– But What Does That Really Mean?

By: Jonathan Asher, EVP at Perception Research Services  

Do you love your mother?

The answer to this simple yet loaded question is generally a resounding “yes!” That’s true whether referring to one’s birth mother or Mother Earth. In both cases, most people say they want what’s best for her; but their actions don’t necessarily match their words. Sometimes that’s because it’s simply too hard, other times it’s because they’re not quite sure what to do; or how to do it.

When it comes to “Mother Earth”, we can be of some help – at least with regard to environmentally friendly packaging.

Perception Research Services has been conducting shopper research for the past four years that tracks what shoppers say and do with regard to packaging and the environment. Our latest findings reveal a growing desire to select environmentally friendly packaging, along with increasing frustrations about how to do so.

Last year witnessed a rise in the proportion of shoppers wanting to choose environmentally friendly packaging, and despite the economy, fully half said they are willing to pay more for such packaging. This is especially true of younger shoppers (those under 40).

Importantly, environmental claims on packaging act as meaningful calls to action. Over half of our sample reported that seeing such claims positively impacts their buying behavior.

Fortunately, these types of claims abound. In fact, for the past two years, a majority of shoppers reported seeing more environmental claims when shopping for grocery products.

But, unfortunately, there is evidence that this abundance of messaging may not be providing as much benefit as it could be. Despite so many claims being made, more shoppers stated that:
  • there isn’t enough environmental information

  • they’re confused by all of the different environmental claims

  • they don’t know which package is best for the environment
This means that shoppers are seeing more and understanding less – leading to less meaningful action on their part, and/or higher levels of frustration. And the implication for marketers is that their efforts may go unnoticed or be misunderstood.   In order to understand more specifically which environmental claims work well on packaging, we conducted a separate study last year assessing eight different claims that exist on various national and regional brands of bottled water.  We evaluated these claims in terms of how meaningful they are to shoppers, as well as how noticeable they are on pack (using PRS Eye-Tracking).

We learned that while “100% recyclable” was the most meaningful message, very few people actually saw it (only 4% of shoppers).  In fact, 70% or more did not see any of the claims!  In addition, many of the claims – such as Plant Based, Eco-Shaped and 1% for the planet - were meaningless to shoppers.

Of course, a recyclable package is only helpful if shoppers do, in fact, recycle their packaging. In our tracking survey, two-thirds said they recycle packaging on a regular basis – and last year we saw a rise in the proportion of shoppers checking to see if a package can be recycled prior to buying it.

Notably, non-recyclers said that the single biggest reason they don’t is because they forget.  Therefore, effective messaging that reminds consumers to recycle could help bridge the gap between shoppers’ stated concern for the environment (66% very/somewhat concerned) and their actual behavior (46% very/somewhat active).

Helping consumers to remember to recycle at home fits nicely with recent efforts on the part of several food and beverage companies in the United States to assume the costs of recycling their packaging after use - known as “extended producer responsibility”. These efforts include setting up recycling collection bins at retailers such as Whole Foods, or at sporting events such as NASCAR and the US Open Tennis Championships.

The reclaimed packaging is re-made into a similar product container, or transformed for some other purpose - such as toothbrushes and razors from plastic yogurt cups, or napkins from paper coffee cups.

Most CPG companies are currently developing comprehensive “Sustainability” plans which include changes to packaging (reducing the amount of material used, incorporating recycled content and/or recyclable or renewable materials).  

In doing so, it  is important to educate (or at a minimum, inform) shoppers about the efforts that have been made – so that they fully understand them, and so that companies get the credit they deserve for their efforts. 

Marketers can help shoppers by crafting appropriate messages that:
  •   reassure (e.g., “still 16 oz.”)

  •   inform (e.g., “made from recycled content”)

  •   encourage (e.g., “recyclable”).
But they must be sensitive to the increasing degree of scrutiny shoppers are bringing to this area.

For example, stating that a bottle is made with 30% less material loses its perceived benefit if shoppers wonder “less than what?”  If it’s less than the bottle that was sold over a year ago, is that still meaningful?  This is even more disconcerting if the new bottle is less effective than the prior version (e.g., if it is so thin that it collapses when opening, thereby spilling water).

Finally, the more complex activities, such as providing plant-based bottles, will require extensive educational efforts – beyond simple on pack messaging.  Shoppers will need to be informed about the environmental benefits, as well as reassured about the package’s material and its ability to perform.

It should be noted that while the content of the message is important, so too is the manner of execution. When applied to packaging, care must be taken to ensure that claims will be sufficiently visible. If they go unseen, then all of the efforts to provide environmental benefits could be for naught.

In conclusion, shoppers really do want to help the environment, but they need help to do so effectively and consistently. While they will not compromise functionality, they are willing to pay a bit more for environmentally friendly packaging as long as they understand which packages are better for the environment and are reminded of steps they can take.

If a bottle is recyclable, then stating that message clearly will be compelling.  And if the communication can also remind shoppers to actually recycle the package, then all the better.

Eco-friendly packaging that delivers benefits that shoppers care about, understand, and will make use of, will ultimately reduce waste and lessen the carbon footprint.

And that’s something that every Mother could be proud of!