Marketers usually boast about what they have added to their products. Increasingly, though, they are bragging about what they are taking out — by cutting down on packaging and its impact on the environment.
Procter & Gamble, for example, has introduced rigid tubes for Crest toothpaste that can be shipped and displayed on shelves without boxes. Aveda, a beauty products company, is expected to soon roll out a men's care line that is packaged in bottles made of 95 percent recycled materials.
And Coca-Cola plans to cut the plastics in its Dasani water bottles by 7 percent over the next five years, just by tweaking the shape of the bottle and cap.
"Waste of any kind is inefficiency, and inefficiency equals cost," said Scott Vitters, Coca-Cola's director of sustainable packaging.
The number of companies making such changes is growing sharply, as they try to reduce costs and address growing environmental concerns.
And their ranks are expected to grow even more, because of Wal-Mart. The world's largest retailer, known for pressuring vendors to lower their prices, has begun pressuring its 66,000 vendors to get rid of excess packaging.
Wal-Mart has promised to become "packaging neutral" by 2025. That means that, through recycling, reusing or perhaps even composting, it will try to recover as much material as was used in the packaging that flows through its stores.
To reach that goal, it is enlisting the help of vendors to cut back on their packaging — for the products themselves and by using less shrink wrap or cardboard for shipping.
Wal-Mart introduced a "packaging scorecard" in February that lets vendors rate themselves on criteria like the ratio of package size to product and whether the package uses recycled material. The company may even pay more for products with better packaging, as long as it could recoup the money through recycling revenue or lowered disposal costs.
"The consumer will see the same price, we'll just be getting some of our money at the back end," said Matt Kistler, a senior vice president of Sam's Club.
In fact, many companies began tinkering with their packaging long before Wal-Mart entered the fray. They do not expect consumers to buy their products purely for the package — but they are hoping that "greener" packages will give them a competitive edge over similar products, even as they hold down costs.
And many companies that do not even distribute through Wal-Mart are also pushing to streamline packaging.
Estee Lauder, for one, spent more than a year working with aluminum smelters to design tubes and caps made from 80 percent recycled aluminum. Much of the packaging of its holiday gift boxes is now made from recycled paper. And its Origins line is expected to soon ship only in folding cartons made with solar, wind or other clean energies.
Environmental groups are playing their part, too. Four years ago, Environmental Defense, which was instrumental in getting McDonald's to give up plastic foam clamshell packages in 1991, devised a calculator that enables package designers to compare the weight, recycled content and performance traits of about 20 materials.
Recently, the tool was adopted by GreenBlue, a nonprofit research institute that operates the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. The Environmental Protection Agency has given GreenBlue a grant of US$150,000 to further refine the tool.