Why aren't more companies using sustainable food packaging?

Thursday, 08 February, 2024

Why aren't more companies using sustainable food packaging?

For the food industry, the search for suitable, affordable solutions that increase the sustainability of packaging can be a difficult exercise requiring a high level of expertise.

The German Agricultural Society (Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft or DLG) has delved into this issue in collaboration with the Münster University of Applied Sciences. Their study, Sustainable Packaging 2024, provides insights into the status quo along with concrete strategies for implementation of environmentally friendly packaging by companies.

The research is divided into three categories: “Consumers”, “Labelling” and “Strategies”, with each category intended to provide important data and a basis for orientation.

Packaging from the consumer’s perspective

The researchers’ survey of 1000 consumers conducted in spring 2023 revealed that the sustainability of food packaging was a relevant feature for the majority of those surveyed. Four out of five people (79%) agreed with the statement that the environmental friendliness of food packaging urgently needs to be improved.

Ultimately, however, this was just one consideration among many. According to the study, other aspects play an equally important, or in some cases a significantly greater, role in both product selection and the evaluation of packaging at the point of sale. These included flavour, quality and price.

People’s willingness to pay a premium for packaging with positive environmental properties was also limited, with the study showing that although consumers see potential for improvement in their own behaviour (38%), the majority believe that other groups, such as packaging manufacturers (67%) and food producers (58%), are responsible for being more environmentally conscious.

“Companies are faced with the key challenge of developing more environmentally friendly packaging concepts that are geared towards consumers’ willingness to pay and their willingness to change their own purchasing and disposal behaviour,” said study co-author Prof. Holger Buxel, Professor of Marketing in the Food Sector at the Münster University of Applied Sciences.

Buxel said companies should be communicating the environmental properties of their packaging in a targeted way that makes the benefits “tangible for consumers”. This is because the results of the study show that many consumers do not recognise ecologically beneficial packaging without specific information. “This makes the development of suitable communication concepts absolutely essential,” Buxel said.

The impact of claims

In order to provide a basis for the design of such strategies, the second part of the study focuses on attitudes towards the specific information provided on the environmental benefits of food packaging. “It has been shown that two out of three (65%) of the consumers surveyed would like more information on the environmental aspects of packaging,” Buxel explained. This includes whether the packaging can be fully recycled and how it can be disposed of in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Whether packaging is made from renewable raw materials and/or recycled materials is also relevant for consumers.

Specific instructions and a standardised system are preferred. Claims placed directly on the packaging are the best option here, as according to the study these are most frequently used as a source of information about the environmental properties of packaging. The most familiar of the established labels in Germany among those surveyed are the Green Dot (76%), the reusable label (76%) and the recycling triangle (74%).

The study showed that the more comprehensible a claim is, the higher its relevance to purchasing tends to be. Also, the higher the perceived importance of environmental protection, the more effective a claim tends to be in relation to purchasing. This particularly applies to statements that deal with the topics of reusability/recyclability and recycling. Interestingly, the topic of “climate protection” is categorised as comparatively less relevant — despite its high profile in general society and the media.

“The claims available on the market differ greatly in terms of their comprehensibility and relevance to the consumer,” Buxel said. “As a result, the choice [of claim] will ultimately play a decisive role in the extent to which the environmental benefits of packaging can be made visible and translated into increased acceptance of the product.”

In view of the widely varying impact of the claims, Buxel recommended that companies carefully examine which labels and seals should be used in each individual case in order to maximise the market potential of using environmentally friendly packaging.

Strategies for resource-friendly packaging

The third part of the study showed that increasing the environmental friendliness of packaging is high on the food industry’s agenda. Just under one in two (49%) of the 186 companies from industry and the skilled trades surveyed already have a strategy, while an additional 24% are currently working on one.

The most important reason cited by companies is to improve environmental protection (84%), followed by a desire to improve their image (82%) and increase competitiveness (81%). The most frequently mentioned goals include increasing the recyclability of packaging, followed by reducing the amount of material and energy used per packaging unit. Key measures include increasing the proportion of recycled input materials, followed by increasing the proportion of materials that come from sustainability certified sources.

“Overall, the approaches pursued are diverse,” said Dipl.-Ing. Simone Schiller MPH, study co-author and Managing Director of the DLG Competence Center Food (Fachzentrum Lebensmittel).

“The majority of the companies surveyed have already achieved success and have introduced new packaging solutions over the past two years that are more environmentally friendly than their previous packaging,” she said.

Nevertheless, the study results also showed that the majority of those surveyed believe that consumers’ unwillingness to pay for more environmentally friendly packaging is a major obstacle. Added to this is the limited availability of alternative or recycled materials and the additional costs associated with their use.

Product protection-related aspects, poorer storage and transportability, and the necessity for demanding hygiene requirements are also cited as barriers to the introduction of modified packaging. “It is to be expected that increasing the environmental friendliness of the packaging used will be an issue that will probably continue to occupy many in the food industry in the coming years,” Schiller concluded.

The DLG will address the issues raised by the study at ProSweets Cologne 2024, taking place from 28–31 January in Cologne, Germany.

The study can be viewed at www.dlg.org/en/food/topics/studies/dlg-packaging-study.

Image credit: iStock.com/Marlon Trottmann

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