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Packaging organic

Mark Machin, supply chain development manager at Soil Association Certification, looks at the role of ethical packaging in the organic movement
Packaging organic

This article first appeared in our Earth Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 22 April 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Here at Soil Association, we receive a not insignificant number of emails from you, organic shoppers, about the packaging used for organic products.

Considering that packaging will only mitigate around 2% of global emissions, this often feels like a disproportionate level of concern – yet I find myself sympathising.

To paraphrase: ‘organic products should not have any packaging; why do you allow plastic packaging in your standards, and what are you doing in your standards to reduce harmful packaging?’

Inorganic materials do not sit easily with brand organic. We eschew synthetic materials in many of our standards – from fertilisers at farm level to fibres in clothes – yet we do permit a number of them in packaged goods.

Freedom to pioneer packaging

The first thing I’d like to say is that organic aims not to be a gold standard of perfection.

Instead, organic is a truly regenerative code where we see organic as the floor – not the ceiling – in a world of continuing improvement.

There is certainly much room for improvement when it comes to how we package many of the products we consume, yet the transition to more sustainable packaging will require a collaborative approach.

Yes there is room for hard lines, but businesses must also seek to pioneer without the crude stick of standards as they respond to our concerns around packaging and waste.

Organic standards

As a standard setter in the organic sector, Soil Association has additional standards to the GB organic regulation which may not always be evident to shoppers buying organic products. Detail lovers can read these standards on our website.

We don’t aim to eliminate all packaging in our standards, but recognise that the way certain packaging materials are manufactured and disposed of can have very negative impacts on the environment and human health.

The Soil Association standards do restrict the use of certain ‘problem plastics’ and harmful chemicals that are used in the packaging sector, such as phthalates and bisphenol.

We recognise that our standards will never be a perfect solution for the most sustainable packaging; this is a fast-moving industry and the evolution of standards is a long and detailed process.

We can, however, continue to push the envelope on the minimum requirements businesses must meet.

The benefits of organic

In our journey to net zero, enhancing biodiversity and creating a food system that is more friendly for people to work in, organic has a strong role to play.

Organic farming is nutritionally different and has scientifically proven health benefits. It also supports on average 50% higher levels of biodiversity.

Research from the Rodale Institute indicates that organic farming has the power to sequester more than 100% of current anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, and we need to bring as many shoppers as possible on that journey because the way we produce our food can radically change the impact we have on our planet.

Telling the story

I was recently asked if organic as a single term is sufficient to engage the consumer.

While organic is certainly a shortcut that helps to tie the complexity of a farming system into a single word, it does not convey a story – and this is crucial if we are to change hearts and minds.

The rise of the eco-conscious consumer continues, and as we invest in ourselves and in the environment, we need to hear stories that help us understand the value of what we are buying.

Yes, how a product is packaged can tell us a lot about the brand values – but a sustainably packaged product does not necessarily mean the product is mitigating one of its biggest impacts: the way it was produced.

To that end, a ‘sustainably’ packed product – or one with no packaging at all – could be as much a marketing gimmick as one packed in a harmful plastic with an excellent campaign that turns out to be nothing but greenwash.

Join the conversation

We love to hear from organic shoppers, so please keep contacting us with your thoughts and questions – including those on packaging.

It’s useful for us to relay to brands that shoppers do care about how a product is packaged.

Continue to tell brands and retailers about what is important to you; if you are like me, this will have a packaging focus.

However, don’t be distracted from where your shopping decisions make maximum impact for people, planet and nature.

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