Packaging: The battle between sustainability and stand-out

Brands are aiming to bolster consumer interest in 'going green' by focusing on packaging innovations that bring clear benefits to shoppers, says Mary Cowlett.

Packaging: The battle between sustainability and stand-out

While every brand owner claims to understand the importance of sustainable packaging, there remains a tension between the need for on-shelf standout and a desire for products to be more environmentally friendly.

Undoubtedly, this tension is felt most keenly in the FMCG sector, where companies are competing to catch consumers' attention amid climbing material costs, ever-more-stringent regulation and a growing public awareness of excess packaging.

Recent innovations, however, such as Kenco's Eco Refill coffee packs and Puma's reusable Clever Little Bag, which replaces the disposable, cardboard shoebox, demonstrate that brands are doing more than just paying lip service to the idea of sustainable packaging. There are, after all, not only environmental benefits, but also financial incentives, around cutting waste.

Nonetheless, there are challenges for marketers, such as ascertaining the extent to which consumers actually care about the issue. 'Green is still not a significant influencer on purchase,' says Andrew Eyles, chief executive and founder of brand design and packaging company Blue Marlin. 'There is a core of consumers for whom a brand's environmental credentials are a priority, and there can be no doubt that there is a growing green consciousness in the UK, but the majority of consumers are still motivated by price, and shop on autopilot, looking to their trusted brands.'

Guy Douglass, managing director of brand identity and packaging design consultancy flb, agrees: 'Sustainable packaging still ranks very low, or not at all, in the decision hierarchy of most consumers. In particular, customers are still not ready to pay a premium price for sustainably packaged goods.'

To make the matter more complex, there is a growing feeling among consumers that responsibility for addressing environmental issues lies with big business. In other words, they do not want to have to make significant sacrifices themselves.

Incentives to buy

Some brands, such as Stella Artois with its 'Recyclage de Luxe' campaign and 'Is Jeannie in your new lightweight bottle?' on-pack promotion, have marketed the eco-credentials of their packaging to their advantage. For most mainstream brands, however, standalone messages that packaging has been improved or reduced are simply not a compelling sell. Neither do they necessarily sit comfortably with marketers, as such initiatives tend to make branded messages rather generic.

'Environmental or sustainability issues can be the driver of good packaging design, but the outcome always has to be that packaging provides and communicates benefits for consumers in a way that is implicit,' says Helen Hughes, project director of 3D and sustainability at Design Bridge, which works with Ambi Pur, Nescafe and Muller. So consumers may buy brands with 'green' packaging, but ultimately they are persuaded by other factors, such as ease of storage and portability, and value.

Environmentally friendly cleaning brand Method recently launched a plant-based laundry detergent boasting 50% recycled packaging and a 35% smaller carbon footprint than conventional detergent. On-pack, however, one of the most prominent messages is that each bottle provides 25 washes; another highlights a measuring device that helps users manage consumption of the product.

The idea that sustainability is not just about packaging, but also the way a product is used, has also informed the strategies of other manufacturers, such as Unilever. Its Sustainable Living Plan, for example, acknowledges that because 'two billion times a day, somebody, somewhere, uses a Unilever brand', the company has a responsibility to reduce its negative environmental impact.

Consumer choice

There remains a balance to be struck, however. When Kraft's instant-coffee brand Kenco launched its Eco Refill product in 2009, it was keen to let consumers know that the glass-jar version of its products was still available. 'That's one of the reasons we kept the advertising light-hearted - we didn't want to be too worthy or preachy,' says Kenco brand manager Toby Smart.

This begs the question: are consumers getting the message about sustainable packaging, especially when they are given the option of sticking with an unchanged product? In Kenco's case, the answer seems to be yes. Smart says that in the first 12 months after its launch, Eco Refill found its way into 3m UK households. 'We've brought new people into the instant-coffee category as the Eco Refill packaging is more in line with their values,' he adds.

Smart explains that rather than confuse consumers with statistics about its carbon footprint, the brand plumped for the simpler message that Eco Refill had '97% less packaging weight'. This, he says, was the driver of the product's success.

Other challenges for marketers include getting their message through to consumers who might be confused by the myriad accreditation schemes and symbols highlighted on-pack. Another area of confusion is recycling, policies on which differ by council across the UK.

'People aren't sure what can be recycled because councils vary so widely on things like the types of plastic they accept and whether they recycle Tetra Pak,' says John Mathers, managing director of packaging and branding specialist Holmes & Marchant.

Online shopping throws up its own conundrums. Some web retailers, such as Net-A-Porter, view luxury packaging as a key marketing tool because it is their single point of physical contact with customers. Other online retailers, meanwhile, are content with sending off products in a large brown box stuffed with paper and plastic.

At the same time, more-sustainable alternatives are emerging. Amazon, for example, has increased its use of recyclable packing and developed software that ensures items are shipped in suitably sized boxes. In 2009, the brand also launched its Frustration-Free initiative in the UK, promising to reduce the plastic casing and wire ties commonly used in the packaging of toys and electronics.

EBay, meanwhile, is currently trialling branded boxes that not only prompt buyers and sellers to re-use them for their next transaction, but also encourage them to write a message inside so recipients can see where they have been.

Other innovations include Ecovative's compostable EcoCradle packaging. Derived from mushroom roots and agricultural by-products including cotton-seed hulls, it is an alternative to Styrofoam for protecting delicate goods in transit.

It seems, though, that the future of sustainable packaging lies in more sophisticated recycling, educating consumers that not all good things come in fancy boxes and learning lessons from abroad.

'If you look at countries such as Germany and Holland or speak to the man on the street in India, the UK is way behind the curve when it comes to sustainability,' says Silas Amos, creative director of design agency JKR. 'Moreover, as the UK government increasingly looks to save money, there is a real opportunity for brands to step in and lead the debate.'

Asda's fabric conditioner

In February 2010, Asda launched a nine-month trial funded by the government-backed Waste & Resources Action Programme, selling own-label fabric conditioner in pouches that could be refilled up to 10 times.

At five Asda stores, in Barnsley, Carlisle, Govan, Hartlepool and Swansea, the concentrated fabric conditioner was piped from big containers to dispensers for customers to use in the shopping aisle.

'As with all trials, there were things to learn as we went along,' says the supermarket's head of corporate sustainability, Julian Walker-Palin. These included improving the point-of-sale messaging to highlight how much the pouch users were saving on price compared with those customers purchasing the same product off the shelf in bottles.

The supermarket is now in discussions with Unilever and P&G about rolling out the technology to more stores and testing other liquid products. Meanwhile, it is analysing feedback from customers.

'What surprises me is that the majority of shoppers identified the initiative's environmental, rather than financial, savings,' says Walker-Palin.

However, while claiming to be very excited about the prospect of building on the technology and applying it to other products, even food, Walker-Palin adds: 'There are still challenges around customer education, in particular the need to remember to bring the pouches back into the store.'

Sainsbury's milk bags

Last August, Sainsbury's became the first UK retailer to launch a range of milk bags, following bumper sales of semi-skimmed milk packaged in this format. Designed to fit easily into a reusable jug, the bags, which use 75% less packaging than standard plastic bottles and cost at least 6p less, have proved twice as popular as the retailer had predicted.

Shoppers now buy 120,000 semi-skimmed milk bags a week, representing one in every 10 two-pint semi-skimmed units sold - a figure the retailer hopes will at least double with more take-up of its whole-milk bags and the launch of its skimmedand 1%-fat milk bags later this year. 'We've been blown away by the positive response,' says Sainsbury's senior dairy buyer, Emma Metcalf-King. 'Rather than being wary, our customers have lapped up the bags.'

To meet this demand, Sainsbury's and its supplier Dairy Crest have invested more than £2.2m in building a processing plant in Gloucestershire.