Sustainability challenges ahead for garden suppliers

Suppliers of garden sundries have been trading on their green credentials for many years – after all, we all operate in the original green industry with a focus on growing plants, the environment and wellbeing. What’s not to like?

But lurking beneath the surface of this apparently inherent sustainability there’s a Pandora’s box of sustainability challenges common to all packaged consumer goods. Not least is the issue of packaging and the waste it creates.


Since the late 90s, all businesses (other than the very smallest operators) have been obliged to record and report the weight of all packaging they use, and pay a levy (known as PRNs) accordingly.

However, the system has never recovered anything like the full cost of collecting and disposing of post-consumer packaging waste, the balance of which is left to local authorities and, ultimately, the taxpayer to bear.

EPR - means suppliers pay

The Extended Producer Responsibility Regulation (EPR) is a new piece of UK legislation that will recover the full cost of collecting and recycling all waste packaging entirely from the businesses that make, distribute, import and sell the product. The principle of ‘the polluter pays’ means suppliers pay according to the total weight of all the packaging and the bill for less sustainable types of packaging will be much higher than that paid on more sustainable options.

Whilst the huge cost associated with EPR, estimated to be as much as 12x the current scheme, will hardly be welcomed by garden products business, it will, at least, create a significant financial incentive for genuine reductions in overall weight as well as a move towards more sustainable packaging – including transit packaging like cartons, layer pads and pallet wrap.

Companies seeking to differentiate their offer through more sustainable packaging will, in future, also enjoy a welcome and significant financial advantage over their less environmentally friendly competitors.

Plastic Tax

EPR comes hot on the heels of the Plastic Tax which has driven a move towards the use of more recycled materials in packaging. The tax (currently £200 per tonne) is paid only on plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled content.

Many garden product companies have been quick to promote their move to recycled plastic in packaging, but to demonstrate a truly sustainable approach, packaging needs to be suitable for post-consumer recycling too.

When it comes to flexible plastics…

When it comes to flexible plastics (bags, sacks, etc.) that’s a challenge because whilst the material may theoretically be recyclable, there is no suitable infrastructure in most local authorities in the UK. So those 30% recycled bags could be headed for landfill or incineration.

Compostable plastic bags, could have a sting in the tail

Even some apparently sustainable options, like compostable plastic bags, could have a sting in the tail. In the new EPR scheme, compostable materials could become a serious contaminant of recycling streams for plastics. So, they will be considered less sustainable and, perhaps surprisingly, attract a higher levy.

And, counter intuitively, reducing the amount of plastic in some packaging items could actually damage recyclability. To flow smoothly through the recycling supply chain, plastic components need to be of a minimum size. This is due to the engineering limitations of the handling and sorting technology in recycling facilities. Very small pieces of plastic packaging – like swing tags and kimble ties – are not recycled because of their small size. Businesses need to be acutely aware of the risk of the unintended consequences associated with marketing-driven, ill-considered packaging changes.

How long before consumers expect garden products to carry carbon emission data?

The ultimate benchmark for sustainability of product and its’ packaging is the environmental footprint – a complete life cycle analysis measured in terms of total carbon.

Total carbon emission data has begun to appear on some consumer purchases – notably on restaurant menus. How long before consumers expect and demand garden products to carry similar carbon emission data to enable them to make more informed sustainability comparisons. With no obvious legislation on the horizon that could obligate all businesses to include such data, maybe carbon emissions could be a good place for product managers to seek genuine competitive advantage.

Garden product suppliers trying to navigate the various sustainability challenges around product and packaging will benefit from the current series of webinars from the Garden Industry Manufacturers Association. Members can join these online for free and there is a growing list of speakers, details of which are all available on their website

About Jane Lawler

Jane Lawler has 30 years Marketing and Business development experience, working in large corporations, investor funded enterprises and family owned businesses at all levels from junior management up to Main Board Director.

Beginning her career in a science-based research and development role, Jane has a forensic approach to solving business challenges and routinely relies on analysing business data to drive evidence-based decisions when faced with business problems. Jane developed her business and marketing skills in the 1990s through Cranfield School of Management, Henley Management College, Irish Management Institute and the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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