Is the Quality Bar Set Higher for Green Products?

GreenBiz logo jpeg This GreenBiz post is a follow-up to Joel Makower's "Why Doesn't Green = Better?" post from the end of last month.  Dennis Salazar explains how despite the many sustainable improvements in his own sector (secondary packaging materials) consumers and the market don't see industries as improving because of unrealistic expectations.

Posted Aug. 21, 2009

By Dennis Salazar, GreenBiz.com

The answer is most definitely yes, the bar is often times higher and
the standards and expectations are quite different compared to
non-green products. After reading Joel Makower's recent article on "Why Doesn't Green = Better," I reluctantly admit in many cases green is not necessarily better. In fact, at times green only slightly resembles green.

Exaggerations, distortions and outright lies are unfortunately still
commonplace as desperate manufacturers with sagging traditional
non-green product sales, attempt to survive by putting a light coat of
green tint on their same old products. It is often more about green
marketing than it is about green design or manufacturing.

The Scale and Scope of Green Progress

However, I am glad to say that industry as a whole has made tremendous
strides in certain areas: some cateogories are filled with products
that have become very green, largely because of innovative
manufacturing's response to market requirements.

For example, in my relatively narrow slice of green life, which we call
"secondary packaging materials," the industry is creating new and
better products on an almost daily basis. For those who equate better
with "cheaper" that may not be true across the board, but the sizable
green price gap that once existed has completely disappeared on some
products and is fading quickly on others. This shift is happening as a
restul of increased competition in the green space and buyers who both
demand green attributes and are more focused on cost than ever before.

The fact is that over the course of the last two years we have
witnessed the introduction and growth of products like biodegradable,
compostable and oxo-degradable shrink films, stretch films and other
polyethylene products. This includes inflatable void fill (air pillows)
and cushioning products that are now offered in 100 percent recycled
content or 100 percent biodegradable plastics.

Even traditional green (paper-based) products such as paperboard and
corrugated are now offering improved versions containing more recycled
content, in some cases 100 percent post consumer waste to help solve
our fast growing paper waste problem. The corrugated and paperboard
industries have also responded to tougher applications by creating
products able to provide moisture barrier protection without the use of
petroleum-based waxes or polyethylene coatings.

Green packaging has come a long way in a very short period of time but
often times, consumers and the market do not see it that way. Why is
that?

Green Quality Expectations Vs. Results

Returning to Makower's article, if people are not happy with the
quality of green products, it may be in part because their expectations
are unrealistic or even unfair.

I have discovered that many of the most common perceptions people have
about green packaging products are simply out of date. It can be a
constant struggle to keep up with our rapidly changing industry, and my
company's full-time job is buying and selling green packaging. Given
that, what chance does an over-worked and often understaffed buyer have
of staying current if packaging represents a relatively small
percentage of their overall annual buy?

I may ask a question like, "Are you attending the packaging show," or
"did you see the article on sustainability in this month's issue of X
magazine?" The response is quite often a chuckle or look of frustration
that confirms an absolute lack of time to deal with anything that does
not have to be absolutely dealt with today. Even when people have the
desire and time to learn; in the current economy many companies have
simply cut off funds for training and ongoing education.

So it becomes more convenient — if not exactly efficient — to utilize
inaccurate and outdated perceptions that may have been true just a year
or two ago.

For example, manufacturers of 100 percent PCW paperboard or corrugated
would admit the quality of the product they produced three to four
years ago was not nearly as good or as strong as it is today. Like any
other manufacturing process using a variety of substrate sources, it
has improved, and the end result is a much better box or case. So if
buyers’ expectations or opinions are based on old test data or product
samples, they won’t be receptive to the new and improved product.
Likewise, in the area of plastic packaging, I am testing and seeing
biodegradable pallet stretch wrap films with excellent elongation and
puncture resistance that were not available a short six months ago.

Education remains the most important objective of green packaging
suppliers, because everything else depends on having an informed buyer
able to understand and appreciate the benefits of a new or redesigned
green product.

People Tend to See What They Expect to See

We have found that even when the quality of green packaging products is
demonstrated, tested and proven, customer acceptance can still be a
challenge. For example, we have had the same shipping product tested
multiple times by the same customer because they did not believe or
trust the results of their own ship test.

If the end user does not expect the product to perform well, then he or
she will be somewhat befuddled and disbelieving when it does. In other
words, there is a firm expectation of poor quality.

I have also come to believe that price competitiveness has factored in
to this anticipation of poor quality. When a buyer encounters a green
product with a newly reduced price, a common misconception is that
manufacturers must have "made it cheaper" somehow, that quality suffers
before cost-competitiveness improves.

Consumer confusion is usually the end result when you combine these
negative preconceived notions, legitimate negative history and a lot of
misinformation, usually enthusiastically provided by a company's
(non-green) incumbent supplier. When you have little time to do your
own homework, it becomes more efficient in terms of time to trust your
old friend who has been supplying you product for years.

'The Pioneer Takes the Arrows'

That is a favorite quote of a former co-worker, and nothing could be
truer when it comes to sustainability. My observations above are not
complaints or sour grapes; most of what I described is simply part of
the process and what it takes to help develop a new market.

However, I do look forward to a time when all green products and green
companies are fairly and accurately graded as authentic, and their
quality is real, obvious and readily accepted by the skeptical market
they serve. Until then, I'm afraid Mr. Makower is right that Green ≠
Better.

Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging Inc. 

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