Do consumers really care about eco-packaging?

Brands are under pressure to make their packaging sustainable, but does a green emphasis forge a consumer connection, asks Eva MacIntosh.

Puma: the reusable Clever Little Bag
Puma: the reusable Clever Little Bag

Lightweight Champagne bottles, plastic packs made from plants and disposable milk bags are some of the formats brands are using to create sustainable packaging. Might it be argued, however, that this rush to reduce pack sizes and employ recyclable materials risks denting the appeal of the brands to consumers?

Diageo for one has encountered this dilemma. In its sustainable packaging guidelines, published before Christmas, it committed to reducing the weight of its bottles by 10% by 2015.

Within the guidelines, chief marketing officer Andy Fennell wrote: "Consumers are demanding more sustainable packs from all leading consumer goods companies. Walmart, for example, has established a comprehensive packaging scorecard on which suppliers are evaluated. Our new guidelines will be adopted throughout our business to ensure we drive year-on-year improvements."

However, research by the drinks manufacturer shows that consumers tend to think that "lighter means less valuable".

It has noted that creating packaging that is both sustainable and premium will require "tenacity, innovation and education, not just for (Diageo], but also for our customers".

Brands are also under political pressure to refine their packaging along sustainable lines to help ensure that the UK hits government-agreed environmental targets.

This inevitably involves reversing brands' attempts over the past few decades to boost shelf presence by introducing more sizeable, eye-catching packs.

Dorothy Mackenzie, chairman of branding agency Dragon Rouge, says brands relied on elaborate packaging to convey their messages as other channels became more expensive and less effective.

"Shelf presence is an important battleground. You don't want tiny little packs that nobody notices," she says.

Mackenzie adds that putting a product such as Johnnie Walker whisky in a flimsy PET bottle "is not what you'd expect". The challenge for pack designers, she contends, is "to develop stand-out packs that are smaller", as laundry detergent brands have done with concentrated variants such as Persil Small & Mighty.

The conundrum is evident in the struggle of Innocent Drinks to make its packaging both environmentally sound and attractive.

Last year, it axed its 100% recyclable PET (rPET) bottles, reducing the recycled element to 35%. It claims that rPET is blotchy and that the quality of the material has declined due to excess demand.

The company adds that this reduction in rPET use is temporary, until these problems are addressed.

While some consumers are sceptical of excessive packaging many marketers believe that, ultimately, they will still be charmed by big, attractive formats. However, Stuart Lendrum, head of packaging and design at Sainsbury's, insists that in general, consumers are put off by overkill.

"It has been shown that consumers link the amount of packaging to value; if they think something is over-packaged, they reason that they will have to pay for it. Also, they don't believe over-packaging is right for the environment", he says.

Lendrum adds that Sainsbury's is setting a high standard for sustainable packaging on its own-brand products, such as using plastic wrapping on pizzas, rather than cardboard boxes. This, he believes, will encourage other brands to follow suit.

He also claims that by 2020, Sainsbury's is on target to have reduced the amount of packaging on its own-brand products by 50% on 2005 levels.

Nonetheless, it can sometimes be worth increasing the packaging volume if it prolongs the life of a product, thus leading to lower levels of food waste. For example, Sainsbury's wraps pitta breads individually within a bigger pack so that they do not go stale once the outer packaging is opened.

Elsewhere, Kenco, the instant-coffee brand, has found success with its eco refill packs, which allow users to fill up their glass jars with coffee from pouches, a development adopted by Nescafe.

Offering refills could become a fruitful way of reducing packaging. Refillable soap dispensers are becoming more popular, for example. Another successful innovation was Puma's reusable Clever Little Bag, which has replaced its old shoeboxes.

Some observers contend, however, that unless a brand can find a powerful consumer benefit from sustainable packaging, it should keep quiet about such developments. "Everybody should be doing sustainable packaging behind closed doors", says Ed Silk, senior planner at design agency Coley Porter Bell. "Whether you talk about it is another matter".

Brands are sometimes wary of shouting about their green credentials for fear that it will invite scrutiny from activists or be seen as cost-cutting. Silk argues that the next two years will be a watershed for sustainable packaging as government pressure grows.

Successfully integrating sustainability into branding is a challenge. The task for marketers is to use insights and innovation to develop popular formats that cut waste and keep shoppers coming back for more.

The consumer viewpoint

Sustainable packaging may be considered vital by many marketers, but do consumers care? Marketing commissioned exclusive research from Toluna to examine the issue.

Consumers cited Cadbury, Tesco and Nestle as the worst offenders when it comes to excessive packaging, according to the findings.

The online survey of 1000 respondents, conducted by Toluna using TolunaQuickSurveys, showed considerable concern among the public about brand packaging. When asked to name brands that use excessive packaging, 42 respondents suggested Cadbury, 19 mentioned Tesco and 16 said Nestle. The replies are significant as they were unprompted.

Almost two-fifths of respondents said they would be more likely to buy a product if it had less packaging than a rival's.More than one third said they thought some products have too much packaging, and 32% said they like products to have a lot of packaging only if they are fragile.

Chocolate confectionery was identified as a problem area. It was mentioned by almost 40%, followed by perfumes and cosmetics. Soft drinks (7%) and alcohol (6%) scored lowest when it came to excessive packaging.

About 56% claimed that they had opted not to buy products with too much packaging. These included a computer mouse, wrapped bananas on a tray, Easter eggs and toys.

Easter eggs were repeatedly cited, which could be seen as a blow to manufacturers, as they have made efforts to reduce packaging. In 2009, working with waste reduction body WRAP, they cut Easter egg packaging by 25%.

Helen Hughes, head of 3D packaging at Design Bridge, said: "This way of working is a great example of how the industry can work together on a small scale to bring about significant change."

In a statement, Mars said: "We have already made some notable changes to the packaging of our Easter range with all plastic and acetate removed from our small, medium, luxury and premium egg range.

"This move has saved 50 tonnes of plastic since 2009. Consumers are made aware of this with a 'No Plastic' flash on-pack."


Fragile: 32% like products to be well-packaged only if they are fragile

Excessive packaging: 56% claimed that they had decided against buying products that had too much packaging

Alcohol: 6% deemed alcohol to have excessive packaging

Confectionery: 40% cited confectionery as the worst offender for excessive packaging

Source: Toluna research for Marketing

Power points

  • Brands aiming to reduce their packaging need to evaluate the impact this would have on their shelf presence.
  • The next two years will be a watershed for sustainable packaging as government pressure grows.