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Southern Champion and Eco-label laws
In the midst of eco-consciousness and ‘greenwashing,’ Tennessee company strives for sustainable packaging options.
Southern Champion Tray produces eco-friendly food service packaging

Let's face it: Most people spend a majority of time focused on the quality and quantities of food we put inside our bodies, while seldom giving thought to the plastics, bottles, and boxes designed to store and protect our goods. Sure, those who consistently recycle may issue self-congratulatory pats to the back for their efforts, but even they probably aren't aware of all the chemicals used when creating these storage units and consequently ingested. We consider even less what happens after waste (as properly sorted as it may be) is carted away to the trash netherworld.

Today's consumer is busy and pockets are lean. Shopping strategies are largely shaped and influenced by sale prices, over-reliance on trusted brands, and the most effective marketing tools, e.g. the product label.

Southern Champion Tray, a Tennessee-based company that manufactures and distributes boxes and product packaging for foodservice providers worldwide, understands these challenges well. The family-owned business that planted its southern roots in Chattanooga a few years before the Great Depression has evolved quite fluidly—some might say “organically”—into the new millennium, quietly wrangling its way to the forefront in green practices while becoming an effective voice in the call for responsible packaging and eco-labeling. That's an important job in a society where packaging can prove just as important and detrimental to our environment as the product.

Sustainability manager Andrew Strickenburg says adapting business operations to growing environmental concerns was a seamless transition for a company that valued eco-friendly practices long before the green movement swept through the nation. And where there's room for improvement, Southern Champ doesn't skimp. “The entire green packaging movement has been about ‘what can I do differently that I wasn't doing before,’” he said.

A few internal changes the company made within the last year include a switch to Green Seal–certified cleaning products at their facilities, experimentation with biodiesel and cutting-edge fuel efficiency modifications to their trucking fleet, compostability testing on its products, and using motion sensors and skylights to reduce energy use in their warehouses. Externally, Southern Champion has emerged as an active proponent of the Green Guidelines and Eco-label Act, which would take definitive measures against consumer “greenwashing.”

For all the good increased environmental awareness has brought us, it hasn't come without risks of abuse or manipulation. Greenwashing, a marketing tool used to trick consumers who believe they're purchasing eco-friendly based on misleading product labels, is one example of green misbehavior. Although the Green Guidelines were created by the Federal Trade Commission as a legal guide for eco-advertising and marketing practices, Strickenburg says many service professionals still don't know it exists, much less adhere to the principles. But he says, “The FTC is beginning to better communicate the existence and purpose of the Green Guides.” He says he was especially pleased to hear James Kohn, associate director of enforcement for the FTC, announce plans to revise and take more active roles in communicating about the guides.

Last updated in 1998, the guides have been described as a tool for companies looking to do the right thing, Strickenburg says. “We try to use the Green Guides to inform our communications whenever possible, [but] obviously the frustration comes when certain claims are not addressed, or limitations on existing claims seem dated.”

Legislators have introduced the Eco-Labeling Act as a plausible solution to the Green Guides, which has failed in reining in the confusing proliferation of environmental product labels. If it became law in the U.S., it would require uniform eco-labels on products that meet criteria established by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. The process is already a standard practice in Europe.

The best results come when we are able to take all the end-user requirements, environmental factors, and economic realities into consideration.

Though the bill has stalled in government, supporters argue that as environmental practices continue to take priority, developing trustworthy marketing approaches for products will only grow in importance. Strickenburg agrees that the problem isn’t going away soon. “Serving our customers in the foodservice industry includes providing them with the education and resources they need to make informed packaging decisions,” he says. “With the current focus on communicating ‘green’ to the consumer, legislation limiting or guiding this communication is obviously a pressing issue for many of our customers.”

According to Strickenburg, this is where the Southern Champion team is focusing their efforts. As clients rush to make the shift towards savvier and sustainable packaging choices, he says the company is readily prepared to help them complete the transition. “We have worked with many national chains as well as smaller niche stores to help improve their packaging. In most cases customers are looking to move away from non renewable–based packaging such as plastic and expanded polystyrene to something renewable with similar performance and price characteristics, which we can provide with paperboard. Each situation is unique and sometimes requires several rounds of R&D and testing, [but] the best results come when we are able to take all the end-user requirements, environmental factors, and economic realities into consideration. When all three are met, you are well on your way to a sustainable packaging solution.”

Lakiesha R. Carr covered the industry's attempts to reduce sodium levels for QSRmagazine.com.