Sustainable packaging claims: time for a re-think?

My lack of posting in the last few weeks doesn’t mean my mind hasn’t been on potential earthblog21 ideas, it’s just I haven’t had time to write them down.

On Wednesday, after carrying out my weekly shop, I was packing and paying at the till, carefully placing my food into my two ‘bags for life’ (I still haven’t used a throwaway plastic bag, so that particular sustainable student task is going well) when I paused for a second to actually look at the the brightly decorated bag.

As you can see on the picture, aside from the delightful rainforest illustration, Tesco make the claim that “tropical rainforests are being destroyed at a rate of one football pitch every four seconds.” Furthermore, they say the company will donate £75,000 from the sales of reusable bags bearing the Together For Trees logo, working with the RSPB to safeguard rainforests across the globe.

Firstly, I was quite disappointed by the low donation figure, but I’ll put that down to corporate stinginess. I have two major queries. Are Tesco’s figures even accurate? And does anyone read them anyway?

If we take a minimum size football pitch, that equals an area of 0.00405 km2 per pitch. The surface area of the earth is 509,600,000 km2 and the rainforests cover just under 2% of the total area. That means the rainforests cover roughly 10,192,000 km2. Tesco says that a football pitch worth of rainforest is disappearing every four seconds, or 21,600 pitches a day. That’s an area of 87.48 km2 per day.

Using these very loose figures, the rainforests will have disappeared in 116,515 days or 319 years. That might seem a very long time, but if we think of humanity’s small period of ascendancy in the earth’s history then 319 years is a blink in which the character of the planet will change.

So, Tesco might not be far off with those figures. My initial scepticism was proved wrong. But the question remains whether these figures are convincing for a fast paced modern society. Human beings find it difficult to comprehend the next year, let alone three centuries time by which point we’ll all be forgotten memories of a backwards era.

A football pitch of rainforest disappearing every four seconds perhaps isn’t shocking enough. What about the flora and fauna that will disappear? What about the wider effect on the climate? Either tug the helpless heartstrings, or put the situation in a dangerous global context.

It’s great these companies are going ‘greener’, but do consumers want to be constantly reminded? Do they care?

My final point is whether anyone reads these charitable messages anyway. My eye wandered while at a check out but I’ve never before taken the time to look at the bag for life properly before. Again, I’ve briefly glimpsed environmental boasts on other packaging – McDonald’s recycled paper is a prominent example in my mind – but I still wonder whether these messages reach a wide audience.

Are these gestures by large companies simply green vanity projects? Are they merely reactions to a militant environmental minority who will harass them if they don’t? Maybe the investment spent on creating these messages could be better used elsewhere. My suggestion would be encouraging consumers to change behaviour, but I have a sneaking feeling businesses will struggle to envisage any return on that particular investment, even if it might help create a sustainable future.

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