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September,  2007
Volume III   Issue 9

It's Not Easy Being Green
Part One: Life Cycle Assessment

by Jack Miller

I recently gave a presentation at a conference about sustainable packaging. I
knew that there would be lots of presentations about various packaging
materials that were “environmentally friendly” in some way, and so I wanted
to offer something different.

There is a science (or a perhaps an art) called Life Cycle Assessment, or
LCA that attempts to measure the total environmental impact of  a product or
material throughout its lifespan,  assigning scores for things like land use,
climate change, and use of fossil materials. Pira International does LCA
using  a tool that has a built in data base that has already calculated the
impact of materials ranging from paper to plastics to metals. The tool also
does the calculations once you tell it what materials are in your product, but
it doesn’t weight the various impacts like land use, climate change, or use of
fossil materials. The weighting is up to the analyst, and that is why LCA is art
as well as science.

As I prepared my presentation I wondered whether people were more
concerned about land use, climate change, or the use of fossil materials, and
so I prepared a little questionnaire, and asked a small number of people a
few basic questions.

Which were they more concerned about: global warming, air and water
pollution, use of fossil fuels, or landfill? What about in relation to packaging?
Which was better: paper or plastic? Were they more concerned about
cutting down trees to make paper or using oil to make plastics?

I described a plastic called PLA (see  that is
made from corn.  I explained that PLA was renewable and biodegradable,
and while recyclable in theory, it generally is not recycled. I asked the
survey respondents if they’d rather have a package made from PLA or one
that was recycled.

I also asked if they could mention a package that was especially good or one
that was especially bad. I also asked about renewable and biodegradable
materials, and which was better: a product that was made from renewable
materials, or one that was recycled, or one that was biodegradable.

Finally, I asked if they were aware of any brands or retailers that were
especially green.

The results were interesting, as was the discussion that followed my
presentation. For starters, in the discussion I learned that another study
showed that a surprisingly small number of Americans know that (most)
plastic comes from oil.  Second, the discussion also showed that even
among the well informed group attending the conference, definitions for
terms such as “biodegradable”  were not universally agreed upon.

In my survey, there was no one issue that dominated the concerns of the
respondents. Global warming, use of fossil fuels, pollution, and landfill
issues all merited significant concern, though the results were quite
different when I asked about these factors in general as compared with
when I asked about them in connection with the impact of packaging. While
landfill was not a major concern in general, it was in conjunction with
packaging. At the same time, while global warming was a major concern in
general, it was not in connection with packaging.

In addition, respondents were not always clear on what they truly thought
was more important. For example, one respondent was more concerned
about cutting down trees for paper than about using oil for plastic, but still
felt paper was better than plastic.

Finally, a few brands were mentioned as being “green,” but none stood out
with widespread  perception of “green-ness,” suggesting that “green”
companies need to do a better job communicating what they are doing.

Of course, I’ve already said my sample was small and biased. I’d like to do
more thorough research on this, but how should I do such a study?

Focus groups, on line survey, telephone interviews? How many focus
groups? How many interviews?

I’ve written previously about  the various types of market research (
www., and when to use each. This project is an
excellent example of the type of project that requires good planning and
wise selection of the best methodology.

So then, how to do it?  Next Month: Part Two: Market Research

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in market research on sustainability or
sustainable packaging, or simply need  more information about sustainable
packaging, biodegradability, or Life Cycle Assessment call  Jack Miller at 203
925 0326 or email

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Copyright 2007, Jack Miller

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