Packaging and Sustainability

Packaging is a big topic in sustainability and product management. Regarding sustainability, the fact that packaging creates 20-36% of municipal solid waste, makes it an interesting topic. Regarding product management packaging serves several different functions. Going along the supply chain of products, packaging has the following functions:

Usually a packaging system is used to facilitate transportation. This means, there is a primary, secondary and tertiary packaging. For orange juice, the primary package is the 1-liter-carton that contains the orange juice. The secondary package is a bigger carton that contains twelve 1-liter-cartons. The tertiary package is the pallet on which the orange juice cartons are loaded. The more products fit into e.g. one truck-load, the more cost-effective is the packaging. In particular in retailing, which is characterized by very small margins, cost-effective packaging is important. At the same time, in the light of sustainability, reducing transportation by full truck-loads is favorable.

 As customers nowadays are very keen on getting cosmetically-perfect products, packaging has to provide the goods from any damages during transportation. For example, apples are often wrapped in paper and plastic to prevent damage. Thus, packaging has to ensure the quality.

 Once the products have arrived in the shop, packaging has to fulfill further functions. Initially, the attention of the customer strolling by has to be caught. In a supermarket, products are in direct competition with their shelf neighbors. Color, size and design have to differentiate it from competing products, although the product itself might be the same.

If the attention of the customer is caught, he will take the product and start reading the information on the package. Thus, the packaging also has to inform the customer.

Finally, packaging portions the product, e.g. apples packaged in bundles of six. Different portioning will appeal to different customer groups and it might increase sales. Even if customers intended to buy only four apples, they will be induced to buy six now.

To induce sustainable packaging, the question is what benefits does sustainable packaging provide for companies and for customers?

The major advantage for companies is cost-reduction, which can be achieved by reducing the amount of material used for packaging. At the same time this is an advantage for customers as the amount of packaging they have to carry home is decreased.

Changing the packaging to a more sustainable one can also add benefits for the customer. Hence, the product’s convenience is increased.

However, these steps might be taken on by companies because it is the easy option compared to changing the core product. Of course, sustainable packaging reduces the environmental impact, but it might be negligible in comparison to the product’s impact. In this context, packaging can be easily used to green-wash by “hidden trade-off”.  

In conclusion, I would assume that packaging provides potential for a win-win situation for customers and companies. However, packaging is only one aspect of a product and does not replace a sustainable core product

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1 comment
  1. Elina said:

    In my opinion, the writer of this blog posting makes a really good question by asking “what benefits does sustainable packaging provide for companies and for customers”? Having worked for the packaging industry, I can reveal something. This is the question that the brand owners keep asking as well. However, as there is no one clear and good answer, the commercialisation of sustainable packing materials is dragging behind. Because you see, using sustainable packaging just because it would be the right thing to do, just isn’t a good answer. So, what other benefits is there?

    Like the writer says, the cost-reduction can be one option. The thing is, that as packaging is always an extra cost for the company, most of the companies have already taken the use of traditional packaging materials to the level that they are as lightweight (and cheap) as they can be. When it comes to the use of sustainable materials, well, at the moment most of them, such as bio-polymer based substitutes for plastics, are still much more expensive than the current most used packaging materials. In this sense, the cost-reduction is a problematic area.

    In addition, there is another issue that quite often is forgotten – the consumer attitudes. As using better and more sustainable materials in packaging quite often rises the price of the product (because naturally the price of the packaging is included to the overall price among the other costs), the consumers rather end up choosing the cheaper product instead of the more sustainable (and more expensive) alternative.

    All in all, packaging industry is probably working the hardest for improving things compared to the traditional product manufacturers. Unfortunately, things on this field just tend to change slowly, because things are not as black and white as they might seem. In addition, although improving packaging is essential, the truth is that the biggest environmental impact comes always from the content of the packaging. To change things, in my opinion, we need brand owners that are brave enough to use the new sustainable materials in their packaging, but who will also concentrate on developing more sustainable products. In addition, we need consumers who will not see just the price of the product, but who will also see the big picture around the product.

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