UPS: Packaging Sustainability for Pearl Jam and You, Too


Even rock bands like Pearl Jam are turning to UPS for logistics help in sustainability. The brand recently partnered with UPS to devise a carbon-reducing transportation strategy for its 20th anniversary tour. It’s all in a day’s work for Arnold Barlow, Senior Manager of Sustainability Solutions for UPS’s Customer Solutions group, and his colleagues.

“UPS delivers 16 million packages a day, 3 billion annually,” says Barlow, who spoke about “Innovations in Sustainable Packaging” at last week’s Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego (for which brandchannel was a sponsor), about the sheer scope of what UPS faces daily. “About three or four years ago, customers using our test lab in Chicago began asking us about which packaging materials were the most sustainable. We didn’t have the expertise, so we took it upon ourselves to become experts.”

Arnold told us about the company’s journey to today’s status as a leader in sustainable packaging and his role as steward of the brand’s Eco Responsible Packaging Program.[more]

“Companies were asking our advice so we created the program examining the product-to-package ratio, damage prevention, transportation and materials, giving a pass or fail score according to lifecycle metrics,” Barlow says, adding that there’s a patent pending on the calculator that does this. Those with passing scores can affix an emblematic logo to their boxes.

“The biggest misconception about what really matters in sustainable packaging is that it’s about materials. Paper or plastic? Which paper? Air pillows? But the single most important question is transport and packaging that deliver the product intact,” he says.

“For example, with a laptop, 50-60% of the carbon is in the manufacturing, 35% in electricity, and only 7-8% is in the packaging and transport. But if any of these are done poorly, they must all be redone which doubles the original 50-60% and adds fuel and packaging costs. It’s a delicate balance, an act of optimization. How do you make the box no bigger than required, protect the product, maximize transport costs and minimize carbon footprint?”

Barlow cites Unilever, Walmart and Puma as innovators in the space. Walmart gets more traction than many due to sheer scale, while Puma has redesigned a shoebox that turns into a bag. Dell has partnered with Unisource Global Solutions on bamboo packaging for shipping laptops. Bamboo is emerging as a key source in sustainability as it grows several inches each day. Ecovative Design is developing mushroom packaging  to replace Styrofoam peanuts and trays, made from mushroom cultures and agricultural chaff which would otherwise end up in landfill or be burned.

“The next biggest challenge is getting the right people to care and take action,” continued Barlow. “Most of the people at this conference are already involved in sustainability, but how do you get procurement and acquisitions people involved? Sustainability has to be brought to the table at a company making a difference in procurement and acquisitions as a contributing factor, not a tie-breaker, as it currently is. It has to be seen as a way of life.”

Technology has been a big help for UPS in developing sophisticated software for truck routes and efficiency, he added. “Using telematics, electric readers, we can minimize miles traveled, track if a vehicle is idling or braking too much, and even measure number of left-turns versus right. Left-turns are more efficient as there’s no waiting at a stoplight.” Telematics can even identify vehicle components, alternators and starters, when they are about to fail so they are replaced with cost and carbon savings.

Social media has also been a boon, says Barlow, in getting the word out. “When companies do things well, they can communicate that. Others give party endorsements. It makes everybody more honest and careful and transparent.” UPS has its Upside blog, as well as being active on Twitter and Facebook.  

Barlow recalls how pollution was the buzzword at the first Earth Day, on April 22nd 1970. Today, it’s all about sustainability. So what will it take to engage brands and consumers en masse in the concept and precipitate changes in behavior? 

A reframing of the language around it, says Barlow. “People don’t like to be inconvenienced. They have busy and difficult lives already,” he states. “If you ask them to do ABCD and E, they’ll say, how does this benefit me? But if you introduce the idea of not wasting materials, one paper towel instead of two to dry your hands, or financials, often the more sustainable approach is more economical, it’s easier for people to connect to it as a good idea.”

Below, more on how UPS approaches sustainability from Barlow’s boss, UPS Chief Sustainability Officer Scott Wicker: