Sustainability is more than the smart use of resources. Stergios Bititsios, associate director packaging and design at MMR Research Worldwide (MMR) explains that consumer demands must also be considered.

When it comes to packaging, MMR recognizes that sustainability spans the entire packaging lifecycle; from the choice of raw materials and all the way through to recycling and waste management. As a research partner for multiple food, drink, and household and personal care companies around the world, we also acknowledge that manufacturers are already making huge efforts to develop sustainable packaging, for example via light-weighting, recyclability and the exploration of compostable or biodegradable materials. However, although such actions help manufacturers deliver against their corporate responsibility, in achieving these aims they tend to undervalue the consumer experience.

We know from experience that consumers demand convenience, superior functionality, value for money and emotional reassurance from packaging. These are the factors that ultimately drive their preferences and choices. So, despite consumers becoming more knowledgeable on the topic of sustainability, their shopping and purchase behavior doesn’t seem to be strongly influenced by a pack’s green credentials.

Sustainability: a midfield driver

To better understand how consumers rate packaging sustainability against other factors, we conducted a quantitative survey whereby we asked consumers to rank a number of environmental attributes (e.g. biodegradable packaging) and claims (e.g. committed to sustainability) relating to packaging. In the mix, we also included a number of product attributes (e.g. GM free, organic, low in fat) and claims (e.g. fresher for longer, authentic flavors) in order to avoid sensitizing the respondents.

We asked respondents to rank the selected attributes and claims on four key metrics:

Relevance: how relevant each attribute/claim was to them

Appeal: how appealing they found each attribute/claim

Purchase intent: how each attribute/claim affects propensity to buy

Willingness to pay more: how each attribute/claim affects willingness to pay a premium

Analysis of the results revealed that consumers’ purchase intent and willingness to pay more are driven by attributes’ and claims’ relevance and appeal, whilst at the same time, purchase intent and willingness to pay more are strongly correlated. This means that when consumers find a claim or attribute relevant to them they also find them highly appealing and appeal is what is driving propensity to buy and willingness to pay a premium.

We then looked at how the selected attributes and claims ranked against the four key metrics and found that the following scored significantly lower than others in terms of relevance and appeal: environmentally-friendly packaging, recyclable packaging, Fairtrade, less packaging, biodegradable packaging, committed to sustainability, low food miles, less waste. It instantly became obvious that environmental attributes and claims contribute less to consumer commitment to buying or paying a premium for products and brands. It was therefore clear that sustainability, although highly embraced as a concept, it is at the moment merely a secondary purchase driver.

Getting the balance right

Evidently, where they value it as important on one level, consumers are not yet prepared to trade other values and benefits off for ‘greener’ packaging. Does that mean that companies should put a halt to their responsibility? Of course not. What we recommend is that instead, manufacturers seek smarter ways of utilizing the merits of sustainability to deliver both business and consumer benefits at the same time

We strongly believe that conducting consumer-centric packaging research early in the development cycle can help manufacturers find the right balance between corporate responsibility and consumer preference as well as protecting key brand equities. For example, as conceptually-sound as lightweighting may be, the practice may not support a premium whisky brand as it may other products, as we know that premiumness is perceptually linked with heavier and more tolerant substrates. Similarly, replacing glass with cardboard may seem an ideal solution for reducing CO² emissions, but this change of material may decrease consumers’ perception of quality, damaging that way the brand and product image. In this light, we would argue that the context of use and the consumer experience should be seen as key determinants of packaging sustainability. Placing consumers at the heart of the packaging innovation process better helps manufacturers unearth those ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ that are paramount in determining a pack’s longevity.

An emotional relationship

As consumers’ desire and commitment to buy have been found to be mostly driven by their subjective, subconscious emotional bond with brands, packaging design is arguably the vehicle, or the physical manifestation, of consumers’ emotionality with a product. On the basis of this insight, we believe that promoting emotion within the design process is key to establishing and maintaining a relationship between users and packaging.

But how can emotionality be used to develop sustainable packaging designs? A bag of sliced bread made from paper such as Wildflower bread, for example, may bring back memories of childhood, creating nostalgia and giving consumers an impression of heritage and authenticity at the point of sale. The same bag may then intensify such feelings at the point of use through its crinkly noise and the aroma of fresh bread that was absorbed and emitted by the substrate. Admittedly, these are all very strong feelings that add value to the user experience. When such an emotional connection is built, there is no doubt that users will seek to buy this bag of bread repeatedly and even treat it with care pre-, during and post-consumption. At the same time this pack, having been made of paper, is an exemplar of eco-friendliness as it’s easy to dispose of and is fully recyclable.

This simple example demonstrates that if companies learn how to leverage emotionality in packaging design, they stand to benefit on many levels. By facilitating sustainable consumption they can retain user loyalty; they can also address corporate social responsibility objectives without alienating users and, finally, by combining these two points they contribute to a more sustainable economy. Aligning environmental with emotional benefits throughout the packaging design process should be seen as a necessity and not a luxury if we want to push the sustainability agenda forward and look forward to a more sustainable future.

Packaging innovation is all about managing trade-offs but we believe that sacrificing core consumer preferences and brand values in favor of sustainability is ironically leading to a less sustainable situation. Balancing the two is a win-win situation.