Waste in Supermarket Packaging


Here's a photo of something I bought at SuperTarget last week, this box of whole-grain Quinoa (snicker if you must… I'm trying to eat somewhat healthy). The box is next to a wine bottle (um, also for “heart health?”) for size perspective. click on either photo for a larger image.

Looking inside the box… the contents are TINY. Three packets — grains, spices, and dried fruit. The box is maybe 5x bigger than the contents, if not larger.


Look at all of the air that was shipped from the producer to the store. Extra cardboard. Extra space in the cupboard.

One reason I even bought the box was that it caught my eye in the aisle. Would a smaller box have done so? Maybe not.

Is waste or muda an acceptable “marketing expense?”

I felt sort of silly, having been suckered in by something that wasteful. Tasted good, though. Should I boycott this sort of packaging in the future, as a “Lean Thinker?” Should Target (as the company that contracts out the manufacturing AND as retailer of their house brand) do something about this? Or is it OK if they're willing to accept that inefficiency?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. If the larger size means you buy something that you otherwise would not, is it really waste? Sounds like value added from the point of view of the maker. They can charge $2.50, put it in a big box, and sell it or they can charge $2.00, put it in a small box, and never sell a grain. Wouldn’t it be a bigger waste to never sell a thing?

  2. It might have been good for Target, but I wouldn’t call it “Value,” at least while we’re talking Lean. The larger box might make purely economic sense and might help increase their profits because they sell more (or can charge more to offset the cost of the larger box). But is that all that matters? What about their role in the environment? Their role in society? Toyota talks about such things…

    As a customer, I don’t value that larger box, even if the box somehow caught my eye. I still think it’s “marketing expense” not Value.

    Advertisements on TV might help attract customers, but they’re hardly “Value.” I think you’re somewhat mis-using that word, and “waste” in the Lean context.

  3. Hi Mike, you are right -in the first place.

    But there is always a second time and that could be the customer is not willing to pay for the big box.

    So in the end the maker of the stuff is not sustainably holding the customer to buy his products.

    On the other hand wouldn’t it make more sense to sell less in the beginning (the phenomemon of getting worse before better) and in the end keeping the customer buying the stuff (as it tastes good like Mark is writing:-)), telling their friends about the awesome stuff in the “really lean” container. Word of mouth is spreading slowly and people are buying in.

    This sounds again as a typical reaction of companies bringing new products to markets:

    “Get me the money back for developing and producing right in the first three months!”

    That are my thoughts on the story



    PS.: By the way making the package small could end in cheaper transport and easier handling resulting in a lower price for the customer which again attracts new customers;-))

  4. I believe Target sells multiple entrees of this brand. I tried a pasta something or other one time. The pasta took up more room of the box, and didn’t seem to be wastefully in packaging. They could all have the same packaging for easy brand recognition and ease of manufacturing.

    The same size box would be easier on the cardboard manufacturer, only one die to make and use. Also, easier on the automation line to fill the boxes up with product. Only one line to design (even if they run multiple line they can use the same design), one set of work instructions, one set of maintanence requirements.

    Sounds to me like they might not be wasting too much. Just my thoughts.

    BTW, I wasn’t very impresses by the pasta dish I had.

  5. That’s a FANTASTIC point, Tom!

    I was thinking about suboptimizing that one box, that one SKU. Great point about the savings that come from standardization…

  6. Hi Mark

    If you like to buy it again, I think you should do it, but of course everything you think is relevant is allowed in the equation. I am also sometimes looking more at the (perceived) system delivering the product than the product itself, but I think it is a bad habbit, as we often have no idea why the box is bigger (as pointed out above). But if you think the large box is bad for you (no room in the cuboard), you could point it out to your retailer. Maybe they would listen?

  7. Not to be the blog curmudgeon, or remote campfire hoser-downer, but I would question just how far into the product development scenario the muda concept should be taken?

    Seems that muda has more to do with process efficiencies than with design goals and product development which are far more subjective and absent strong control dimensions found in process.

    For example, I am sure that somewhere back in 1970, a design engineering team in Stuttgart gathered around a Corolla and snickered at the plush reclining seats; the toll coin holders and the large-car sense of style the Corolla brought to the low end market. ‘Such waste!’, they probably snorted in that inimitable Prussian manner.

    Much like the time when my daughter dragged me to look at some car she was determined to buy for college. ‘But, Dad’, she implored, it has an iPod connection.’ ‘Such waste!’, I snorted in that inimitable fatherly manner. Add eyerolls here, if you like.

    Muda? Not sure.

    I agree that there was a disconnect between the packaging and the actual food for your healthy meal purchase and I further concede that your selection beat out, by far, my most heinous packaging overkill experience: the Oscar Meyer ‘Lunchables’ series. Same daughter/different era, tearfully imploring me to let her eat lunchables for the rest of her life.

    Muda, I should have snorted then.

  8. Mark,

    You could argue convincingly that the larger box counts as “marketing expense” is therefore muda. On the other hand, I think it’s part of the incidental, but necessary work that goes into all systems: the consumer may not value it, but it helps get the product into the consumers’ hands by raising awareness.

    From this perspective, all advertising, promotional, and marketing activities are non-value added — but necessary. And even Toyota has a marketing department.

    On the other hand, consider a world with no advertising. . . utopia!


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