Under the skin

Cumbersome fmcg brands may be slow to react to environmental concerns, but the message is trickling through – and when one of them does respond, the reward is a dramatic improvement in consumer perceptions

Packaging waste is a major concern for consumers in the UK at the moment. People are highly critical of excessive packaging and are frustrated that much packaging is not recyclable. They believe that manufacturers and retailers are not doing enough to reduce packaging waste. This concern is not yet resulting in mass rejection of current packaging formats, but it is leading to consumer frustration and irritation with brands at the point of disposal. On the other hand, minor innovations in packaging, communicated strongly, are eliciting disproportionate results in terms of approval for brands.

Are manufacturers and retailers taking the right steps, and moving quickly enough, to reduce the environmental impact of packaging in line with consumer concerns? Is the UK behind other parts of Europe in this area?

There are many different ways to respond to this packaging challenge. On the whole, the major fmcg manufacturers face significant constraints in terms of their ability to make radical changes quickly, while retailers and smaller manufacturers have greater freedom to innovate/ this influences the kind of strategies we see emerging. Many of the major fmcg manufacturers operate on a pan-European scale, with the same packaging throughout, so they tend to be driven by approaches that meet longer-term themes in European regulation, rather than by specific consumer agendas in individual countries. The dilemma for them is that this may mean that major changes to packaging take a long time to implement, which makes them appear to be unresponsive to consumer concerns.

Most major fmcg manufacturers have embarked on significant programmes to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging, using various ‘eco-tools’ as part of the development process to build in a measure of environmental performance. The drawback is that much of what the major fmcg manufacturers are doing is invisible, and therefore consumers assume that nothing is happening. ‘Lightweighting’ continues to be a major theme and can save significant amounts of material, but the results are usually hard to spot. For example, Danone has reduced the weight of the Actimel bottle from 7.6g to 7g over the past two years, cutting plastic consumption by 12 000 metric tonnes. Unilever is also reducing the weight of many of its packs – for example, Vaseline and Unox – but there probably isn’t a single consumer who has noticed.

There is also a strong trend among these large manufacturers to increase the use of recycled materials, and to improve recyclability. Kraft, among others, is steadily increasing the use of recycled paper and board in its packaging and Nestlé is simplifying the design of its water bottles to reduce the number of materials used, to make recycling easier.

But it is hard to spot any radical redesigns yet from these major manufacturers, although there is some interesting experimentation. Nestlé attracted much attention, and an industry award, for its use of the Plantic biodegradable tray – which dissolves on contact with water – but it is not clear whether the company will adopt this material in the long term.

Most of the more visible innovation, often involving the use of new materials or new behaviours, has been coming from retailers. In Switzerland, the Migros supermarket chain has pioneered more sustainable practices, which has led to extensive reusable packaging and the use of biodegradable bags. But the UK is catching up quickly, with all retailers keen to demonstrate their Green credentials. Packaging represents a significant challenge to Marks & Spencer, but it has some high-profile initiatives. The retailer’s new sandwich packs, which incorporate cornstarch plastic, are visibly different and contain a clear message for the consumer. They are also easy to use and aesthetically appealing, which helps to counter any perceptions that environmental improvements inevitably lead to compromises in performance or appearance.

A completely new packaging material, Ecolean, a plastic made using chalk, is being used in the UK to package Daylesford Organic milk in pouches. This may have prompted Waitrose to introduce Calon Wen organic milk in plastic bags, offered with a permanent jug. This will necessitate different behaviour from the consumer. Rejected in the past, the time may now be right for significant changes like this, as consumers appear to be more open now to radical innovation – if this is clearly associated with a significant environmental benefit.

Although we tend to think of the UK as being behind other parts of Europe in terms of environmental thinking and initiatives, we may be poised now to lead the way, certainly in terms of activity around packaging and brands, as a result of the sudden increase in consumer concern and the proactive response from the major retailers. With environmental and ethical initiatives, brands have a great way of connecting with consumers, and these opportunities for developing ’emotional’ opportunities to work together for the greater good may prove more powerful than the heavy, regulation-driven, more ‘rational’ approaches that have characterised the approach in other parts of Europe over the past few years.

Packaging improvements to reduce environmental impact could have a very positive impact on consumer attitudes to brands, but only if consumers are aware of them. The important thing for UK brands is to communicate these advances to consumers – providing them with the information they want, as well as imaginative, innovative solutions.

Dorothy MacKenzie is chairman of Dragon

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