Now, it seems, three brothers in Austin want to up the ante on clean and green. They have formed an LLC called the Brothers Lane with a new business model in mind. They're planning to become the first package-free, zero-waste food retailer in the country. The vision? To go farther than any retailer has; to sell every product in bulk. Customers will simply bring in their own containers from home and fill them. Will this idea get off the ground? If it does, will it be a viable retail model?
The concept isn't new. Bulk foods are sold in every natural product retailer in America. Commodities like nuts, dried fruits, legumes and grains are scooped into individual plastic bags, sealed, weighed and priced per pound. Bulk foods were in stores for a long time before packaged products appeared. Then, products and brands exploded as well as populations to purchase them and a new problem popped up: massive amounts of packaging ended up in the waste stream, filling up landfills.
In response, manufacturers have been whittling away at extraneous packaging. Wal-Mart launched its "Packaging Scorecard" late in 2006, pressuring over 66,000 suppliers to reduce packaging. This move has had profound ramifications across the entire consumer product industry. Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Unilever are among a host of other product companies that pledged to cut waste in all phases of their business operations, including consumer packaging in a measurable, transparent manner. They're doing it.
There has been a steady reduction in the amount of plastic and paperboard being used. Result? Lighter, often smaller packaging that requires fewer truckloads to get to market -- saving money, precious natural resources and fuel costs. Not to mention cutting carbon emissions. Even with these efforts, 29 million tons of packaging waste hits U.S. landfills annually, according to some estimates; almost 12% of that comes from plastics that are not recycled.
While zero packaging might seem like a good idea, let's remember the reasons that packaging appeared in the first place -- and it wasn't about creating a new marketing platform. Are the ideas that made packaging viable still meaningful, or have cultural shifts made it expendable?
Why continue to package?
• To protect the integrity of products so they don't degrade and lose nutritional value quickly.
• To prevent food spoilage.
• To prevent handling of raw products and the transference of bacteria and viruses.
• To ensure safety by not allowing the transference of germs in the atmosphere and from other customers.
• To prevent merchandise from getting "shop worn" and less saleable.
• To ensure freshness.
• To prevent possible contamination from containers consumers think are clean and place foodstuffs into to take home.
• To prevent tampering.
• To ensure traceability and transparency: retailers and consumers alike should know which brand of product they are purchasing and where it came from.
• Consumers need the assurance of quality and recourse if a tainted food issue occurs.
There's another concern: will a "no packaging" policy lead to lawsuits? Stores filled with unbranded bulk products might lead to more taint (or perceptions of it.) Will that lead to lawsuits if consumers become ill? Especially if testing of products yields evidence of harmful bacteria?
Given all of these factors, "Is no packaging for all food products the right way to go?" It's easy to passionately embrace an idea that's a cultural hot-button issue. It's equally important to stand back and look at things rationally.
Rather than zero packaging, how about continuing to do these things:
• Cut down on extraneous packaging.
• Recycle as much packaging as possible, cutting down dramatically on the manufacture and use of virgin materials.
• Design packaging that can be repurposed or reused.
• Continue to find new biodegradable materials from renewable sources.
It seems to me that doing these things will give us the best of both worlds: Highly functional packaging; viable, safe, fresh products, and measurably less packaging material in landfills as time goes on.