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Shifting Sustainable Practices and Preferences in Packaging

Conventional wisdom suggests that when economies are flat, consumers prioritize their time and spending on activities and goods/services that fulfill basic needs. Green behaviors, historically, are considered more of a nice-to-have, but not essential during challenging economic times. Yet new research reveals a dramatic shift in both consumer green practices and preferences in recent years – a shift that may signal a permanent change in the way food and beverage manufacturers package and market products.

In a recurring survey, beginning in 2005, my company, Tetra Pak, has tracked environmental behavior by consumers in five countries, including The United States, Brazil, China, France and Germany. Over time, we have expanded the survey with 2011’s report including data from some 6,600 consumers and 200 key influencers (packaging and environment-focused) in 10 countries, including the US, Brazil, China, Japan, India, Russia, Turkey, France, Germany and the UK.

Released in September 2011, the latest findings show a steep rise in consumers researching green issues with nearly 70 percent saying they had done so in the previous 12 months, compared to less than 40 percent in 2005. At the same time, the number of consumers refusing to accept packaging on environmental grounds surged from less than 30 percent in 2005 to more than 50 percent in 2011.  In a shorter timeframe, sorting and setting aside food and beverage containers for recycling was noted as the most common green activity, rising from less than 70 percent among consumers in 2007 to nearly 90 percent in 2011. These behaviors, in turn, have fueled consumer preferences for products in recyclable packaging.

Shifting to Must-Have

In the latest survey findings, 88 percent of respondents expressed a “preference” or “strong preference” for products in recyclable packaging, indicating what we believe to be a non-reversible, attitudinal shift. At the same time, nearly 77 percent of respondents said they purchased certain products over others, specifically due to the environmental profile of the packaging. But, consumers are demanding greener packaging at a competitive cost.

When making the choice between a traditionally packaged product versus one that may be higher-priced and sustainably packaged, consumers favor green in their wallets over green on the shelf. However, a strong majority (78 percent) of 2011 survey respondents said they would be “willing” or “extremely willing” to buy green-packaged food and beverage products if they were the same price as the non-green packaged variety. For a growing segment of consumers, cost is not a factor. Some 20 percent of consumers surveyed said they would buy products with packaging less harmful to the environment, even if it cost more.

Purchase price aside, consumers want the quality of green-packaged products on par with those sold in non-green packages. In fact, 70 percent of consumers surveyed in 2011 said they would be willing to buy a green-packaged product if the quality of that product – as it relates to robustness, how easily it can be held, how it is disposed, etc. – is the same as a non-green packaged variety. Yet, for many consumers surveyed, product lifecycle has become a decision-point when making their purchases.

Counting Carbs and Carbon

As consumer interest in environmentalism becomes more widespread, consumer knowledge of related issues is also expanding. The 2011 survey showed consumer understanding of such complex environmental concepts as biodegradability and carbon footprint as growing. When asked about the concept of renewability, some 32 percent of consumers surveyed say they understand the concept, up 23 percent from 2009.

This overall growth in consumer environmental knowledge may in part explain why nearly half of those surveyed also revealed that 1) when they know less about a product’s environmental footprint it affects their purchasing behavior and that 2) on-package logos, such as the certification offered by the Forest Stewardship Council, are helpful in gaining such understanding. Looking ahead, these results suggest manufacturers would do well to better inform consumers of a product’s environmental record, including   the renewability of packaging materials.While the survey does not show consumers calling for such “green-nutrition” labeling yet, that day may not be too far away.

Taken together, the results of this survey sheds light on not just green consumer practices and packaging preferences, but gives a snapshot of how foods and beverages may be delivered the world over. Brand owners, private label food and beverage retailers, and packagers alike can be sure consumer demand for packaging with a strong environment profile is growing. Those that capitalize on this demand now will reap benefits not only in driving greater value for their companies in the short-term, but open up new avenues to future growth.

Elisabeth Comere is the Director of Environment and Government Affairs for Tetra Pak in North America, the world leader in packaging and food processing solutions. She joined the company in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental strategy. She joined the North American operations in 2010, focusing on advancing Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in the U.S. and Canada, and she is active in various industry and customer packaging and sustainability initiatives. Elisabeth previously served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the environment department of the Food & Drink Industry group in Europe.

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