During the COVID-19 pandemic (2019 to present), about 75% of U.S. consumers tried new products for convenience and value, with more than half (mainly Generation Z and Millennials) switching completely from their legacy brands. Presentation of new brands (private labels) dramatically changed from lower priced, not-so-good copycats to premium, organic, and healthful. Consumers considered private brands to be “more modern, innovative, fun, adventurous, ethical, and experiential,” trusting private labeled products as they had always believed in legacy brands. There was a new focus on emerging benefits: pure ingredients, clean labels, simple process, sustainable sourcing, and environmental and social responsibility. Private brands now offer most (if not all) of the attributes found in legacy brand products except for one major difference—they are still lower priced. Private labels are exerting strong influence on younger consumers, who are the arbiters of future food culture, according to research conducted by The Hartman Group in 2021.
A recent study was conducted on the attitudes of British and Polish consumers toward private labels. The results seem to indicate that they might be demonstrating the same behavior as the U.S. consumer. Polish consumers are currently more focused on lower prices offered by private labels that have been introduced only relatively recently in the late 1990s. On the other hand, British consumers have known private labels since the 1970s and are now comparing the qualities that they experience in private label foods with those of legacy brands. As the attributes of private label foods improve in both locations, British and Polish consumers may eventually focus on the same emerging benefits that the younger U.S. consumers are seeking, including sustainable products and packages.
Filling the Gaps in Consumer Understanding
The elements of the definition of sustainable packaging have not been clearly explained to the consumer. As a result, their perception of sustainable packaging does not always align with the actual sustainability of a package as determined by the LCA. Not clearly communicating to the consumer the function and contribution of greenwashing with regard to sustainability, for example, was a factor that led to the failure of greenwashing efforts.
There is a need to clearly communicate to the consumer that the most critical function of food packaging is to protect the food, so the consumer will have a realistic expectation of what sustainable food packaging is.
Dr. Saulo is principal/owner of Food Science Interests, LLC in Honolulu, Hawaii. Reach her at [email protected].