There’s no denying we’re in the middle of a global plastics revolution. We only need to be on social media or switch on the news to see the damaging effects plastic is having on our planet.

The trend toward sustainable packaging has been ramping up in recent years. High-profile cases of wildlife under threat, government initiatives, brand pledges and environmental documentaries have played a significant role in influencing consumers’ views on sustainability.

It’s clear that addressing sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have, for any brand looking to safeguard their business and meet consumers’ expectations.

In our new packaging report, Sustainable Packaging Unwrapped, we get to the heart of consumers’ attitudes toward sustainable packaging, their motivations for supporting “greener” packaging, and what this all means for brands.

Here are our key takeaways.

Consumer demand is growing

It’s not only a demand for sustainability that has grown, but also a willingness among consumers to put their money where their mouth is. From our global research, we’ve seen the number of consumers who say they would be willing to pay more for sustainable/eco-friendly products grow from 49% in 2011 to 57% in 2018.

Interest in sustainable products is growing over time

And they’re not all talk — these consumers are taking action. In a recent bespoke survey among U.S. and UK internet users, we found that over 50% of this audience said they’ve reduced the amount of disposable plastic they use in the past 12 months.

We also discovered that news/media sources and documentaries are among the most influential sources impacting consumers’ views on sustainability. Several high-profile environmental documentaries such as Before the Flood and Cowspiracy have helped shed light on environmental matters and educate consumers like never before.

Additionally, the spread of viral media showcasing the degradation of our environment has been both explosive and effective in furthering the movement. A memorable example of this is the award-winning picture of a seahorse clutching a pink cotton bud, which was amplified by the immediacy of the social media platforms on which it was shared.

Sustainable packaging is important — to a point

With plastic waste increasingly under the microscope, consumers are rethinking their buying behavior and consumption of single-use plastics. In the grand scheme of things, how important are sustainable materials to consumers?

We discovered that 42% of U.S. and UK consumers say products that use sustainable materials are important when it comes to their day-to-day purchases.

The importance of sustainable materials for consumers

We can see that price and brand trust are the most important considerations for consumers above all else. And there’s an obvious conflict when it comes to consumers’ desire to use sustainable materials versus what they’re willing to spend or what they’re realistically able to afford.

It’s clear that even though sustainable materials are important, the cost is the biggest challenger by far.

This tension is even more apparent when we look at age; affordability is far more important for older consumers aged 55-64 than it is for consumers aged 16-24. This is likely because younger generations grew up during the height of the sustainability crisis and are generally considered to be more eco-conscious than their older counterparts.

Consumers’ price-conscious nature presents a significant challenge for manufacturers and brands to overcome. Environmentally-friendly alternatives tend to have a higher cost attached to them, so unless there’s a way to avoid passing these extra costs on to the consumer, brands may face an uphill battle getting consumers on board, at least in the short term.

Even if consumers have the best intentions — price remains an issue. The difficulty will not just be finding suitable alternatives to plastic, but at a price point that appeals to consumers.

Why do consumers care about “greener” packaging?

There’s so much conversation out there surrounding sustainability and plastic, and what we should or shouldn’t be doing, it can be difficult to know how consumers truly feel. We decided to dig a little deeper to get a firmer understanding of why consumers care about eco-friendly packaging in the first place.

Our data revealed that consumers support sustainable packaging for fairly sincere reasons. They’re not necessarily doing it to be a part of a global movement or because it’s expected of them. In both the UK and U.S., care for the environment is the primary driver behind choosing sustainable packaging.

Importantly, we also found that when sustainability enters the equation, it puts brand loyalty under immense strain.

60% of consumers say they’re likely to switch to a brand that is more environmentally friendly than their current brand.

This should be a wake-up call for manufacturers and brands. Sustainability isn’t just another buzzword. Consumers genuinely care, and they’re expecting more from brands.

Finding the path to sustainability

Many brands have responded to consumers’ expectations and scrutiny by pledging to clean up their act in the next decade. Starbucks recently announced that it will be donating its 5p charge on throwaway coffee cups to recycling schemes across the UK.

This is just one example of the efforts brands are making, but there are many routes brands can take to reach the same goal. So how can brands meet consumers changing expectations, all while driving positive brand value?

To get insight into this, we asked what specific factors about sustainable packaging were most important to consumers.

What consumers want from environmentally friendly packaging

Consumers identified recyclability as the most important packaging feature.

Even as more pioneering packaging moves from the lab onto the production line, consumers respond strongest to a more old-fashioned solution.

This may be because the hard work of educating consumers has been helped by years of government campaigns, but there are still many consumers who feel there isn’t sufficient information about recycling on the packaging of their products.

3 in 10 consumers don’t feel they have enough information about what packaging can be recycled, and of those, 41% say it’s because brand campaigns don’t give them enough information.

This knowledge gap about what can be properly recycled is a great chance to pair education with strong brand messaging.

Don’t let an opportunity go to waste

As Aedamar Howlett, marketing director for Coca-Cola has pointed out, using sustainable packaging and encouraging recycling goes beyond just inspiring a purchase, or following standards of corporate responsibility.

Disposing of a product isn’t something you see in most diagrams or descriptions of the purchase journey (when have you ever heard someone talk about “the disposal stage”?), but it offers a great opportunity for creating a shared experience with a consumer. Those brands that are transparent and informative about how to recycle their products, and innovative in doing so, are well-placed to benefit.

Brands who adopt a recycling-friendly approach can support marketing messages by empowering consumers. Perhaps consumers actually want some kind of responsibility. They don’t necessarily want to have all the work done for them; they want some investment in the process.

Recycling can let consumers feel they’ve taken an active role in protecting the planet.

Too big to fail

If consumer buying decisions are limited by what’s on the shelf in front of them and the cost attached, then despite their best intentions, the options are weighted against them.

This conflict of interest that consumers are up against would typically cripple the growth potential of such a movement. But such is the growing global social stigma against any company which disregards this war on plastic packaging, that consumer-facing industries have no choice but to act.

If they don’t, they risk being highly-exposed to consumer opinion and news media campaigns which are quick to rally against any guilty parties, potentially ruining brand reputations.

With brand loyalty in the firing line, and industry bottom lines in jeopardy, the incentives for companies to fall into line are mounting by the day.

Tackling the issue of affordability in sustainable packaging initiatives is the key to unlocking consumer adoption at scale, but brands that simply focus on the recyclability issue – not discounting the importance of this issue – are missing an opportunity.

That opportunity involves engaging the consumer. This means letting them play an active part in moving towards a sustainable future, and educating them at the same time.  

Innovative packaging solutions that target this desire to be part of something bigger could help to increase the demand for sustainable packaging solutions, and set new standards for utility and design in packaging.

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Written by

Katie is a Senior Trends Manager at GWI. She’s an avid baker and Harry Potter fanatic, who loves to binge-watch all the latest shows. When she’s not busy whipping up a cheesecake or watching murder-mysteries, you’ll find her exploring what makes consumers tick.

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