Go to a packaging or any other trade show, and see the
plethora of ‘sustainable’ claims displayed on stands.
The initiative to reduce consumption of virgin raw materials is well-intentioned. Consumers, aided by a gathering momentum around circular product design, have begun to turn the tide, and a new awareness of value beyond the product now takes account of the huge cost that environmental myopia has had.
But changing to a recycled material to do the same job as the virgin one doesn’t produce less waste. A new, ‘sustainable’ product might only be a bit less damaging, or slightly different quality, than it used to be. ‘Sustainable’ doesn’t always mean better.
Sustainable doesn’t always mean better
Newly recycled and recyclable waste may be re-processable a finite number of times, and new industries will spring up around the new circular material flows. Good news.
However, we’re missing a point. While industry peers applaud alternative product developments and re-utilise a material type a few more times than we used to, we’re still making as much product; as many pieces of packaging; as many pieces of plastic to collect and reprocess; as much material that won’t find its way into the recycling stream.
We understand. Of course, businesses are trying to adapt to market demand and stay in business. But the changes being initiated across markets take time, irrespective of how long the IPCC says we have left to avoid irreversible environmental damage.
Consumers take responsibility
The onus now falls to consumers to take responsibility and tell producers what they will accept. As the saying goes – stop buying crap and they’ll stop making crap. As long as shoppers keep buying processed foods packed in a modified atmosphere, and keep eating products that travel too many miles, there’ll be someone to meet that need.
Consumers need help in this regard. A little less convenience and a little more bias towards home-grown, seasonal foods will reduce the need for clever packaging. A bit more availability of these options in more places will catch the eye and help a broader uptake.
Casualties of business
If this kind of behaviour catches on, and products are priced at their true value rather than at an artificial level made possible by industrial efficiency, inevitably some packaging producers may go out of business. Sorry but there it. These things happen.
Less demand will mean less supply and some unwelcome surprises. The myopia I mentioned earlier has already become a by-product of not looking far enough ahead or not devising a survival strategy that we call ‘innovation’. As James Clear says in his book, Atomic Habits, “we’d rather be wrong with others than right by ourselves.”
You don’t have to be the same as everyone else, and change starts with a phone call. To have a chat, please book some time in the room44 diary. It won’t cost you anything and it might change your ideas about surviving in a changing market.
Future thinking. Future-proofing. It’s what we do.
Presenting at a trade event gets the creative juices flowing. Sometimes this can be a good thing. Sometimes it leads to other ideas.
This is what happened this week. I was invited to present a short deck at Pro2Pac at London’s Excel. Appended to the annual IFE show, Pro2pac is a mash-up of machine and packaging manufacturers alongside smaller brands of, sometimes, niche and regional food products. It brings together a compelling mix of people and ideas.
My agenda time slot was titled ‘identifying and addressing consumer needs through intelligent design’.
My abstract read like this: Trends across consumer behaviour strongly signal that plastic packaging has lost its place in the hearts and minds of shoppers.
As Generation Z becomes more of a force in the buying community, companies grown and built on the belief that plastics present the best way of shipping CPGs and Produce, over long distance and in the extended supply chain, are being challenged.
How do we break the cycle that causes consumer frustration at the apparent apathy demonstrated by the packaging industry and its perceived lack of preparedness to accept responsibility for the change that is, in some peoples’ eyes, inevitable?
Already I can feel hackles rising amongst plastic packaging producers. So here’s my point: whatever output and efficiency targets incumbent producers need to hit to make money, how ever much the packaging industry tells us that we need plastic nets around oranges or seven-element packaging to make a pot of soup look premium, or a bag around bananas, or plastic wraps around trays of mushrooms… consumers know they don’t. Retailers may prefer pre-packaged goods to make the supply chain more efficient and to manage, their definition of, food waste within the system that the packaging industry and they have created – but consumers don’t NEED it.
With this single, unavoidable ‘black elephant*’ the packaging industry is losing the hearts and minds of consumers.
During my presentation, I referenced the work that is being done in class rooms with Key Stage 1 to 3 students in schools right now. Educating children about the impact of avoidable plastic usage and even more serious environmental concepts is having an effect.
Generation Z has received this information and the recent Greta Thunberg inspired schools strikes are an illustration of a change in the wind; new consumers beginning to make their feelings felt.
Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s a sentiment building.
With industry so hung-up on Millennials as the largest shopping age group, it’s no surprise that subsequent segments aren’t front of mind. For reasons of sustainability, yours and everyone else’s, Gen. Z should be. Do you even know what age Gen.Z is?
My presentation at #Pro2pac was along these lines. As an identified trend, age-specific shifts in attitudes towards consumerism is as clear as day. It’s signalled and is being shouted from all segments of your consumer audience. Resist all you like but if you don’t adapt and change, your business will feel it.
I’ve drawn a quick infographic that sums up this concept and you can get it here. It’s called ‘Who will you sell your packaging to?’ Have a look. I’m interested to talk to you if you agree with this sentiment. I’m more interested to speak to you if you don’t.
To talk about how we can help you re-envisage your product design strategy, we’re a call away and this link will drop time into my diary. Let’s talk soon.
*The Black Elephant is combination of boardroom clichés: the Elephant in the Room, the thing which everyone knows is important, but no one will talk about; and the Black Swan, the hard-to-predict event which is outside the realm of normal expectations, but has enormous impact.