The fast-growing sustainability movement is making packaging an increasingly important aspect of poultry production. But "earth-friendly products won't save the environment if they don't save people money," according to Vernon D. Rowe, corporate environmental manager, Pilgrim's Pride, who spoke at the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association's processor workshop.

Polling data suggests that "sustainability" may influence consumer buying habits in the future. Presenting data from the FMI-Harris poll for 2007, Rowe stated that "92 percent of consumers agree with the statement that it is important for the U.S. food industry to be more proactive about addressing environmental concerns". He also reported that an Information Resources Inc. poll last year found that "89 percent of consumers are interested in eco-friendly' products and 30 percent actively look for them."

To attract those consumers interested in sustainable packaging, Rowe mentioned that poultry companies must recognize the importance of the terminology used in labeling. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, phrases such as "No Oil Used," "No Fossil Fuels Used," or "Made From 100 Percent Renewable Resources" are the kind that are going to demand attention. The catch, however, is that many consumers are reluctant to spend more on sustainable packaging. They equate their part in sustainable practice with recycling rather than paying more for sustainable packaging, especially as food prices continue to rise. What this means is that the poultry industry must find a way to make packaging practices more sustainable without driving up costs, Rowe insisted. Keeping costs down begins with practices in the supply chain.

Assessing suppliers

Wal-Mart has embraced sustainability but is not giving up on its mission of providing the lowest prices. Since Wal-Mart is Pilgrim's Pride's biggest customer, and one of the poultry industry's biggest customers, it will be a factor in the "drive to sustainable packaging," according to Rowe. With its Sustainability Program, launched in 2005, Wal-Mart has initiated a sharp focus on its suppliers, assessing their practices in production, distribution, and transportation, as well as their plans to reduce carbon emissions and "an ability to define their carbon footprint".

Playing a big part in this focus is the use of what is called a Sustainable Packaging Scorecard. This tool allows buyers from Sam's Club and Wal-Mart to easily make comparisons between suppliers' packaging practices, and therefore make more informed purchasing decisions.

The scorecard collects data based on the eight aspects of "material value, product/package ratio, cube utilization, transportation, recycle content, recovery value, renewable energy, and innovation." This drives suppliers to be conscious of the ways they utilize energy and resources and keep a handle on what they can do to improve their practices in terms of sustainability.

For an example of innovations in packaging practices, Rowe referred to Robbie Manufacturing Inc's Hot N Handy (HNH) Rotisserie Pouch, a packaging development designed as an alternative to the more rigid dome-style container most commonly used for rotisserie chicken. While appealing to customers with its leak-free, compact and lightweight design, reinforced handle and resealable zipper, the pouch also does its job in reaching the bottom line in sustainability: the production of one pouch uses 88 percent less crude oil and 85 percent less carbon-dioxide emissions than the production of one dome container, and allows for a 66 percent reduction in solid waste.

Sustainable packaging innovations such as the HNH Rotisserie Pouch do more than reduce environmental impact, they can also do the same for processors by saving money in the supply chain. By using a space-saving product, suppliers can reduce transportation costs.

According to Rowe's presentation, one truckload of HNH is equivalent to shipping 13.5 truckloads of the same quantity of traditional dome containers. Because of the flexible, lighter, and more compact design of the pouches, he said, shippers can "maximize cube utilization." Rowe further detailed that HNH Pouches allow a 60 percent reduction in the number of boxeswhereas the pouches can number 250 per case, it would take 2.5 cases to hold the equivalent in dome containers.

It is hard to ignore packaging innovations that not only achieve sustainability standards, but also save money. With rising fuel prices, transportation is one of the most crucial links in the supply chain, and any product that can reduce transportation costs has great potential. With the help of relevant labeling, they also appeal to consumers, such products have the potential to boost sales as well.

Savings in transport

As Rowe concluded his presentation, this potential allowed him to express hope for the poultry industry's sustainable future. Innovations like the Wal-Mart/Sam's Score Card and the incentives of sales increases and reduced transportation costs will drive the industry forward.

As long as companies are willing to make sustainability a part of their brand, he says, the industry will see many more improvements in the years to come, and many benefits resulting from those improvements. He rounded off the presentation by quoting Charles Darwin: "It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change."