It’s the Box that Matters. The Growth of Sustainable Packaging in Consumer Goods

Walking up and down the grocery isle or ordering a pizza for Saturday movie night, we are bombarded with messages such as “new & improved”, “advanced formula”, “organic”, “hot”, while our focus is on what’s in the box, we forget that the box itself is transforming. In an often-rare collaboration it’s both Consumers and Government that are driving industry change. Plastics, styrofoam, and excessive packaging are being eliminated with consumers demanding, wanting and willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. More than half (54%) take sustainable packaging into consideration when selecting a product. Leading the dynamic shift is 83% of millennials and Gen Z’s reporting that they are willing to pay more for it.[1]

Over the past 3 years both national and state governments in the US and Canada have adopted plastic-bans and new sustainable requirements. In recent years, eight states in the US have banned single use plastic bags California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Of the eight, this year, both Maine and Oregon have enacted extended producer fee legislation.[2]  In Canada, the banning of single use plastics legislation and enforcement is in play and the government is currently reviewing details around producer responsibilities.[3]

Spurred by the growth of take-a-way services over the past few years, the quick serve restaurant (QSR) were the early adopters in the shift to viable, alternative replacement packaging. This transformation has now expanded towards the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) space and not just boutique brands. (FMCG) are products that have a huge demand such as processed fresh and frozen foods, beverages, cosmetics, toiletries, health products, consumer electronics, etc. These companies are the latest in the re-think of the sustainable packaging movement.

The surge in demand has resulted Brand owners updating their sustainability policies by implementing sustainable material mandates including total plastics reduction goals as much as 26%.[4] As an example, innovative Eco-friendly packaging design is one of Coca-Cola’s core principles in its World Without Waste Strategy. Announced in 2020, Coke, along with Heineken and Pepsi are replacing plastic rings which held bottles and cans together in 6 packs with sustainable paperboard products. This major supply chain shift will save upwards of 517 annualized tons of plastic into landfills in Europe alone.[5]

The redesign of this packaging isn’t just a matter of swapping materials, but to truly deliver upon their sustainable commitments these organizations must look at the full lifecycle of their packaging. This shows how FMCG brand owners and retailers should consider much closer collaboration with upstream players such as paper and other substrate manufactures, whereby full transparency of raw materials are taken into account.

Each player has a necessary role to play and must work in concert together. Chemical companies and paper manufacturers are developing new water-based coatings, expanding pulping technologies and innovating with more durable, yet lighter weight base paper products and which are fully sustainable and can keep food fresh and protected. While it’s the structural designers that must ensure packaging security, integrity and shelf performance; brand owners, paper mills, packaging converters and copackers must work together. Proper assessment, mapping, planning and benchmarking, can foster the integration of innovation across the entire product portfolio to close the loop moving forward.

This wholistic approach is a comprehensive rethink of their entire supply chains – forcing all elements of the value chain into new and unfamiliar territories including growing consumer awareness about packaging. To accomplish measurable effective change, a much closer collaboration between upstream and downstream supply chain players will be required. These initiatives properly executed, will further drive awareness by consumers who use their purchasing power to drive much-needed change.

  1. Manning L.; Consumer demand for sustainable packaging holds despite pandemic, FOODDIVE, 4/27/2021
  2. State Plastic Bag Legislation, National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 2/8/2021
  3. Recycling Council of Ontario, Canada
  4. Feber D.; Nordigarden D.; Granskog A.; Ponkshe S.; Berg P.:The drive toward sustainability in packaging—beyond the quick wins, McKinsey & Company, 1/30/2020
  5. Steffan, L; Top Brands Are Replacing Plastic With Paperboard, Intelligent Living, 8/31/2020

Ian Lifshitz is vice president of sustainability and stakeholder relations, the Americas for the Asia Pulp & Paper Group. He is responsible for managing an international team leading the company’s sustainability, media relations and stakeholder engagement programs across Canada, the United States and South America.  Ian has more than 25 years of experience developing sustainability, public relations and other stakeholder strategies for international companies, governments and non-profits, including expertise in managing issues and crisis communication strategies for high-profile companies within the pulp and paper, packaging, retail and telco sectors.

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