Growing the sustainable packaging market

By Pelican Consultant Emma Scott.

3 minute read

Key takeaways:

  • Research suggests people are willing to pay more for products in sustainable packaging, but this is not reflected in purchasing decisions.
  • Price and convenience are still out-ranking sustainability as determining factors.
  • Making sustainable packaging affordable and widely available is essential in bridging the ‘intention gap’.

As Amazon parcels continue to flood through letterboxes up and down the country, it’s never been more apparent just how much we consume. And with each smiling box that’s delivered comes the inevitable complaint about overpackaging.

Countless surveys reveal how concerned consumers are about the environmental impact of packaging, with many even saying they would pay more for sustainable alternative.

But would they really, and how can brands encourage consumers to bridge the gap between good intentions and actions?

Do consumers care?

They certainly say they do. Research by Global Web Index suggests the number of consumers who would be willing to pay more for sustainable or eco-friendly products grew from 49% in 2011 to 57% in 2018.

Similarly, research by Trivium Packaging shows the majority of people would pay a premium to see their goods packaged in eco-friendly materials.

But these studies also reveal the factors that are actually most important to consumers when making buying decisions. The Global Web Index research found price and brand trust are the most important considerations for consumers.

A new report by McKinsey reveals price, quality, branding, shelf-life and convenience all still rank higher than environmental impact when making purchasing decisions.

While there’s little doubt the good intentions are genuine, unfortunately they can’t be measured in pounds and pence, and the reality is that few consumers who report positive attitudes toward eco-friendly products follow through with their wallets.

As we stand on the verge of a devastating recession, price is likely to become more of a driving factor than ever, and eco-friendly products do tend to come with a higher price tag. The result is an obvious conflict when it comes to consumers’ desire to use sustainable materials versus what they’re willing to spend or what they can afford.

Should you care?

Yes, because it is what the consumer wants. While the evidence suggests people aren’t necessarily buying sustainable products, it seems clear that price is all that currently stands in their way.

Once sustainable packaging becomes more affordable, businesses that offer it will be the clear winner and you don’t want to be left behind.

We also know it’s becoming more important to consumers that businesses have a clear purpose, and investing in sustainable packaging demonstrates corporate responsibility.

Last but not least, it will ultimately save you money. One of the primary purposes of sustainable packaging is to minimise the inefficiencies that contribute to environmental harm. When IKEA reduced the packaging for one of its products by 50% it resulted in savings of 1.2 million euros per year.

What’s the solution?

Policy change will play a huge part. The EU’s aim is to make all packaging placed on the EU market ‘reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030’, a pledge that covers the UK despite Brexit.

Changes to policy make sustainable choices easier, because it makes them the default option. Consider how many of us have paperless banking simply because you have to opt-in to receive a bank statement in the post.

But that doesn’t change the fact that environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional packaging options tend to cost more. Until there’s a way to avoid passing these extra costs on to the consumer, brands need to think of other ways to get consumers on board.

A quick win might be to address labelling. The McKinsey report found consumers would buy additional sustainably packaged products if more of them were available and they were better labelled.

Which? recently analysed 89 of the UK’s bestselling branded groceries and found almost four in 10 items had no labelling to show whether or not they could be recycled. If you know your packaging is widely recycled, compostable or made from recycled materials, make sure your customers do too.

Third party endorsements are also known to be effective. In one study, consumers were willing to pay 16% more per pound for Fair Trade Certified beans.

But encouraging long-term behavioural change will take more work.

‘Pride in my past: Influencing sustainable choices through behavioural recall’, is a study which examined the role of recalled pride and guilt in shaping sustainable purchase intentions.

While guilt can be a useful marketing tool (consider the Christian Children’s Fund slogan ‘For less than the cost of a cup of coffee, you can provide clean water to a child’) it seems it’s not the best approach when encouraging people to make sustainable choices.

Lead researcher, Hugh Wilson, said: “Attempts to encourage consumers to make more sustainable choices have traditionally been dominated by negative emotions, such as guilt and fear. While this has achieved some success, it can have a really bad side effect: people can lose heart and give up. Rather than making people feel guilty, it is possible to make people feel good about their past achievements and encourage them to make sustainable choices in future.”

Brands should think about how to adapt marketing strategies to illicit positive feelings; assuring consumers that their choices make a tangible difference in making the world a better place.

During a campaign for its autumn collection in 2019, one of H&M’s most successful pieces of content was a short video about durable clothing made from recycled PET bottles.

While it must have been tempting to highlight the plastic pollution problem before explaining how H&M is part of the solution, the video positively depicts innovative climate change solutions. This proved 50 times more effective at driving views than negative messaging, or even a combination of positive and negative.

Ultimately, tackling the issue of affordability in sustainable packaging initiatives is the key to unlocking consumer adoption at scale. But until this is a reality, tapping into the feelgood factor consumers get from making sustainable choices will be the driving force behind sales.

Pelican Communications is a specialist in the environment & CSR, food, packaging & logistics and trade association sectors and offers a range of services such as strategy, design, content creation, public relations and people development. Contact us for marketing and communications expertise.

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