Sustainability is a notion that spans the entire packaging life cycle. A truly effective sustainability program is one that proactively targets each touchpoint of that life cycle from the choice of raw materials to manufacturing, from transit to consumption 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 at MMR recognize that manufacturers are already making huge efforts to take such steps and develop sustainable packaging. These range from investing in renewable sources and exploring the feasibility of biodegradable materials to lightweighting, recyclability and so on.
But we also know that these efforts can sometimes be misguided. Although they help manufacturers deliver against their corporate social responsibility in the short term, long-term business benefits can only be achieved when packaging changes resonate with the brand and with consumers.
We can start by asking what consumers expect packaging to deliver. Our research shows that they demand convenience, superior functionality, value for the money and emotional reassurance. What’s more, these factors are also the key motivations behind their choices. So, despite consumers becoming more and more aware of environmental issues and increasingly knowledgeable on the topic of sustainability, their shopping and purchase behavior doesn’t currently seem to be hugely influenced by a pack’s green credentials.

>Sustainability: A midfield driver

To better understand how consumers rate sustainability against other factors in packaging, 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., genetically modified-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:
  1. Relevance: how relevant each attribute/claim was to them
  2. Appeal: how appealing they found each attribute/claim
  3. Purchase intent: how each attribute/claim  propensity to buy
  4. Willingness to pay more: how each attribute/claim affects willingness to pay a premium
Analysis of the results revealed that a consumer’s purchase intent and willingness to pay more are driven by attributes’ and claims’ relevance and appeal. At the same time, purchase intent and willingness to pay more are strongly correlated. This means that when consumers find claims or attributes 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, fair trade, less packaging, biodegradable packaging, committed to sustainability, low food miles and less waste. It instantly became obvious that environmental attributes and claims contribute less in making consumers commit to buying or paying a premium for products and brands. It was therefore clear that sustainability, although highly embraced as a concept, is at the moment a secondary purchase driver.

>Getting the balance right

As our research demonstrates, consumers are not yet prepared to forgo other values and benefits in favor of greener packaging. But does that mean that companies should put a halt to their responsibility? Of course not. What we recommend is that manufacturers instead seek smarter ways of utilizing the merits of sustainability to cater for both corporate social responsibility and consumer needs in equal measure. To reverse the old adage, sometimes more is less; if using less packaging results in creating negative consumer experiences, mess, product waste, disappointment and brand damage, then it’s a case of good cause negating the true purpose of packaging.
Here are two real life examples — one strong and one unfavorable execution of sustainable packaging — that illustrate this argument.

>Well-considered change

Coca-Cola is a great example of a company that has successfully balanced corporate social responsibility with real consumer needs. The soft drinks giant has recently begun replacing its plain PET bottles with what is now known as PlantBottle. The advantage of the PlantBottle packaging over traditional PET plastic bottles is that instead of using petroleum and other fossil fuels to produce a key ingredient in the plastic, PlantBottle uses materials that are up to 30 percent plant-based. In essence, this change means Coca-Cola is trading fossil fuels for plant-based material without sacrificing functional performance or recyclability. Most importantly from a consumer perspective, the change has been implemented methodically and without trading off brand equities and emotional benefits in the name of eco-friendliness.
The PlantBottle packaging looks and feels identical to the PET bottles, hence retaining Coca-Cola’s iconic structural, visual and tactile signatures. The new bottle is the epitome of innovation in packaging as it has managed to smartly amalgamate sustainability with performance and market expectations and demands. There is nothing radically new to shock consumers, and the brand they have come to recognize and cherish remains, so what Coca-Cola has gained is a lot of sustainability credits and a massive improvement of its green credentials.

>Unwanted change

What could potentially turn a great idea into a bad one is not the drive and initiative behind it, but the execution. This statement is very true in the case of Jugit, an idea launched in 2008 in the U.K. by British dairy manufacturer Dairy Crest claiming 75 percent less packaging waste. Jugit introduced milk in flexible plastic bags and provided a jug — as an one-off purchase — to contain the primary packaging after opening and allegedly facilitate pouring and serving. In an attempt to disrupt a tired category and at the same time target environmental challenges in the dairy realm, Jugit ended up neglecting basic consumer needs.
Pouches and generally flexible containers were not intended for low viscosity liquids. Packaging milk in a thin flexible bag caused significant inconvenience at what we call the first and second moments of truth. To start with, at the first moment of truth, consumers found the product difficult to place in the shopping bag and carry home. Many felt insecure placing it next to more robust packaging with the fear that it might burst, causing mess and product waste and ultimately leading to disappointment and anger. Even if the bag arrived home intact, at the second moment of truth, consumers had to face the almost impossible task of opening it easily without spilling the product and placing it properly in the jug without creating further mess. This effort to deliver a greener milk pack seems like truly hard work for what is a commodity and frequently used product; there is little consideration of consumers’ needs. (Since the initial launch, Jugit has listened to consumer feedback and redesigned the product for easier opening and greater security in use, thus allowing ecological concerns and brand satisfaction to more closely align.)

>Sustainability = Longevity

Our research, backed up by the two examples discussed above, makes it clear that there is one fundamental parameter that separates success from disaster when it comes to packaging sustainability: consumer input. 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. Injecting objective consumer feedback at key touchpoints of the sustainability program can help bring eco-friendliness and consumer needs in equilibrium.
For example, as conceptually sound as lightweighting may be, the practice may not support a premium whiskey brand as it may other products as 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 brand and product image. In this light, we would argue that the context of use and the consumer experience should always be seen as key determinants of packaging sustainability. Placing consumers at the heart of the packaging innovation process better helps manufacturers unearth those dos and don’ts that are paramount in determining the vitality of a pack and the length of its life cycle. Because sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also about longevity.