OPINION: The Packaging Debate

Licensing.biz Executive Advisory Board member, Caroline Mickler tells us why it's time for the industry to deal with the problem of excessive packaging for children's products...
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Not long ago some of our major supermarkets made a lot of noise about packaging and waste. They were, they insisted, going to do something, not only about plastic carrier bags, but about the shrink-wrapped, foil-protected, plastic-shelled food that went into them.

This isn’t just a sudden conversion to green causes on the part of Asda or Sainsbury’s. Customer awareness of such issues is growing and, where once attractive packaging, however excessive, added to a product’s appeal, today it often elicits disgust as much as delight. Better to be proactive, the supermarkets thought. Better to address such issues now before our customers tell us to.

And that goes for children’s toys as well. It’s not hard to see a time when our offspring, far from thrilling to the sight of cardboard, plastic and paper, will be wagging their little fingers at us, parents and producers, suggesting that it’s all bad for the planet.

And they may have a point. At the moment, low-cost manufacturing, volume production and speed of turnaround have rather obscured the question of how much packaging is used, or indeed required.

However, that won’t last. Awareness of waste is going to grow. After all, how many of us can deny that we think about packaging more now than we did even five years ago?

As a parent I like to give my child toys beautifully presented and packaged. As a consumer – and as a licensing professional – my eye is as likely to be caught by an elaborate box as what’s in it. But as a concerned, informed citizen, I sometimes wonder whether it isn’t all a bit too much. Certainly, if I buy, say, a child’s makeup kit, only to find every item and accessory individually wrapped in plastic, even when it’s out of sight and perfectly safe from bumping and scratching, I am appalled at the waste involved. And, knowing that much of the packaging used will be unrecyclable and end up in landfill makes me nervous, not just for this industry but for this planet.

The supermarkets have done something about it. But, I hear you say, packaging items for children is not like wrapping fruit. That’s true. It’s much more complex. And that’s another good reason why we need to think about ways to deal with the packaging question. If it becomes an issue picked up by media or government and we don’t have a response the next thing you know it’ll go to the EU, costing us, and them, millions of euros in proposals, counter-proposals and legal representation and possibly ending in a thoroughly unsatisfactory piece of legislation that not only undermines the impact of goods for the children’s market but makes them more expensive to produce.

So who sets the ball rolling? Consumers? Hardly. It’s difficult enough for them to keep on top of the educational, nutritional and health needs of their offspring without forcing them to do lead the way by choosing only eco-friendly goods. Manufacturers? Of course, but few if any will go it alone. They follow the guidelines set by retail. And that’s the answer. If retail says it wants its goods in less packaging, or more green packaging, and can offer guidelines, manufacturers will do it.

And, as the example of the make-up kit indicates, there is room for improvement that won’t necessarily hurt retail or manufacturing. You certainly don’t need to dress yourself – or your goods – in sackcloth and ashes to make a real difference and cut back on unnecessary packaging. And we, our customers and the planet will feel all the better for it.

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