From the consumer’s point of view, “sustainable packaging” is packaging that positively impacts the environment. Sustainable packaging, according to a recent report in Sustainability, is important to consumers who dislike waste created by packaging-related issues, visible pollution on land and water caused by plastics, negative changes in the climate and air quality, and the conditions of water and soil where many of the used packaging are found. To address this consumer value, several companies, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, McDonald’s, Nestle, and Kraft-Heinz, announced their plans for improved packaging sustainability by at least 2025. Their action plans address the consumer understanding of sustainable food packaging and include enhancing their use of recycled materials while increasing their own recycling programs, choosing sustainable sources, reducing packaging weight, and improving package design to improve materials recovery. Since most of these plans involve capital costs, lengthy delivery times to the consumer, and technical gaps, manufacturers will likely encounter serious implementation problems.
Sustainable Packaging Coalition Definition of Sustainable Packaging
The term “sustainability” emerged in the 1987 Brundtland United Nations report. At that time, sustainability was defined as “the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Its definition has since evolved in the packaging industry. According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in 2011, sustainable packaging is a product that:
- Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
- Meets market criteria for performance and cost;
- Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
- Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
- Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
- Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;
- Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy; and
- Is effectively recovered and used in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.
The life cycle assessment (LCA) tools used by the packaging industry consider sustainable food packaging as primarily protecting the food. Other functions that the consumer wants are addressed only after the protection of food has been defined. Otherwise, food stops being a food and cannot or should not be eaten. The LCA tools additionally expect sustainable packaging to enhance food quality and shelf life, consequently mitigating food loss and waste and leading to a more sustainable food supply. Research published in the Annual Review of Resource Economics in 2020 also contends that sustainability-related food labels promote a more sustainable world.
Sustainable Packaging Terms for the Consumer
As previously stated, consumers view sustainable packaging as packaging that has a positive impact on the environment. One term that consumers use is “eco-friendly,” which refers mainly to the environmental impact of the packaging. The social and economic aspects of food packaging are not part of this term. The consumer also usually believes that recycling results in sustainable packaging. As with the term “eco-friendly,” there is no consideration of its cost, convenience, or reliability as a package. The term “bio-packaging” has also been used. To the consumer, bio-packaging is a product that readily biodegrades in the environment. This is not a true assumption, because there are bio-based plastics that are not biodegradable.
“Greenwashing” is another term that is similar to “eco-friendly”; it attempts to project the idea of a more environmentally sustainable packaging than other packaging alternatives. Sometimes a symbol, such as a green leaf or the color green, is used to enhance this perception. Because the symbol is simple and goes well with consumer perception of sustainable packaging, greenwashing has been incorporated rapidly into sustainability marketing efforts. But, when consumers observed that even greenwashed packages littered the environment, they became distrustful of these companies due to a perceived lack of corporate commitment to sustainability through their brands and marketing.
Consumer Understanding of Sustainable Packaging
Several studies have verified such consumer understanding of sustainable packaging. Results of a 2017 study indicated that consumers perceived bioplastic cups as highly sustainable, glass jars as second most sustainable, and dry carton sachets as the least sustainable packaging. The LCA measurements, however, contradicted these consumer perceptions. Bioplastic cups had the highest LCA impact, whereas dry carton sachets had the lowest LCA impact. Results of a 1996 study indicated that the consumer frequently ranked the sustainability of the package based on how it was used post-consumption. Reusable glass, plastic, and paperboard were ranked by consumers as most sustainable, and non-returnable plastics, plastic, and paperboard were ranked least sustainable. The origin or source of the product or how it was produced were not considered in the total environmental impact of the packaging. LCA tools, however, ranked paper and glass as having the highest environmental impacts.
Results of a consumer study conducted in Lithuania in 2021 on sustainability-related food labels indicated that Lithuanian consumers were not yet familiar with sustainability. The researchers recommended conducting educational efforts for consumers, who were very interested in health and nutrition, price-quality relationship, local sourcing of raw materials, production, and labels, and environmental sustainability. Similar results were obtained from a 2021 study out of Indonesia, where most consumers were also not well-versed in sustainability. The researchers saw a strong need for communication (corporate, social, and mass media) that will disseminate information on sustainability, improve food labels, and convince consumers to be active in green consumerism. In the U.K., where consumers are more aware of sustainability efforts, a 2015 study recommended that educational efforts emphasize the support of local sustainable consumption, because that support will lead to global sustainable development. Providing facts alone was insufficient and would result in ineffective marketing approaches.
Food Labels and Sustainability
Slovakia considers its practice of regional labeling to be a contribution to regional development and sustainability. Results of a 2020 study of local residents on eco-labeling indicated that consumers who were sustainability aware were mainly those who did not consider financial spending their top concern. But Slovakia confirms the potential of using regional eco-labeling to develop their agricultural and food industries.
The Czech food industry deals with more than 40 food labels in addition to those that meet food labeling certification schemes, including those that focus on sustainability. Results of a 2021 study of food producers indicate that, overall, consumers positively considered the labels certified by these schemes. The producers, however, did not realize their anticipated economic gains, competitive edge, and new markets. Among the recommendations presented were consumer educational efforts to strengthen awareness of and trust in labels.
Food Waste and Sustainability
Capitalizing on the perceived strong relationship between sustainability and food waste in the minds of the consumer, researchers conducted a study in 2019 to determine the volume of food waste generated if the “best before” phrase on food labels was eliminated, as proposed by the European Union to simplify food label dates. Results indicated that consumer reactions significantly differed in all the Italian regions studied, erring on the side of food waste when there was no best-before marking on food labels. Italian consumers were surveyed because they were considered more knowledgeable about expiration dates than the other EU28 citizens.
In 2019, researchers also found that consumers in The Netherlands wasted less food when, during their planning and purchasing, they consciously focused on food waste. Their results also indicated that less food is wasted as the consumer gets older.
Private Brands and Sustainability
In the past, U.S. consumers considered legacy brands to be trustworthy. They depended on legacy brands for the food quality that they expected and consistently obtained. Prior to the new millennium, legacy brands introduced many new products and distributed them rapidly, exerting a strong influence on the U.S. consumer food culture. The focus then was on quality attributed to the brand, appearance, and nutritional content. Loyalty to the legacy brands was high.
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].