Within the consumer goods industry there exists a disconnect between consumer ideals of sustainability and the packaging that brands can deliver
Over the past few years there has been an ever increasing amount of coverage on sustainability and sustainable packaging in the consumer goods market.
Time and time again, there will be an announcement about fulfilling CSR or environmental objectives and it will be communicated as meeting consumer needs.
100% recyclable by 2025, 50% post consumer recycled content in plastic bottles and upwards, reduction of weight, materials and waste and many more.
The idea is sound and the intent is admirable but there is a sizable discrepancy that needs to be addressed, which I hope will be done so in the following article.
It helps to begin with a brief overview. When Blue Planet aired, it brought into the public consciousness the impact of packaging waste in marine life in a big way. Typically the consumer up to that point had not considered sustainability in packaging in a meaningful way.
Suddenly they were outraged that all this waste was being dumped into the oceans, that it could enter the food supply chain and we potentially could face health issues as a result.
Leaving the realities of the science of this behind for a moment the message was very successful and consumers demanded action.
At the following Davos meeting, CEOs of major consumer goods companies all announced they were taking action on this and the resultant new plastics economy by Ellen MacArthur foundation saw companies promising to make all plastic packaging 100% recyclable or reusable or compostable by 2025.
Since that time, companies have been steadily addressing consumer need for packaging sustainability; looking at ways to reduce the footprint of their manufacturing and improving resourcing so we can achieve a circular economy.
So far, so good. Where cracks start to appear in this plan is in a fundamental disconnect that exists between consumers wanting their packaging to be 100% sustainable, recyclable ,reusable, circular etc and the realities of manufacturing and engineering.
What I mean is that just because I want all of my packaging to be 100% circular, for example, does not make the ability to actually deliver this guaranteed.
What happens, therefore, is an innovation or improvement is announced that reduces the packaging waste or improves circularity but it might not directly fit the consumer’s perception of what should be available.
Why is it not 100% recyclable? How come I can not simply dispose of this in compost, how do I make sure I put in the right waste stream?
There is a disconnect between sustainability and consumer needs in packaging
Time and again this leads to the same place. A consumer becoming disenfranchised as their ideal is not being addressed, while the brand that has invested vast resources into getting closer to that ideal is seen as having failed to achieve as against working towards a goal.
The distrust creeps in; “you say its widely recycled, what does that even mean?”, “I wanted sustainable packaging and this is not delivering that”, “this is not what I asked for” are all regularly heard gripes.
In an industry which prides itself on being able to deliver against needs satisfy wants across the board, it is a thorny issue that sustainability remains so incapable of giving the people what they want.
This is not laying blame with anyone. The reality is that packaging has a multitude of functions to perform, stakeholders to satisfy and does everything that is is asked to do outstandingly.
Considering that it protects products, getting them through a supply chain, into our homes, is easy to use and dispose of (for the vast majority of cases) and can even find ways to be convenient , fun and raise a sense of occasion when being used or reused, it provides so much more than a simple vessel or container that it originated from.
The difficulty is that these are not linear traits; every time a change is made to one aspect ( the material, the size, shape , colour, etc) this has a ripple effect across the whole manufacturing cycle.
This means that adding something to the mix that should improve sustainability might end up disrupting another part of the process – trying to address that consumer ideal might lead to a degradation of quality, increased cost, longer supply chains or various other issues that would result in consumers turning away from the product even if it was more “sustainable”.
A very simple example might explain this a little more clearly. As it is topical let us take case of a company moving out of plastic into paper so that they can increase recycling rates and be more in line with circular economy needs.
For the benefit of this example we will wave a magic wand and give parity to equipment and materials costs to achieve this.
Due to the differences in material performance there would need to be some kind of coating to provide the barrier needed to assure product quality, so again let us make this possible without loss of performance or increase in cost.
Even if we get to this stage without change; plastic can be transparent, paper can not – any product that allowed consumers to see the product can not do so.
Pressure or carbonated drinks would need to find a way to address the pressure needs and not leak or distort, the product might not be able to go in and out of a fridge or freezer without the adhesives losing quality, and unlike plastic, these pieces are not formed by blowing a pellet which will impact shelf life, how it is stored, and other performance issues.
This is a major change, but quickly you can see how multiple areas are being impacted. Sustainability is not a case of a rising tide lifts all ships.
That is a dramatic example, granted. Instead lets just do a small shift. 100% post consumer recycled content in a bottle.
It is still the same material, on the same equipment , surely this would be less impactful? Again we will decide that costs are equal to make this easier.
There are many factors that can impact the function or look of the material
Clarity and colour are the immediate differences. Anything that had been clear and transparent before is now a slightly grey opaque look.
This is just the how the material turns out, it does not affect quality or performance, it is in fact identical to virgin material.
The colour and clarity changes are already enough to put consumers off though, and repeated market research has shown consumers turning away from this material as it impacts the look of the product.
When cost and availability are included it can quickly become too risky for companies to move core products into this area.
If we magnify these small isolated variables across all FMCG packaging it is can become apparent that this issue is at the heart of the gap between what consumers think is needed to deliver what they want and the actual products that companies can make.
Every time consumers feel that all packaging should be 100% circular , but wont pick up the costs of doing so, or our waste infrastructure is unable to dramatically raise the amount of waste that is reused, or companies try to give consumers what they want without being able to explain to them that sometimes this is not achievable with current technologies…it is ubiquitous.
This is not a simple solve, and it is certainly not going to be addressed overnight or even the next weeks or months.
However, if companies can find a way to more clearly explain why the steps they have taken have improved packaging sustainability, if the consumer is able to modify their expectations and understand that wishing for sustainability does not ensure it is guaranteed, and all of the supply chain understand that fundamentally, sustainability means different things to different people – it will hopefully lead to all parties being satisfied.
Consumers will understand that the product they purchase, which are evolving are heading towards that ideal they cherish and brands will know that their customers understand its a journey and can see how the company is progressing on it!