Most brands are trying to find ways to incorporate sustainable initiatives into their businesses, with packaging and printing being a key area of exploration. With new techniques and mediums at a brand’s disposal, many are focusing on delivering the high-quality products that consumers want, but in a more eco-conscious way.
The “brown box” ocean
With the rise of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer offerings, more consumers are transitioning to online shopping. As a result, one of the biggest challenges the industry is facing is the sea of brown boxes created by e-commerce. In April of 2018, Fast Company shared that 165 billion packages are shipped in the U.S. every year, with the cardboard usage equating to one billion trees. With the continued rise of online shopping, and the desire for convenience, this problem of wasteful packaging will only get worse. The packaging industry is finding different ways to address this issue by introducing new techniques, such as sustainable materials. However, the pace of change is slow.
Another challenge is a reluctance by consumers to fully commit to meaningful behavioral changes. From home composts to buying products made from recycled materials, people are more conscious of the environmental impact of their behaviors. They are craving industry changes that mirror their interest in sustainability, but they want these changes to have little to no effect on their habits or wallets. A 2014 study conducted by Cone Communications uncovered that 77 percent of consumers consider sustainability an important factor when making purchase decisions.
However, sustainability does not override other personal requirements to satisfy their wants and needs. Extra purpose-driven tactics are not strong enough to drive purchase alone. So, how do we strike the balance between doing good and maintaining—or better yet enhancing—desire?
Emerging packaging materials
Some emerging materials present great potential to transform the packaging industry for years to come. Through the addition of organic substances and sugars to Kombucha, Scoby, which is produced by BioDesign and Consultancy MakeGrowLab, is created through a process of fermentation. It’s a membrane that forms at the surface of the liquid, which can then be used as a packaging solution that is 100 percent compostable and renewable. The process, which is completely natural and expends no waste products, results in a packaging alternative that is edible and without flavor. The contents of any package made of Scoby can be cooked or digested without requiring the removal of the membrane, eliminating post-consumer waste as a whole. While Scoby isn’t commercially available just yet, this material is already offered in the form of trays, bowls, bags and sachets. Its rise as a leading alternative for packaging is on the horizon.
An environmentally-friendly medium, seaweed biodegrades in four to six weeks, compared to the 700 years plastic takes to decompose. It’s cost-effective, readily available and quickly harvested, requiring significantly less carbon dioxide and energy to produce than a PET plastic equivalent. Indonesia, a country where the majority of its plastic consumption ends up in the ocean, is also one of the largest producers of edible seaweed. However, much of its production goes to waste, and the majority of seaweed farmers live in poverty. The poorest provinces of the country also have high production potential, and Evoware seeks to address all of these issues through packaging innovation. This startup is working to lessen the country’s environmental impact while also providing a sustainable livelihood to the nation’s farmers through seaweed packaging. All natural, biodegradable and nutritious, these edible bioplastic sachets are also printable and heat sealable, with a shelf life of up to two years without the addition of preservatives. Currently selling small quantities for product testing, Evoware has the potential to revolutionize packaging around the globe.
UK-based online delivery company Just Eat teamed up with Skipping Rock Labs to introduce Ooho! sachets, a seaweed-based, fully compostable (and edible) alternative to replace single-use plastic packaging. This is the most innovative of a series measures Just Eat is taking to drive more environmentally friendly behaviors among its restaurant partners and customers, and the company has secured government funding to continue to develop this initiative more widely across the industry. Skipping Rock Labs is working to fully commercialize Ooho by mechanizing the current production process and developing market-ready machinery capable of automating the production of Ooho. With the intention to sell the materials, machinery and branded products, Skipping Rock is on the path to bring seaweed to the forefront as a leading packaging solution.
Additional packaging innovations are emerging as well. The dairy alternative brand Alpro has a vision for a world where more of what is eaten comes from plants. This European company recently unveiled their Plant-Based Bucket on March 7th. These vegan spin on a traditional fried chicken offering includes mushroom-based nuggets, and it is served in an edible bucket made of nuts, fennel, spices and seeds. Served with a dairy-free garlic dip and sweet potato fries, the packaging pairs just as well with the dip as its contents do. Similar to Skipping Rock’s partnership with Just Eat to bring their innovation of the consumer, Alpro partnered with restaurant delivery service Deliveroo to make this available to customers in select markets within the UK for their initial launch. Marketing the packaging as part of the meal, such as the Plant-Based Buckets, and similar innovations that are sure to follow, will encourage greater mainstream adoption among consumers.
Brands need to lead consumer adoption
As with any new innovation, these techniques are challenging the status quo. For them to take hold, they will need to overcome engrained consumer expectations. Consumers have grown accustomed to certain truths each company and brand has delivered over time, and companies are accustomed to certain cost structures and operations. For these new technologies to become standard in the future, this tension will need to be resolved for true change to occur.
With an eco-friendly consumer point-of-view on the rise, brands are realizing that they have to change their own mindset to meet the expectations of the forward-thinking market. Brands are also recognizing the need to be advocates for change and educate their target consumers to lead the change.
Impact starts with a first step
How can brands infuse sustainable packaging practices into their core? A systematic change of mindset and the recognition of the need to invest in sustainability may even be the first step. Many packaging producers have stated that it’s worth incorporating sustainable practices in the long run, even if the upfront costs are higher. There is a wide gamut to choose from when it comes to sustainable initiatives, and the easiest place to start is to examine the brand itself and determine where the solutions align with the brand’s mission and values and have the potential to enable long term cost reductions.
It takes bold moves to usher in change, but this type of action creates disruption, shakes the status quo and enables brands to morph—or emerge—as organizations that make a difference and truly matter. Implementing sustainable initiatives into the lifeblood of a brand in a manner that reassures and enhances the experience will only elevate that brand in their ever-changing industry.