GREEN

Smaller Packaging Equals Hidden Eco-Costs

06/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

less ice cream in each package image

Are Producers Helping You to Stay on Budget?
USA Today recently headlined a shocking review of the big name food companies that are trying to beat rising costs by reducing package sizes. Granted, most of us could probably do with cutting our consumption of Edy's ice cream by 14% (1.75 quart containers have suddenly become 1.5 quarts), a little less Hellmann's mayo on the bread, or spreading Shedd's Country Crock a bit more thinly (32 ounce jar drops to 30, and 48 ounces shrinks to 45 ounces, respectively). But should manufacturers make this decision for us?

The food companies justify their actions with the claim that a package of their product must remain affordable. Of course, consumers are outraged at these tricks. We ask: is keeping the weekly tab down really helping the consumer?
Smaller Package Equals Hidden Costs and Eco-costs
Costs are up. Milk is up 10.2% since May 2007. Eggs are up 44.9% over a similar term. Corn is up almost 70%, wheat has doubled in price. At least some of these costs will have to be passed through to the consumers. But what happens when marketers shrink the package to recover those costs? It is worse than merely a sneaky price increase. Here is why: suppliers are increasing avoidable costs by choosing smaller packages over price hikes.

Smaller packaging means that the cost of packaging per ounce of product is higher. Even if you neglect the costs of redesigning the package, it is a sure bet that a package holding 14% less ice cream is not costing Edy's 14% less. And the volume of packaging going to landfill, assuming consumption remains constant, increases. The raw material costs (energy, water, wastes) of running the machines that produce the packages will increase. To add insult to injury, transportation costs will increase: even after the lag in adjusting ordering patterns to re-optimize logistics, the increased packaging weight per product volume will increase fuel costs indefinitely.

Certainly, we are not talking about big impacts on a per package basis. But all suppliers are likely to follow the lead once the trend is started. That is a lot of packages. The net result is not only pass-through of increasing costs of raw materials, but a cost penalty to be paid by consumers for the choice of marketing gimmickry over logistical efficiency. We should be outraged.

Take Action on Packaging Waste
What can you do? Watch your package sizes. As soon as you see a package shrinking, visit the supplier's website and drop them a note. Let the bosses know that you do not agree with their decision to make matters worse for your pocketbook by dropping efficiency just when you need them to make the price per pound as low as possible. It is fair to do what is necessary to make a profit in the face of rising costs; it is rude and disrespectful to act like we are too stupid to notice that they are choosing to make problems worse just when we all need to pull together to get through the rough economic and ecological times ahead.

Suggest a correction