With budgets stretched thin and margins tight, environmental stewardship might have taken a backseat to other concerns.
Sustainability, however, has never been more top of mind.
What has changed is its definition.

Sustainability is more than going green. It is about sustaining a business.

The leading force in many of these initiatives — especially in the packaging arena — has been Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Ever since the retail giant launched initiatives to reduce packaging nearly three years ago, the industry has followed suit.

Now, as the retailer is pushing forward with its Sustainability Index — it sent a preliminary survey to suppliers in mid-July — speed is picking up.

The market already was moving in that direction, said Lori Carson, sales and marketing manager for Phoenix Technologies, Bowling Green, Ohio.

“I don’t think (Wal-Mart) is the sole reason, but it helped push it to the speed we see now,” Carson said.

Mike Cottone, president of West Chicago, Ill.-based Cougar Package Designers, said the past two years have really shown a lot of growth in biodegradable packaging.

“It has been heavily driven by the Wal-Marts of the world,” he said. “We’re trying to find that right combination of products that satisfy biodegradability.”

The economy pushed many environmental concerns to the back burner, but sustainability makes sense for budgets, too, said Derek Hannum, marketing manager for Chep Equipment Pooling, Orlando, Fla.

“Because of the economic situation, it may not be one of the top two priorities for a lot of businesses. Profitability and cost control have usurped it,” Hannum said. “People are looking at it now by improving sustainability and reducing waste, by definition, should reduce cost. It’s never been an either/or situation.”

Jerry Welcome, president of the Reusable Packaging Association, Arlington, Va., said more businesses are looking at the value of not just recycling.

“I think reducing and reuse have been vastly overlooked,” he said. “It’s more economical in the long run and better for the environment to use reusable packaging.”

Fred Heptinstall, senior vice president of Ifco Systems NA, Houston, said a focus on sustainability has more retailers seeing the value in reusable plastic containers.

“Over the past couple of years, retailers have begun to change their view of produce transport packaging from simply a container to a system that offers value across the supply chain,” he said.

Sustainability initiatives hit the corrugated box industry as well.

Box makers are finding ways to reduce fiber use and promote more recyclable containers, such as Memphis, Tenn.-based International Paper’s Climaseries unwaxed corrugated containers.

“They’re fully recyclable,” said Pat Pochiro, marketing manager. “Every box is stamped with the Corrugated Recycles logo and we’re proud of it.”

Not only are they recyclable, but in some cases they help produce shippers to convert from a double-walled box to a single-wall and maintain that strength and stability.