Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Greenpeace activists rappelled down the side of Mattel’s 15-story headquarters in El Segundo, California and hung a giant banner of a frowning faux Ken doll with the message: “Barbie, it's over. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.”

The incident garnered lots of press for Greenpeace and put Mattel, the world’s largest toymaker, in an uncomfortable spotlight with questions raised about its use of packaging made from the pulp of tropical hardwoods cut on the island of Sumatra.

It also raised awareness about a topic that more and more businesses and consumers are paying attention to: environmental packaging.

Indeed, the packaging of consumer goods used to be an afterthought for many manufacturers. Not anymore. If anything, the trend seems to be running in the opposite direction.

Gillette’s new Fusion Pro Glide razor packaging trays, for example, are made of plant fibers such as bulrush and bamboo by Be Green Packaging, an eco-friendly packaging company based in Santa Barbara, California.

The notion of sustainability is a major trend in packaging in 2011, according to a report by Wendy Hunt and Anne Reid of Landor Associates, a strategic branding and design firm.

Paper Mate Biodegradable Pen“More companies will pledge to lessen their impact on the environment and look for innovative ways to do so,” the report says. “Paper Mate recently introduced biodegradable pens with compostable outer shells that break down into organic matter within a year. Following a more traditional route, Kraft Foods plans to reduce its carbon footprint in 2011 by decreasing waste from its plants, eliminating 150 million pounds of packaging material, and cutting CO2 emissions by 25 percent.”

More examples of new developments in sustainable packaging will be on display in September at the packaging industry trade show Pack Expo Las Vegas 2011. The products being unveiled include one-quarter planters made of 100 percent recycled paperboard.

But perhaps there’s no greater evidence of environmental packaging becoming mainstream than being mocked by The Onion. The fake news Web site in 2007 noted the trend toward eco-friendly packaging with the news story: “New Eco-Friendly Packaging Triggers Boom In Guilt-Free Littering.”

Of course, the Greenpeace campaign demonstrated that environmental packaging is no laughing matter.

Rolf Skar, senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace USA, said the forests being leveled to be used in Mattel’s products are home to orangutans and clouded leopards. Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the world’s largest producers of wood products and a company with a history of profligate practices, produced the pulp for Mattel, he added.

Before launching its campaign in early June, Greenpeace had experts examine the toy packaging under a forensic microscope to identify the use of mixed tropical hardwood. Greenpeace then contacted Mattel and other toy makers to alert them of the issue.

In addition to the stunts at Mattel’s headquarters, a Web site featuring a video “interview” of Ken was also launched. The video got a million views worldwide in a week, Skar says. Meanwhile, supporters of the Greenpeace initiative posted hundreds of comments on Barbie’s Facebook page, forcing Mattel to close it to comments for a while.

Barbie storeFollowing the protest, Mattel Inc. said it would direct its suppliers to stop buying wood products from Asia Pulp & Paper, the Los Angeles Times reported. Mattel, in a press release, also said “the company is developing a sustainable procurement policy for all of Mattel's product lines which will address the important issue of deforestation. The policy will include requirements for packaging suppliers to commit to sustainable forestry management practices. In addition to addressing current concerns about packaging sourcing, Mattel's policy will also cover other wood-based products in its toy lines, such as paper, books and accessories.”

Mattel did not respond to an email from the Mother Nature Network asking for more information.

Whatever the outcome of the Greenpeace campaign against Mattel, the activist organization will have succeeded in raising awareness of the issue – and in showing how passionate many are about the packaging their goods come in.

“There are a lot of ways to make disposable paper,” says Skar. “You can chop off a lot of stuff and make paper out of it.”

Environmental packaging as an afterthought? Certainly not anymore.

Photos: Paper Mate; ZUMA Press

See also:

Eco-friendly packaging