As consumers shun single-use plastics and organisations look for ways to become more environmentally responsible, could packaging be the next big opportunity for global sustainability?
Beautiful, practical, economical or all three, packaging has always been about presenting products to their best advantage. Now, there is a new adjective on the block: packaging should be sustainable. The planet needs it, and customers want it – witness, for example, recent dramatic shifts in attitudes to water bottles and plastic bags.
The materials used to wrap products are one of the most visible symbols of sustainability. Customers notice, and first impressions count. According to new research commissioned by Smurfit Kappa and conducted by Longitude, in the past six months more than half of customers (55%) have purchased a product specifically because it had reusable or biodegradable packaging.
Brands know that packaging has a profound impact on the environment and on purchasing decisions. Nestlé, for instance, has created its Institute of Packaging Sciences and launched a sustainable packaging venture fund, both dedicated to new food grade packaging materials, new food safe delivery systems, new waste management technologies and waste collection capacity building.
“We are using our science knowledge in food and transferring it to packaging design,” says Véronique Cremades-Mathis, Nestlé’s Global Head of Sustainable Packaging. “We want to continue to protect our products, ensure safety and quality, whilst understanding the interaction between product and new materials. This will lead us to new solutions meeting our recyclability ambitions.”
The Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences, which was inaugurated in September 2019, employs 50 people and is working with academic partners, suppliers and start-ups to create a strong pipeline of sustainable packaging solutions for Nestlé products across businesses and markets. Some examples are the launch of recyclable paper packaging such as the Nesquik All Natural cocoa powder and the YES! snack bars, developed under 12 months.
Sustainability and innovation are natural bedfellows. According to the research, in about one-third of companies, sustainability is driving all R&D (37%) and new product development (33%).
For global sustainable packaging solutions company Smurfit Kappa, that link between innovation and sustainability can filter out to the entire supply chain. “We want to produce packaging that helps producers, retailers – and ultimately consumers – to reduce their environmental impact,” says Arco Berkenbosch, the company’s Vice President of Innovation and Development.
Carlsberg, meanwhile, is making it easier for its managers to compare the carbon emissions of one type of packaging with another. “The ability to measure as much as you can is important to inform the right decisions,” says Simon Boas Hoffmeyer, Senior Director, Group Sustainability & Communications at Carlsberg Group.
The move towards that kind of scrutiny comes as no surprise when companies are investing heavily in recycled and biodegradable packaging materials. But implementing sustainable practices in this area is not straightforward.
“The requirements in terms of the speed of development and implementation have never been as high as they are today,” says Berkenbosch. “Every stakeholder has an opinion or a guideline or a wish for packaging. But I’m a strong believer in innovation technology. If there's enough pressure, we will invent things that will help us tackle this problem.”
For Berkenbosch, this means focusing on three time horizons: a short-term focus on design innovation, mid-term emphasis on automation and supply chain, and a long-term view of developing functionality improvements of paper.
A collective effort
Progress on all three fronts will rest on education. For instance, a Nestlé pilot project in Switzerland whereby consumers brought their own containers to buy pet food or coffee from a dispenser, shows how collective responsibility could lead to real change.
“We explained how it worked, but we had a whole bunch of consumers over the age of 60 saying: ‘I know how this works, I used to do this as a child’,” says Cremades-Mathis. “It’s good to remember that some people come from an era when there was no packaging. For others, we must ask how we pass on knowledge to empower them to choose better, to dispose better and to think differently about their consumption patterns.”
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