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Eco-Friendly Packaging Isn't Enough

Environmentally conscious products are great. But they don’t get at the real problems in a culture that prioritizes disposability.

A polystyrene sculpture by the artist Damian Ortega on display at the Modern Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2015. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Ikea is exploring the idea of cushioning items in a biodegradable, mushroom-based foam molded into flat-pack-friendly shapes, Joanna Yarrow, the head of sustainability for Ikea’s U.K. arm, recently explained to the Telegraph.

The eco-friendly foam would consist of mycelium—branching, gossamer threads—growing around “clean agricultural waste, such as corn stalks or husks,” the Telegraph noted. Gizmodo estimated that product would decompose outdoors in about a month. (Inhabitat pointed out that the idea isn’t entirely unprecedented; Dell uses this technique to ship certain parts.)

The company wants to be viewed as an eco-ally, not an antagonist. But there’s an interesting tension to tease out here.

On one hand, sure—polystyrene is an unequivocal environmental villain. Noodling over alternatives is a good use of time. Anything we can keep out of already-overflowing landfills, we should. (Plus, of course, it’s just cool, in a gross-out way, to imagine fungi spooning with your stuff.)

So. The packaging is an innovative way to think about how to repurpose scraps, putting unappetizing, organic odds and ends to functional use. But it also offers an opportunity to reflect on what we buy and how we feel about it.

Companies are, perhaps more than ever, struggling to balance the dueling commitments of stewardship and convenience. Customers want products that stand on solid ethical ground, but they also want said products to be easy to come by. That’s most likely how Whole Foods talked itself into stocking the much-maligned pre-peeled oranges that drew so much Internet ire last week. (Back in 2012, pre-peeled bananas at a German supermarket chain elicited similar outrage. A Time headline proclaimed: “Pre-Peeled Bananas Incur the Wrath of Humanity.”)

It’s easy to imagine why stores find it tricky to toe the line between time-saving, life-hack products and ones that are too unapologetically, too un-ironically, indulgent. There’s a cultural hunger for ease and efficiency. A bevy of apps allow users to hail groceries to their doors, or even to their subway stops. But when are we asking too much? Writing about OrangeGate and Whole Foods’ similarly chastised asparagus water at The Atlantic, Megan Garber described customers and corporate interests trying to navigate “what constitutes a fair trade-off between personal convenience and collective responsibility.”

And that’s where Ikea comes in. For renters—myself included—cheap-o tables and chairs feel like good interim options: if we don’t know where we’ll be living in a year or two, maybe it doesn’t make sense to invest in a sturdy, heavy table that we might need to haul around in a series of moves. Ikea furniture isn’t so expensive that it’s unthinkable to sell it or even just leave it on the street, understanding that it will probably be snatched up by another youngish person trying to scrape together bare-bones furnishings. It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re paying it forward.  

But it’s also just fun to buy something novel and new whenever we want a change, as evidenced by Ikea’s $3.79 billion in profits during fiscal year 2014—and that’s where consumers have to negotiate that distinction between self-interest and communal obligation.

In a piece for The Atlantic about fast fashion—those “frocks that cost less than a Happy Meal”—Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, cited a statistic that many clothes are worn just seven times before being stored or tossed away. Cline argues that many consumers have a cavalier attitude about this wastefulness, and are able to shrug off any sense of responsibility for the dynamics at play in creating the goods (which, she adds, sometimes include dangerous working conditions and violations of child-labor laws).

So, in a way, these new modes of packaging are a balm: they’re a salve to a problem that we don’t really want to eliminate. That is to say, we want to be able to buy something disposable and cheap, but to temper any guilt about it by saying, well, at least I can bury this packaging in my garden. Compostable packaging, in and of itself, doesn’t seem like a bad thing. But it’s not enough. When we buy things that we then turn around and dispose of, we’re anticipating their obsolesce just as soon as we unwrap them.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.