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Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: The Green Marketing Dilemma
Green Marketing: Things to consider when making green claims about the environmental impact of products, especially pallets and wood products.

By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 9/1/2014

                Pop quiz. What is the best car to buy when it comes to minimizing the impact on the environment? Is it the latest hybrid or a flex fuel vehicle? What about a car made with aluminum or lighter metals, such as the new Ford pickup trucks? What about a solar powered car? The answer may surprise you.

                The best car for the planet isn’t a new car at all. Usually, it is a used car with decent gas mileage. And it probably won’t be a hybrid given the environmental problems associated with disposing of hybrid battery packs and the need to replace them over time. I used to own a hybrid. It was the worst buying decision of my life. Sure, there are some positives. But the truth is that recycled and reused products tend to be better than new ones from a life cycle, sustainability and overall waste standpoint. The main reason is that new products usually require more extraction of resources, energy to produce and create greater waste than reusing or fixing and improving an existing product.

                The same tends to be true for pallets except for the fact that you may not have the right sized pallet to maximize transport efficiency unless you ship it a long distance. This not only becomes cost prohibitive, it can also add to the overall environmental burden of using a pallet.                The real key to choosing the right pallet from a green marketing perspective may have a lot to do with the logistics of moving pallets around from place to place. It may just be easier, cheaper and require less fuel (reducing the greenhouse gas impact) if you use a new pallet that can be sourced nearby. Also, new pallets provide a higher quality pallet thereby minimizing product damage.

                Remember that damaged products significantly impact the real world costs as well as the environmental trip calculation. The reason is that if a product is unusable after transport, the entire environmental cost of that trip still exists even though the actual shipment offers no real product benefit. Actually, it costs the entire supply chain time, money and fuel among other things to dispose of the damaged product or sell it through a secondary source.

                Logistics is what makes pallet necessary as well as difficult to calculate true environmental costs. Ask experts, “What is the best pallet from an environmental standpoint?”, and you will get a lot of different answers. The real key from a life cycle perspective is how many trips you can get out of a pallet before repair. That is why some companies will do a supply chain simulation to measure average number of uses before repair when testing a new pallet design, particularly a pooled or plastic pallet. Virginia Tech’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design does these simulations among other testing facilities, such as CHEP’s Innovation Center.

                When it comes to energy extraction, the amount of energy required to procure wood, process and ship it is usually greater in a new pallet than a recycled one. But it all depends how much work needs to go into repairing a broken pallet or in many cases today building a remanufactured pallet from recycled lumber. Waste factors usually support recycled pallets compared to new ones, and this is particularly true if a pallet is only intended for one shipment. The reality today is that many one-way pallets get reused over and over again. This again can make a true environmental assessment hard to determine.

                All of this make it clear that environmental statements about pallets as well as wood products in general can be difficult to make in ways that are true across the board. This issue carries an article about woody biomass and the debate raging about its environmental benefits. See page 22. While it seems clear that biomass has its place, some critics point out that it is not a panacea. The truth is that all raw materials come with a cost and an environmental impact. From the standpoint of renewability and biodegradability, wood wins over plastic. In most true life cycle analysis, wood wins too. However, this can be debated for some products depending on the longevity of wood versus alternatives.

                Everything must be made of something. And that is why you are seeing ecologically minded people repurposing or upcycling items. The idea has even become popular for pallets. I knew how big this had gotten when a few months ago I visited a church and its office had turned a EUR block pallet into a table complete with a glass top. You can see more about this trend on the article about 1001pallets.com starting on page 28.

                One question I have is will the upcycling trend lead to more new pallet demand because used pallets become harder to find as people turn them into everything from furniture to works of art. It is one thing when third world countries use pallets to build small structures. It is another thing when this upcycling trends catches on in Europe, North America, Australia and well-to-do parts of South America.

                 Pallet companies do need to be careful when making green claims. The Federal Trade Commission recently cracked down on companies producing plastic lumber that made false claims about recycled content. The agency has the same power to fine wood product manufacturers and pallet companies. While this industry isn’t necessarily a target, any environmental claim you make can get you in trouble if you cannot substantiate it. For more information, visit http://goo.gl/EiFJ0O.

                My favorite video on the environmental credentials of wood products is “Wood – Nature’s Stroke of Genius.” This clever little video explains my feelings well. You can see it on the video section of the Pallet Enterprise website. Visit http://www.palletenterprise.com/videos.asp

                So, what do you think about green marketing claims? Can you back up what you say? Continue the conversation at the new Pallet Enterprise LinkedIn page. It can be found at http://goo.gl/QvU82C

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