Wal-Mart's Packaging Demands Should Start Internally

Dec. 1, 2006
Let’s first fix the material handling systems that create the damaged goods packaging engineers work to protect against.

Wal-Mart wants more for less. Not news. Packaging engineers do more with less. Not news. Now, Wal-Mart wants packagers to use less to do more so that more becomes less and wants to pay less for that more. Hmmm. The Challenge, the promise and the solution. To see how these three things are related, think outside the cash register and inside the box; you'll get it.

This year's Pack Expo International will be memorable for numerous reasons. It was Wednesday morning, nearly the last day of the five-day extravaganza, before executives from Wal-Mart provided details of the company's lifecycle analysis approach to reducing packaging waste 5% in the future, or by 2013, whichever comes first.

That's the challenge. It's a major one for transport packaging. Eventually, I'll write more about the packaging scorecard all 60,000 suppliers (and wannabe suppliers) to Wal-Mart will be rated on beginning in 2008. This scorecard will be a tool for suppliers, as well as Wal-Mart's buyers, to rate relative performance (read: pressure on the environment) by themselves and competitors. The metrics of the scorecard will measure things such as how much greenhouse gas is produced in creating the package, efficient use of the cube, recycled content and value of the recoverable content. There's a list of nine metrics the company will use to rate its suppliers. The promise is a cleaner planet Earth.

The flip side of the scorecard (called the Packaging Supplier Virtual Trade Show), is where I predict the real action will be. Manufacturers of retail products will scour that list of packaging material suppliers looking for help. In the same manner, Wal-Mart's buyers will comb the list of its retail products suppliers looking for savings.

While companies that make the products you see on the shelf might think Wal-Mart is picking on them, all they'll really have to do is sort through suppliers of pallets, corrugated, plastic containers, etc., to find companies more environmentally friendly-according to the lifecycle analysis scorecard. Then they'll swallow hard, pay a bit more for their packaging needs, and figure a way to absorb that cost or pass it on to the consumer. With Wal-Mart passing on any price increase is going to be a tough sell.

The real onus of this program will be on the suppliers of packaging material to clean up their act, and in the process everyone else's.

I can't help but think we're stepping onto a slippery slope. Packaging, and packaging engineers, have always been under a mandate to do more with less. Protect more, use less material and lower the cost. That's the job of the package, and transport packaging in particular. And while I'm all for reducing waste products entering the environment-be they gaseous, animal, vegetable or mineral-I have to think there might be another aspect of this initiative that needs consideration.

There's a reason goods are packaged the way they are. I've never heard a packaging engineer say, "Hey man, let's add a bit more corrugated and specify a heavier-than-needed pallet because we can."

So, what's the solution? A thorough analysis of Wal-Mart's distribution channel, the environment those packages will have to travel through, is the place to start. An evaluation-of-the-supply-chain approach, as recommended by any responsible packaging engineer, might yield many places where package damage occurs, and why. Let's first fix the material handling systems that create the damaged goods packaging engineers work to protect against. Let's find better ways to design unit loads, for example.

Of course there's waste in the stream. Getting it out is the right thing to do. Waste, however, is not the problem. Waste is the opportunity to see and correct the whole process.

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