SPHERE: the packaging sustainability framework

Published: 13 Apr 2022
Type: Publication

As packaging waste continues to leak into the environment, it is crucial for companies to do their best to close the tap. There is no perfect packaging solution, but SPHERE can help you find the most sustainable one.

The environmental impact of packaging is increasingly a priority for companies and consumers, who are looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint. Together with 12 companies including several WBCSD members and the support of an advisory group, we have pledged to tackle the packaging waste mismanagement issue. 

However, how do you ensure that trying to solve one issue will not create another problem somewhere else? Navigating the myriad of impact assessment metrics is not an easy task. Businesses currently face challenges in combining sustainability and circularity considerations in environmental assessments, as well as evaluating the trade-offs related to packaging and delivery systems alternatives. To address these limitations of existing methodologies, we are proposing a way to complete a holistic environmental assessment of packaging: SPHERE, the packaging sustainability framework.  

Conceptualized as a framework to support decision-making for packaging strategies spanning company departments, SPHERE strikes a balance between complexity and simplicity. The framework collects all the aspects required to evaluate packaging from an environmental sustainability perspective and distils an approach that facilitates a holistic assessment.  

The framework is based on six principles including packaging efficiency circularity, impact on climate change and biodiversity loss, absence of harmful substances and waste mismanagement, and can be used in two ways:  

  • a portfolio assessment to identify potential hotspots across a range of packaging from a company-level perspective,  
  • an eco-design approach to evaluate different packaging options for a specific product. 

SPHERE allows companies to prioritize action and monitor their performance. By driving impact and owning their sustainability journey, they will inspire others all over the world to minimize their packaging’s contribution to climate change and nature loss. 

We invite companies of all sizes and industries worldwide to demonstrate their leadership in the packaging sustainability space by using SPHERE to assess their impact and make meaningful steps towards a better world.

View the publication.

View Microsoft case study.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is SPHERE?

SPHERE is an overarching framework for packaging environmental assessment, combining sustainability and circularity metrics in a unique way. SPHERE provides relevant metrics to assess and recommendations for methodologies and databases to use for each of our six packaging sustainability principles (packaging efficiency, circularity, impact on climate change and biodiversity loss, absence of harmful substances and waste mismanagement).

2. Who can use SPHERE?

All companies who produce or use packaging can use SPHERE. The primary targets are packaging design teams and product portfolio managers. SPHERE can also be leveraged to inform global sustainability, procurement and marketing strategies. SPHERE is a free to use framework, open to all and available on WBCSD website. SPHERE will soon be integrated in several existing packaging assessment tools, which will increase its accessibility.

3. Why should a company use SPHERE?

Companies who wish to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging can use SPHERE to support decision-making at two levels: selection and design of a specific product packaging, and improvement of packaging decisions at a portfolio level.

4. What is the scope of SPHERE?

SPHERE is a material-agnostic framework that can be used for the assessment of primary, secondary and tertiary packaging for food and non-food products. It currently covers the environmental pillar of sustainability. It allows companies to use it worldwide, and takes local specificities into consideration where relevant, e.g. for packaging end-of-life management. Its scope is from cradle to grave, which encompasses packaging production, use and end of life. The framework can also be cradle-to-cradle if the company wishes to include packaging recovery cycles.

5. How does SPHERE define packaging sustainability?

SPHERE defines packaging sustainability as maximum circularity and minimum environmental footprint, while avoiding the presence of harmful substances. To support this definition, six principles have been developed: minimize the drivers of climate change; optimize efficiency; optimize circularity, optimize end of life; avoid harmful substances; and minimize the drivers of biodiversity loss.

6. What is new with SPHERE?

SPHERE allows companies to assess the environmental impact of their packaging holistically and compare the trade-offs associated with different packaging options for a broad range of impacts: drivers of climate change, packaging efficiency, circularity, end-of-life, harmful substance and drivers of biodiversity loss. Additionally, companies can define thresholds for each metric, allowing for the benchmarking of the assessment against a boundary condition.

7. What is the difference between a framework and a tool?

SPHERE provides an overarching frame, a structured way to follow for packaging sustainability assessment. A framework does not have a user interface and is not a tool (which computes data to produce a result), however SPHERE allows the use of a variety of tools. Since it suggests which metrics to assess, how to assess it and where to find the data, the framework can therefore be integrated into tools as long as they assess at least a metric per packaging sustainability principle.

8. What value can I expect by using SPHERE?

SPHERE is designed to provide information to support internal decision-making, it is up to the company to draw the conclusions based on the assessment outcomes. By better understanding the environmental footprint of packaging products and where to prioritize action, companies can design long-term strategies to mitigate negative impacts over the life-cycle of packaging. SPHERE is not intended for reporting.

9. Can we derive the results in a single score?

SPHERE is meant to provide businesses with a holistic view of their packaging sustainability, and therefore cannot be expressed as a single score. It allows to evaluate impacts and trade-offs in comparison to each other to support decision-making and inform long-term packaging strategies. The conclusions drawn by companies can differ depending on their priorities, as there is no silver bullet: they might want to address waste first, or reduce their emissions to achieve their net-zero goals.

10. What input data do I need to use SPHERE?

SPHERE recommends users to use primary data to feed the assessment, while ensuring that the same scope and methodologies are used within the same case study for consistency and comparability.

11. What is a threshold and how to set thresholds by product category?  

A threshold is a value independently set for each metric, allowing the company to assess their packaging impacts against a boundary condition. SPHERE recommends 3 approaches for thresholds setting, from highest to lowest priority:

  • Science-based thresholds are targets set by the relevant scientific community, and currently exist for carbon and water assessment;
  • Best-in-class threshold may either be a pioneering example already available on the market for a given product category or one that demonstrates a high degree of innovation potential;
  • Self-declared thresholds can either be internal or external goals. Internal goals reflect the company’s sustainability strategy, whereas external goals are driven by third parties such as NGOs or experts.

You can find more information on page 28 of the report.

12. How can I use the results?

Results obtained through an assessment following the SPHERE framework can be used to support decision-making on the design and materials of product packaging, with two different use cases:

  • With the eco-design approach, companies can compare different packaging solutions against thresholds to choose the most sustainable one according to their needs, either before hitting the market or as a replacement for an existing packaging.
  • With the portfolio approach, companies can identify emission hotspots which will inform on the priority for action, ensuring that efforts are put where it matters most.

SPHERE also enables a company to model multiple improvement solutions of a given package and compare them against the same baseline, and thus make informed and documented decisions.

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