciding on an ethical (Green Stars) rating for a product. However, it’s not the only factor, and sometimes it’s not even close to being the most important one. We sometimes tend to think that it’s the main issue because it’s the most tangible and immediate thing to us as consumers. We see, touch, and ultimately dispose of the packaging, while other ethical aspects of a product such as child labor, animal cruelty, or deforestation are not as immediately obvious.
The problem with Loop
The bottom line here is that Loop has potential, but right now it has one big problem: many of the brands that they are working with don’t rate highly for social and environmental impact. The founder of Loop has made an important contribution to waste reduction with Terracycle, but needs to tread carefully with this enterprise. There’s an absolute need to include ethical brands and I think Loop will not succeed unless they do, for these reasons:
- Many people who may want to join Loop, in order to reduce packaging, would only do so if ethical brands were available. I’d much rather use a laundry detergent like Biokleen, which generates one small plastic bag and a recyclable cardboard box per year, than Tide in a reusable container. (Links are to posts that look at ethics of both).
- Many of the people who already buy brands from Unilever, P&G, and Nestlé will not be that interested in reducing packaging waste. By choosing these brands they have demonstrated a level of indifference to (or unawareness of) ethical issues.
- The idea gives the impression that the Loop-featured mainstream brands will become ethically acceptable. It might* make them a little better but they will still lag far behind the most ethical brands. It will be perceived by some as greenwashing. If instead they focus on ethical brands, Loop will be perceived as intended: closing the packaging loop on already-sustainable brands.
*The benefit of actually reducing the packaging footprint is yet to be proven.
There is another issue here: if the introduction of a paradigm-shift idea fails badly then it can stall future progress due to a fear of touching the idea again. For example, PepsiCo introduced compostable bags for their SunChips brand over a decade ago but the idea was poorly executed (they were famously noisy and didn’t compost well). There was also the issue that they were still a PepsiCo product and therefore not that appealing to ethically-minded consumers. Since then, there seems to be a stigma attached to the idea and compostable snack bags have never taken off, even though improvements were made to reduce noise and increase compostability.
Brands featured by Loop
The majority of the brands featured on the Loop site are owned by P&G (Tide, Febreze, Gillette, Pantene, Crest), Unilever (Axe, Dove, Seventh Generation, Love Beauty and Planet), or Nestlé (Häagen-Dazs).
It’s not my place to tell you what to think. The idea of the Green Stars Project is to introduce a democratic ethical rating system. I’ve written about P&G’s Tide Pods and Unilever’s Dove soap before and, in my opinion, they are both terrible choices from an ethical perspective. I haven’t covered Häagen-Dazs, but Nestlé is one of the companies that I always avoid, when possible.
Dove or Love Beauty and Planet = Unilever palm oil.
One of the featured brands, Love Beauty and Planet, was new to me, so I did a small amount of research. The brand was invented by Unilever to sell cosmetics to Millennials, and although the brand is pitched as cruelty-free, the parent company is not. On their site, Love Beauty and Planet provide a rosy guide to ingredients. Curiously, they don’t mention the main ingredient in their bar soap: palm oil. So, whether you go to Loop to buy Dove soap or Love Beauty and Planet soap, you are buying Unilever palm oil. To buy from multinationals like Unilever means to buy commodity market palm oil and all the issues that go with it:
“If more immediate action is not taken to enforce ‘no deforestation’ policies, these brands will be remembered as the corporate giants responsible for the destruction of the last place on earth where Sumatran elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers roamed side by side,” says the study by Rainforest Action Network (RAN).” – The Guardian, 2017, referring to brands owned by Pepsico, Nestlé, and Unilever.
“Amnesty International traced a range of well-known products back to the palm oil company Wilmar, which it alleged employs children to do back-breaking physical labour on refineries in Indonesia.” – The Guardian, 2016, referring to products manufactured by Nestlé, Unilever, and other companies.
So, you can pick up some packaging-free soap from an ethical company that actively contributes to make the world a better place, on your way home from work, or have Unilever palm oil soap shipped to you by UPS. It doesn’t sound great when you look at it like that. And even besides the ethics of the product itself, there’s the need to take a close look at the carbon footprints of these two supply routes and there are also questions, raised here, about how often these heavy-duty packages will actually be reused after customers get their hands on them.
Is there hope for Loop?
Besides the giant multinationals, Loop is working with a few ethical brands. For example, Nature’s Path (see my review of their organic rice puffs here; 5/5 Green Stars) and Preserve (see these posts on toothbrushes and razors, also 5/5 Green Stars).
The good news here is that Loop hasn’t launched yet (their soft launch is planned for May 2019) and I presume there are plans to expand the number of available brands. I strongly believe that, in order both to succeed and to be socially responsible, Loop needs to focus more on ethical brands.