The inside track on sustainable progress | Analysis

May 30, 2013 1 Comment » Print Print

Research by Smithers Pira has provided some interesting insight into the market’s priorities and approach to the subject of sustainability. Pira’s Adam Page examines the white paper’s results and the consumer reaction

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Photo of Analysis pic The white paper on packaging trends by Smithers Pira, in association with Packaging News, presents the most comprehensive survey yet of the packaging industry’s approach to the principle and practice of sustainability.

Many publicly held consumer packaged goods companies have made sustainability initiatives part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR), with packaging now an established part of the CSR mix alongside health and safety programmes.

Initiatives such as Coca-Cola’s plan to move, by 2015, its $60bn (€46bn) per year global supply chain entirely to plant-based bottles has heightened interest and awareness surrounding sustainable packaging and associated business metrics.

Interestingly, many companies promote moves to reduce packaging despite the implication that the product must have been over-packaged in the first place.

Survey results: industry priorities

When asked to assess current strategies in packaging sustainability goals, overall, respondents rated the minimisation of packaging waste as the main element of their strategy, with two-thirds of respondents rating this as very important or critical to their efforts.

Lightweighting/downgauging also featured near the top of our rankings, cited as very important/critical by 61% of respondents while the other key strategy leading to cost reduction, energy conservation, was rated similarly by 47% of respondents.

Other key findings included:
●A greater emphasis on the manufacture of recyclable materials (rated very important or critical by 64% of respondents) than the use of recycled materials (46%);
●Relatively little emphasis on the use of eco-labelling or development of biodegradables (26%);
●The promotion of packaging as a means to reduce food waste was rated as critical by the highest share of respondents at 30%;
●Perhaps the most surprising finding was how low life cycle analysis (LCA) techniques lie, given that these probably provide the best measure of environmental efficiency across the supply chain.

Scepticism abounds as to whether these developments are truly valued by consumers, not noticed, or at worst perceived as a cynical attempt to ‘greenwash’. As our research demonstrates, a large gap remains between the perspective of consumers and those within the industry.

Dr Martin Kay, chief consultant at Smithers Pira, found it interesting that the promotion of packaging as a means to reduce food waste was rated as critical by the highest share of respondents at 30%.

He says: “Numerous initiatives including the Wal-Mart Scorecard and Courtauld Commitments have brought a collective focus and responsibility on packaging minimisation with refreshed interest in ways to optimise the functionality of packaging to protect the product but with minimal packaging cost.

“Greater knowledge of the relative carbon impacts of packaging compared with the potential losses incurred through damage along the supply chain are providing powerful societal and business arguments for the application of  ‘responsible’ low carbon solutions. In many cases, these low carbon solutions may comprise packaging, which is more complex and more costly than previous solutions as extended shelf life of food and minimal food waste become the prime objectives.”

Consumers unwilling to pay

While consumers might like the idea of sustainable packaging and indicate that manufacturers should produce more environmentally friendly packaging, few say that they are willing to pay more as a result of such packaging.

The majority of consumers expect that environmentally friendly packaging should be at no cost to the consumer. In light of the recent recession, such price sensitivity is understandable. And as Defra point out, research indicates that even consumers whose survey choices suggest an interest in sustainable packaging, do not always feed this into their ultimate purchasing decisions.

Therefore without long-term R&D effort, from packaging suppliers and innovators, brand owners, marketers, retailers, and the government, the bigger cost of implementing impactful change is likely to fall onto business.

Confusion still abounds as to what sustainability actually means; consumers struggle with the term, much as many still do with ‘organic’. This confusion extends into the industry itself. For the purposes of our research, sustainability is defined as: Development that meets the needs of the present without robbing future generations of the raw materials or environmental quality that they will need. However there is still need for additional education for both consumers and the industry at large.

Smithers Pira is the worldwide authority on the packaging, paper and print industry supply chains.

Download the white paper for free at