Part of the Solution: Glass and the New Age of Sustainable Consumption

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Beauty has always been attractive to people deciding on their next purchase. But increasingly important to consumers around the world are the environmental impacts of the choices they make. As the EU prepares for new rules on green product claims, we have the perfect moment to put sustainability at the top of every shopping list.

Michael delle Selve is Head of Marketing and Communications at the European Container Glass Federation, FEVE.

Before the end of this year, the European Commission is set to publish a proposal on substantiating green claims made by companies.

The EU Green Claims proposal, as part of a European Green Deal, should help consumers to access reliable, comparable, and verifiable information about products, to support sustainable choices. This means showing consumers they can trust claims about the sustainability of products they buy.

Because sustainability is not just a buzzword for politicians and companies. It is the name of a rich and complex modern reality. Any methodology to substantiate green claims must take account of all the many environmental and social impacts covered by the word “sustainable.” When it comes to packaging, these impacts include the circularity of a product – whether for instance it can be recycled an infinite number of times into the same product, as is the case for glass.

Packaging is part of the product. Which means it can be part of the problem or part of the solution. The glass packaging industry is increasingly chosen as a partner for brands who want to be part of the sustainable transition. This in turn will help consumers make the sustainable choices they are already looking for.

A McKinsey survey last year found that, as the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, consumers will more than ever expect packaging companies to “balance sustainability goals with stringent hygiene requirements.” The “next normal” for packaging design, McKinsey said, will mean “taking into account the full circular economy and the direct environmental impact of producing packaging materials.”

Glass means healthy, reusable and infinitely recyclable closed loop packaging: a true circular, sustainable packaging product. We are now taking significant steps towards also achieving climate-neutral glass packaging throughout Europe. By 2023 we hope to see the first results from Furnace for the Future: a breakthrough technology allowing glass production to switch to renewable electricity and dramatically reduce CO2 emissions.

To engage in these conversations with consumers, FEVE launched a new packaging symbol known as the Glass Hallmark. Designed to be printed on labels or directly onto the glass itself, the hallmark highlights the environmental and health benefits of choosing products packaged in glass. Raising awareness of the infinite recyclability of glass can also encourage consumers to recycle. Packaging is one of the best channels for communication, let’s use it.

Among the sustainability benefits that consumers should demand to see underpinned by green claims policy include the avoidance of food waste and of littering, the direct health impact of packaging, the impact product packaging has on biodiversity and land use, and the role of packaging in minimising toxicity and food chain contamination.

In 2018 the East Asia branch of Greenpeace the environmental NGO called for a “consumer revolution” to make sustainable shopping easier. The signs of change are already clear. Europeans are striving for a more sustainable future. As people make efforts to reduce their environmental footprint, they also become more vocal in their expectations that governments and businesses do more to help them make more sustainable choices.

Speaking about “Sustainability and brand loyalty,” in an online feature for McKinsey last December, Miriam Lobis, a partner in the Berlin office, said younger generations “will have completely new demands as to what it means to be an end-to-end sustainable brand.” It is no surprise that the first Scandinavian issue of fashion bible Vogue last month featured climate activism superstar Greta Thunberg, encouraging readers to support a “sustainable transition.”

An Ipsos survey of over 1,000 adults in September 2020 found that almost two thirds of shoppers believe that choosing “sustainable brands or products” makes a real difference to the environment. The environmental impacts people were most likely to think about when choosing a product were those related to packaging.

When it comes to environmental sustainability, glass is unrivalled: made entirely of raw materials found in nature, glass is simple and does no significant harm to the environment. It’s the only packaging that’s both reusable and infinitely recyclable.

The new glass hallmark was designed in partnership with consumers, drawing on a survey of some ten thousand Europeans across 13 countries. The survey showed that, not only are Europeans increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of packaging, but that the majority consider glass to be the safest, healthiest and most environmentally friendly option. This perception is increasingly driving their purchasing decisions. The main reason given for not buying glass was simply that not all popular brands are yet offered in glass packaging.

 And sustainable consumption doesn’t just affect the choice of a product in a shop or its use at home. Consumers today also want to know what happens to a product when it is no longer used.

Through initiatives such as Close the Glass Loop, we as FEVE want to see 90% of glass packaging collected for recycling across the EU, up from the current average of 76%. We also want even better-quality recycled glass, so that more recycled content can be used in new products.

As we move into a new decade with hopes of finding a new normal, it’s time to look at how all our consumer lifestyles have changed.

The new consumer knows that sustainable can still mean beautiful. In a changing world, we can all make choices that protect people, societies, and the environment, building a healthy future for generations to come. Every time we choose glass, we are putting that sustainable, beautiful future at the top of the list.

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