Value versus consequence

* 4 min read
We were privileged to be invited to The Grocer Breakfast Briefing on Packaging Sustainability held in The Gherkin with magnificent views over London. Although the view was definitely a topic of conversation over breakfast, the main topic of sustainable packaging was the reason we had all come together.

There was a broad spectrum of packaging stakeholders including brands, retailers, manufacturers and industry experts, all with a common purpose to try to deliver on the sustainability agenda.

What we all knew, but now has been qualified by The Grocer Vision through consumer research, is the disparity between what consumers want and what they do. Interestingly demographics plays a significant part, particularly age and social grade.

70% of consumers have changed their shopping habits as a result of concerns over packaging

  • 34% were aged 18-34 compared to 12% of those over 55
  • 40% were social grade A compared to 16% E

30% of shoppers have changed their regular brand as a result of their attitude towards packaging

  • 48% were aged 18-34 compared to 14% of those over 55
  • 46% were social grade A compared to 23% E 

shutterstock 587783540 min3This clearly demonstrates age and affluence are a deciding factor on consumer values but when we go shopping we still see many people purchasing plastic packaging, either single-use, recyclable or non-recyclable. This is despite recyclability being seen as the most important attribute for consumers rating sustainable packaging and plant-based compostables being considered the most environmental packaging. So what consumers say and what they do are very different.

It’s easy to point the finger at consumers, yes they are up in arms and don’t believe it’s their problem to solve but we all have our part to play. There was a call to action today for more of us to have a voice and educate because the debate is too polarised – different types of plastics are being glossed over, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission metrics favours particular plastics and there is a need to clean up recycling schemes.

Another key take-out was the need to avoid knee jerk reactions even although action is required now. We can’t recycle our way out of this situation, but we can make it better! However, there is no point investing in packaging change to increase recyclability if it increases GHG emissions. We need to be fit for the future, think through change and future-proof packaging with future carbon impact taxes in mind.

There was much debate over ‘winnable battles’ ranging from recyclability through to food waste mountains but whatever we choose to be our ‘winnable battle’ needs to be tangible and visible to make a difference. Ultimately, how does the entire packaging industry shift the consumer facing media from packaging enemy to packaging ally. We can start to educate all consumers on the benefits of packaging which is totally lost in the current public debate.

This is not to say media coverage will solve all packaging problems. Coca-Cola shared their ‘our way forward’ strategy and their quest to collect 100% of their packaging which will be activated through a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) likely to start in Scotland and then potentially England. Return schemes with consumer value is likely to get the best traction.

ccFor us this is the most interesting part – value versus consequence. What are the consequences for not doing the right thing? Currently personal morals and values are relied upon but if we see packaging as a valuable resource then it should a have real, tangible value to the consumer. The Scottish Government say we buy the product but only borrow the packaging. This is a great sentiment but again what are the consequences or incentives of doing the right thing?

There were many great discussions and we have a long way to go to solve the packaging problem but it’s encouraging to hear from a real cross-section of the packaging industry united in their quest for resolution.

Key take-outs:
  • There’s no silver bullet – every product needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis
  • Investment is required at every stage of the process
  • More people are needed to add to the debate to establish a more rounded view on packaging
  • More collaboration is needed – the best solutions will come from partnerships
  • Need to look beyond primary packaging, also look at supply-chain packaging
  • Don’t just think today, work towards a sustainable tomorrow