Packaging – change and economic growth agent

Triple bottom line – Environmental, economic and social performance

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Ever since the dawn of the industrial age, mankind has made incremental progress. From the days of the agrarian economy when there was no such thing as economic growth to today’s information age where growth and progress are the altars at which the world worships, there has been a mind boggling transformation in the way humans carry on their lives. But all this progress and growth has been accompanied by tremendously negative effects like the demise of traditional ways of living, the growth of urban slums, the contamination of the environment and socio- cultural upheavals.
In a time such as this reappraising our models of growth has become fashionable and many NGOs have sprung up with the sole aim of denigrating all form of industry and rooting for an utopian model of economic development, about which they have no blue-print, save launching agitations. But, is industry, or for that matter, progress all that bad, and polluting? Take the packaging industry for instance. How does it impact on the quality of lives of all of us? Does it better it, or does it only trap more and more people into a non-sustainable materialistic life-style?

Lets look at the facts. We all know that industries are meant to create wealth, but the packaging industry is one industry which not only generates wealth through its various manifestations, but also helps preserve the wealth created by other industries. The kind of multiplier impact that the packaging industry has on an economy is enormous. An apt analogy may be drawn from the impact of air-conditioning on the economy of Singapore – long considered a wasteful and conspicuous form of consumption by many.

After the Second World War, Singapore was known for, among other things, the Changi prison camp from the days of the Japanese invasion, and mosquitoes. The oppressive tropical climate of the place was apparently a great disincentive to the working environment. But, the introduction of air-conditioning changed the face of Singapore. The same people, in more salubrious working conditions wrought an economic miracle and today Singapore is best known as one of the wealthiest nations of the world.

Packaging has a similar impact on the economy of a nation. Consider this. The Indian packaging industry is humongous by all accounts, and its impact encompasses manufacturing and import of a wide range of packing material — paper, paperboard, cardboard, a range of polymer products including rigid and flexible packaging material, aluminum foil, tin, wood and steel. Packaging also entails printing, labeling and binding. By extension, there is impact on whole industries, which use machines to supply these components. All in all, there is a tremendous amount of employment generated by these activities.

But the really subliminal impact that packaging has is in the role it plays in increasing the shelf-life of thousands of products — milk, biscuits, chocolates, processed and semi-processed foods, fruit and vegetables, pharmaceutical products, edible oils, electronic goods, industrial machinery and so on. Equally and perhaps more path breaking, is its contribution in fostering and indeed creating a brand image. A product, which is perceived as being convenient, safe and attractive compels loyalty from consumers and, hence, a brand attains a status. This really hastens competition as all products vie with each other in being the preferred brand and hence the economy as a whole benefits. The logical corollary of this striving for excellence is export.

Packaging in India has evolved dramatically over the years. Today it is at the forefront of research geared to making packaging increasingly sophisticated to stay ahead of the exacting standards demanded of the new age customer with all his concerns about safety and environment compatibility. Indeed, the WPO’s (World Packaging Organisation) slogan is — Better Quality of Life Through Better Packaging!

It is all very well to want to save the rain forest and heal the ozone hole, but this is not an either/or scenario. Castigating and condemning industry may well condemn people to go back to the hunter-gatherer stage of civilisation in the very rain forests one is trying to protect. The dawn of the information age gives us the technological wherewithal to have development that is not only inclusive, but also gentle on the environment. If wheat can be stored longer, less arable land will be required, and we may even retain more of our forest-cover.

I would be very happy indeed if industry were to be looked upon to provide lasting solutions to most of the ills plaguing mankind, for I honestly believe that it is quite capable of delivering.

Rishabh Singhvi is the Executive Director of International Print-o-Pac Limited.