As consumers increasingly seek brands that embrace sustainable and transparent business practices, packaging trends are evolving to match. The packaging of today does more than protect and transport a product—it must fit the distribution channel and enhance the experience of consuming the product inside.

According to Nielsen, a global market research firm, consumers around the world are prioritizing purchases from brands that are committed to positive social and environmental change. Among the 66 percent of consumers who are willing to pay more for sustainable products, a full 72 percent prioritize purchases from brands they trust. And 51 percent of Millennials check the packaging for sustainability claims. In short, consumers are employing their purchasing power to support brands that are reflective of their values and preferences.

With consumers utilizing products to support and convey their intrinsic values, it is crucial for brands to ensure their value chain aligns with the mission and integrity of their company. Connecting with consumers on this level is key to building brand loyalty in a fast-paced and competitive landscape. And packaging is an important—although sometimes forgotten—key to this equation.

Here’s a look at the top global trends in packaging for companies to watch and consider for their own plans.

Transparency and Authenticity

Today’s consumers demand transparency from the brands they choose and, as the world becomes more connected, this trend continues to grow. But while some brands have mastered transparency in the sourcing of the raw materials that make up their products, fewer have looked beyond their product to ensure their packaging of choice matches their brand values.

To bridge this gap, GoodBelly, a mission-driven producer of probiotic juice drinks, designed a side panel on its packages to showcase the life of the carton packaging used. The engaging graphic takes the consumer along the lifecycle of the package—from material sourcing to recyclability. With colorful graphics and strategic content, the panel effectively showcases the benefits of the carton and reinforces GoodBelly’s mission and values.

Packaging provides companies a perfect opportunity to connect with the consumer and reinforce the brand. Even the use of recognizable logos, such as those for recycling, FSC-certified paper, or USDA certified organic, are simple but powerful images to consumers that convey a third-party endorsement. Savvy companies look beyond their products’ contents to ensure their packaging also aligns with brand and consumer values.
adapting for e-commerce

Across the globe, E-commerce is reshaping the retail industry. As more consumers purchase products online, companies must innovate to find solutions that protect their products while minimizing the packaging’s impact on the environment. Items arriving in multiple boxes, with additional protective packaging plus the product’s original package, frequently means there’s more packaging than there is product. Sometimes parts of that packaging are not recyclable. A study by The Freedonia Group estimates that the demand for protective packaging (items like protective mailers, bubble wrap and air pillows) will grow 4.9 percent per year to $6.8 billion by 2019, mainly as a result of online shopping growth.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon is leading the way in developing e-commerce packaging its their frustration-free packaging program. Frustration-free packaging is designed to make it easier for customers to unpack their products, while also increasing recyclability and decreasing the excess waste that comes from delivering “a box within a box.” In the world of e-commerce, priority must be placed on packaging that gets the job done as efficiently as possible, taking up the least amount of space and resulting in the least amount of waste.

Meal kit delivery companies, such as HelloFresh, are also embracing innovation to reduce the waste generated from packaged services. Through the use of recyclable paper-based packaging and ice packs that can be quickly deconstructed and recycled, HelloFresh is responding to consumer demands for more environmentally friendly packaging and less waste overall. Another meal kit delivery company, FreshRealm, has set itself apart with an innovative packaging system that customers can send back to the company, where it gets sterilized and used again. 

Packaging innovation will continue to respond to the unique needs of e-commerce as brands search for ways to balance protection and convenience of delivery with the environmental impact of these services.

Innovation in Recycling

As product packaging has evolved, so has the variety of packages that find their way into the waste stream. The veritable explosion of different packaging types with new materials presents an end-of-life challenge for recycling facilities.

However, technology is being developed to increase the scope and overall efficiency of sorting facilities, enabling them to deal with the increased variety of recyclable packages. In the U.S., the Carton Council worked on a pilot project to utilize robotics and artificial intelligence to more efficiently and accurately sort cartons for recycling. If successful, this technology could be expanded to other material recovery facilities as well as other packaging formats.

As companies embrace circular economy principles, such as those espoused by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, designing packaging with recyclability in mind is critical so that material recovery facilities are able to sort them and so existing end markets, or one’s that can be developed, can then recycle the material. This shift is also leading to the growth of renewable materials from sustainable sources, which can be seen in the increasing use of bio-based plastics and paperboard sourced from FSC-certified forests.

Match Package to Purpose

Reducing the environmental footprint of packaging can be achieved in many different ways. The goal should be to make sure the packaging matches the purpose of the product. For example, if a product is designed for on-the-go consumption, reducing packaging weight represents a way to make the package more sustainable while matching the purpose of the product. If the sustainability priority is to reduce food waste, then a more robust packaging option that better protects the product might be the best fit. Or, if a product caters to outdoor enthusiasts, packaging in a compostable container might be the most sustainable option.

Brands must choose the sustainable attribute that best fits their unique product and then understand the trade-offs. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

Innovation continues to drive sustainable packaging forward as consumers increasingly demand transparency and environmental responsibility from their favorite brands. Companies across the globe are responding by integrating social responsibility into their business practices and clearly communicating these values through their products. Packaging is an increasingly important piece of this puzzle, driving companies to re-evaluate their choices and look for ways to improve their package’s environmental footprint across its entire lifecycle.

The brands that leverage these emerging trends in sustainable packaging stand to benefit from connecting with their customers and adding value to the product contained inside—and helping the planet in the process.