Researching sustainable packaging, I found myself reaching out to industry experts to get a feel for what is going on behind the scenes. The term sustainable packaging now versus 10 years ago is very different. Companies are doing more with post-consumer recycled content, plant-based materials and even sustainable company practices, and that is usually because consumers are demanding for more. I reached out to a few industry leaders, including Keith Fanta, section head, Packaging Sustainability, Procter & Gamble (P&G), to find out what consumers want and who specifically is so interested in environmentally-friendly packaging.

What consumers think about sustainability

Packaging Strategies: How important is sustainability to today’s consumer?

Keith Fanta: Sustainability is getting more and more important to today’s consumer. While sustainability is important to the consumer, most are unwilling to make any tradeoffs in the package or product performance and cost when it comes to buying sustainable products. Consumers want the products and brands they have come to know and love to deliver the same performance while being as sustainable as possible. Consumers want companies to solve the complex sustainability problems so that they can be more sustainable just by using our products.

PS: Do you see the use of bioplastics in packaging growing in the next few years?

Fanta: We should continue to see a slow growth in the next few years for bioplastics. P&G continues to look for opportunities to use bioplastics where it does not create any tradeoffs for the consumer in price or performance.

PS: How popular are plant-based materials in packaging? What are their benefits?

Fanta: Today a small percentage of packaging at P&G is created using plant-based material. Consumers have made it clear that they are much more interested in the recyclability and recycled content of a package and are a little confused around the different sources of packaging materials. We need to continue to educate consumers on the benefits of plant-based materials.

Plant-based materials include a lot of different types of materials and applications. The main benefit that we have seen with our plant-based material is a large decrease in Greenhouse gases (when compared to oil-based material) and the ability to recycle the package using today’s recycling infrastructure.

PS: Aside from environmental benefits, why should a company consider adding sustainable processes and practices to its business model?

Fanta: One benefit is cost reductions, many times making a process as sustainable as possible leads to reduction in waste and more operational efficiencies. Not wasting material or energy translates directly to the bottom line. Another benefit is that it allows the consumers to have the products they love without tradeoffs. Most consumers want to use environmentally responsible products and when a company switches to a more sustainable practice, it is better for the consumer and the business.

Millennials seek out sustainable goods

According to new survey data from Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), 50% of Millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products and 39% are willing to do research into the sustainability efforts of companies before making a purchase.

An interest in sustainability continues to be a growing generational trend, from Baby Boomers all the way down to GenZ. And with that increasing desire for sustainability comes higher purchasing power. According to the survey, Millennials, at $200 billion annually, and GenZ, at $44 billion annually, have strong influence over how brands are seen in the marketplace, and over time are likely to be even more socially and environmentally conscious.

According to Ian Lifshitz, the sustainability director for the Americas for APP, Millennials tend to be more socially and environmentally conscious than previous generations. It is likely that the trend will only increase for GenZ as they gain more purchasing power through the years. Research suggests that Baby Boomers are interested in sustainable paper products too, but not as strongly as Millennials.

“Forty-three percent of Millennials, compared to 37 percent of Baby Boomers, consider the product’s sustainability attributes, including certified as deforestation-free or made from recycled materials, when purchasing paper products,” says Lifshitz.

Millennials have an incredible amount of purchasing power right now, but it is only a matter of time until GenZ moves in and another generational shift occurs. Research suggests that the growing trend of consumer interest in sustainable packaging, including its lifecycle, is here to stay.

“If the findings from our surveys are any indication, we will continue to see a higher proportion of Millennials and by extension, Gen Z, showcase stronger preferences for sustainably sourced products and companies that prioritize environmental practices, possess zero deforestation and recycling certifications, etc. Both generations hold strong purchasing power, and Gen-Z’s will continue to grow as they age. Companies must be prepared to deliver sustainable options to such environmentally conscious and economically powerful generations,” says Lifshitz.

This research is designed to help companies determine how to best prioritize consumer sustainability preferences today, specifically how their products’ materials are sourced and how they implement comprehensive environmental initiatives.

“With the rise of supply chain transparency, consumers have more access / understanding relative to how companies source materials and implement global sustainability initiatives. Millennials understand the power they wield in the marketplace, and it is important for companies to understand how these shifting consumer preferences will impact their market strategy,” says Lifshitz.

Sustainable packaging and processes are very important to today’s consumers, especially the younger consumers. It must be a priority for companies to look at how their company and products’ image is resonating with today’s consumers. The key takeaway is this: Consumers want environmentally friendly products, but without sacrificing performance or price. See sustainable packaging examples in our cover story on household packaging.