The Shoppers’Perspective

by Scott Young

As marketers, designers and packaging engineers scramble to develop more earth-friendly packaging, there is considerable skepticism about shoppers’ willingness to pay for such alternatives.
Environmental concerns don’t necessarily drive purchase intent, according to Bart Becht, CEO of Reckitt Benckiser. “At the end of the day,” he said recently, “it’s the consumers’ decision, and they are not doing anything about it.”
While this cynicism may be overstated, it’s true that marketers know very little about shoppers’ perceptions of packaging and its impact on the environment. That’s why we recently conducted a study to address two fundamental questions:
Do they know? Do shoppers know which packaging systems are better for the environment? What features or marketing terms are most relevant to them?
Do they care? Do environmental considerations have an impact on packaging references and purchase decisions? Are consumers willing to pay more for environmentally friendly packaging?
We spoke with 500 primary grocery shoppers at 16 locations across the United States, using in-person interviews so they could see and touch physical packages. Unlike most packaging studies, this research was conducted with white, unbranded packages to help us isolate the impact of various structures on shoppers’ preferences and their environmental perceptions.
What is Sustainable Packaging?
Which statement best describes your understanding of the term “Sustainable Packaging”?
“I am not familiar with the term” 53%
“I have heard the term, but I am not clear as to its meaning.” 36%
“I have heard the term, and I know what it means.” 11%
Source: Perception Research Services

Given shoppers’ tendency to profess environmental awareness when they are asked about it directly, we simply showed shoppers two to three packaging structures from a particular category and asked them to state their preference.
The point of this initial exercise was to uncover whether the shoppers cited environmental factors spontaneously, allowing us to gauge the impact/importance of such factors (relative to others such as functionality, portability, appearance) in driving preference.
We then asked shoppers to rate each package on a one to 10 scale, with “10” suggesting that a package is “very environmentally friendly” and “1” suggesting that a package is “extremely bad for the environment.” This exercise helped us determine whether shoppers know which packaging systems are better for the environment.
Are environmental factors top-of-mind?
When shoppers were first shown unbranded packages and asked to state their overall purchase preferences, fewer than 10 percent made spontaneous references to environmental factors. Later, when shoppers were given a list of eight purchase criteria, only one-fourth cited “environmentally friendly” as a top-three consideration. In contrast, about 40 percent cited superior product protection and/or functionality (ease of opening, holding and dispensing) as a primary factor. In addition, the ability to see the product (through the package) emerged as a primary driver of preference across several categories, including orange juice, glass cleaner, cereal and cold medications.
Interestingly, the two categories where environmental considerations were most apparent in driving packaging selection were single-serve soda and insect repellent. The former (soda) suggests that environmental awareness may be stronger in more frequently purchased categories—and/or it may be linked to the considerable publicity surrounding bottled water recently. The latter (insect repellent) suggests that environmental sensitivity may also be heightened in categories with negative overall environmental associations (linkages to pesticides, toxins, etc.). In fact, household cleaner and insecticide packaging had the lowest environmental ratings of all packages tested in this study.
Environmental perceptions: Recycling is the key driver
When shoppers evaluated packages on their environmental impact, the vast majority of packages came out in the 6.0 to 7.0 range (on a one to 10 scale), with a modest range between the lowest (4.98) and highest (7.5) average rating.
However, we uncovered significant differences between alternative packaging systems in several product categories:
Finding: A pump of insect repellent (7.22) was perceived to be far more environmentally friendly than an aerosol can (4.98).
Why? Further questioning revealed that this gap was driven by outdated associations of aerosols and their impact on the atmosphere (“Aerosol is bad for the environment. It kills the ozone layer.”).
Finding: A paperboard cereal box (6.97) was perceived to be better for the environment than a cereal bag (5.97).
Why? This advantage was driven by shoppers’ relative certainty that paperboard is recyclable or made of recycled materials, as opposed to their uncertainty regarding a plastic bag.
Finding: A plastic case for bandages (7.04) was seen as more environmentally friendly than a cardboard box (6.12).
Why? As with cereal, higher ratings were driven by confidence that the materials could be recycled. However, several shoppers also cited the ability to reuse a more durable plastic package.
Looking across the 10 product categories, we found several trends emerging. The primary driver of environmental perceptions was clearly whether shoppers believed that a package could be recycled. For this reason, packages made of hard plastic and paperboard were generally well-regarded and highly rated in this study. Interestingly, there was less certainty about glass and metal and whether these materials could be recycled, which resulted in generally lower environmental ratings for such packages (glass soda and salad dressing bottles and metal coffee tins).
We also found that the quantity of packaging (specifically, the presence or absence of secondary packaging) did not appear to drive environmental perceptions. In fact, in the toothpaste category, traditional carton packaging (with a tube inside) was actually rated more environmentally favorable than a stand-alone tube without secondary packaging. Similarly, cough/cold medicine (in a glass bottle) without secondary packaging fared only slightly better than a box that contained a bottle inside.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, environmental ratings did not consistently correlate with purchase preferences. In fact, the category with largest gap in perceived environmental impact (insect repellent) had 54 percent of shoppers preferring what they believed to be the less environmentally friendly aerosol for purchase because they liked the format’s functional advantages.
The “terminology gap”
We also used this study to question shoppers about their reactions to different environmental claims and terminology. When we asked them about the term “sustainable packaging,” we found the vast majority of shoppers (nearly 90 percent) were not familiar with it. We learned that this is an industry term, rather than consumer language. Of the 11 percent who claimed to be familiar with the term, roughly half mistakenly thought it referred to durability.
When we asked shoppers what makes a package environmentally friendly, we found that perceptions of recyclability were most dominant, while the amount of packaging material was seen as far less relevant. Packaging claims linked to recyclability (made from recycled materials, can be recycled, biodegradable) were perceived as the most compelling environmental statements, while claims linked to “sustainability” or “post-consumer materials” were among the least persuasive. From the typical shopper’s perspective, the story is straightforward: Environmentally friendly packaging is packaging that can be recycled.
At the very end of the interview, we asked shoppers the most tempting (and perhaps most potentially misleading) question: Would you pay five to 10 cents more for a more environmentally friendly package? Here we found some cause for optimism, as 70 percent of shoppers claimed that they would be willing to pay this premium, with levels surpassing 80 percent in some of the higher-ticket categories (such as insect repellent and bandages). When this same question was asked on a general level (Should shoppers be willing to pay 5 to 10 cents more ...), this figure declined somewhat, with 62 percent agreeing.
However, when asked if manufacturers should be responsible for producing more environmentally friendly packaging without passing along additional costs to the shopper, a whopping 85 percent said yes. As these conflicting responses indicate, shoppers generally recognize that they have a responsibility, but they perceive their obligation as secondary to that of the manufacturer.
Looking ahead: Implications for packaging development
Without question, the strongest message emerging from this study is that marketers and manufacturers have a long way to go in educating shoppers about packaging and its impact on the environment.
Clearly, there is a significant terminology gap: marketers are speaking and thinking of sustainability and carbon footprints, while shoppers are thinking almost entirely in terms of recycling. More important, however, is the overwhelming lack of knowledge among shoppers—along with some definite misperceptions—about packaging materials and their impact on the environment. In short, even if shoppers do care about the environment, they simply don’t know enough to make the “right” choices at this point.
For manufacturers, this “knowledge gap” has two primary implications for guiding packaging development and messaging:
Sustainability is not enough. While sustainability may be the objective driving packaging redesign efforts, it is critical that new environmentally friendly packaging systems provide key end-benefits to users (such as the ability to see the product, and/or improved product protection). Fortunately, these goals are not mutually exclusive, as the movement towards more environmentally friendly packaging (less materials, etc.) may work in conjunction with shoppers’ desire for greater transparency and simplicity.
On-pack communication must improve. If marketers want shoppers to place a priority on environmental considerations—and to ultimately command a price premium for sustainable packaging—they need to invest in education. Specifically, they need to convey environmental benefits in a far stronger and more compelling way on packaging. The days of the small recycling icon buried on the package bottom are over, replaced with an era where clear, legible messaging speaks in consumer language.
Marketers who link their efforts with functional benefits and clear messaging are likely to be rewarded at the shelf. They are also serving the greater good, by helping shoppers better appreciate, value—and ultimately help pay for—sustainable packaging.
Scott Young is the president of Perception Research Services, which conducts more than 600 studies each year to help develop, assess and improve packaging systems. Reach him at or 201.346.1600.