In a one-hour webinar on Sept. 15, EcoFocus Worldwide CEO Linda Gilbert gave participants a sneak peek at “The Consumer Shift to Sustainable Living: Its Critical Impact on Food Packaging,” the presentation she will give at Packaging Strategies’ upcoming Packaging Outlook Summit in Atlanta, Nov. 5-7. The trend information she discussed also gives packaging and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies their marching orders.

To provide context for her observations, Gilbert noted that EcoFocus conducts an ongoing survey of more than 7000 consumers who complete a 30-minute online questionnaire that nets quantitative information; the latest wave was completed in July.

EcoFocus’ research indicates that food packaging is an entry point to sustainability for consumers, Gilbert noted. Some 60% of respondents to the latest survey said it is extremely or very important to choose foods and beverages that are packaged responsibly, and 38% said they have already changed which products they buy due to the type of packaging.

Overall, Gilbert said, about 85% of adults aged 18 to 65 fit the description of Consumers Who Care (CWC) - that is, they take the environment into consideration when shopping. However, environmental concerns don’t outweigh other concerns, she noted; “products and packaging must fit into a ‘My World, My Life’ scenario.” Consumers don’t want to make compromises to achieve sustainability; they feel that choosing sustainable products and packaging must be “balanced to maintain my lifestyle.”

A new consumer mindset is taking shape, Gilbert observed, adding that this creates an opportunity for brands and manufacturers to influence consumer decisions. This new mindset is evidenced by the 72% of respondents who agreed with the phrase, “Being eco-friendly means continually rethinking the choices I make.”

Consumer priorities aren’t so much about saving the planet as about reducing waste and pollution, Gilbert said, adding that 91% of respondents agreed, “It does not matter whether or not you believe in global warming; reducing waste and pollution is just common sense.” Over 66% of respondents concurred that manufacturers “need to do a better job of telling me how to recycle or dispose of their package.” In addition, 71% said they want packaging that is recyclable, and 67% want refillable or reusable packaging.

Nevertheless, Gilbert pointed out that convenience and functionality still come first. Just over half of respondents said convenience is a major priority when it comes to packaging, and 35% said they’re not willing to compromise performance for the sake of eco-friendliness. Gilbert’s other takeaways:
  •   There is an opportunity to inform consumers and differentiate your brand. Consumers want information and education to help them make environmentally sound choices.

  • Many people are rethinking packaging - especially plastics - for health and safety reasons. About 38% of those surveyed were extremely or very concerned about plastic used in packaging for food and water; 63% want more information about BPAs; and 41% said they consider whether a product is labeled “BPA-free” when purchasing plastic-packaged items.

  • People are also rethinking packaging for environmental reasons, and they want sustainable packages to better communicate their advantages.

  • Beware of inconsistencies between the product and the package, especially if you’re asking consumers to pay a premium for the product. Organic and natural products that seem to be overpackaged, such as Imagine organic soups in cartons and Del Monte’s individually wrapped bananas, make consumers irate. “This is not to say that consumers are completely cynical; they’re actually fairly optimistic,” Gilbert said. “They expect that even if we’re not where we [the industry] should be, we’ll figure this stuff out.”