Consumers might set out to buy good-tasting foods and beverages, but increasingly it's the packaging that seals the deal.
Fully 70 percent of consumers surveyed by Gallup in 2011 said they were "very" or "somewhat" likely to go out of their way to buy products from an environmentally responsible brand. And 42 percent said that using minimal or environmentally friendly packaging was one of the most important things a company could do to help preserve the environment.
To appeal to these consumers, retailers from Walmart to Whole Foods Market are boosting their inventory of sustainable products and encouraging suppliers to make their packaging eco-friendly. Walmart, which hosts a Sustainable Packaging Expo annually, is working with suppliers on a goal of reducing packaging by 5 percent by 2013. The retailer has created a scorecard to measure progress, focusing on choice of material, chemical composition and greenhouse gas emissions associated with packaging. The scorecard currently includes information on more than 627,000 items in its stores, a 90 percent increase from 2009.
Other retailers, such as Whole Foods Market, also encourage suppliers to look for ways to use more recycled packaging materials or reduce packaging altogether. Inside its stores, the retailer promotes reusable packaging, including cloth shopping bags, and encourages shoppers to purchase items in bulk.
In turn, manufacturers are making packaging eco-friendly. "If you're thinking about sustainability, it's shortsighted not to think about your packaging," says Nate Schlachter, executive director of the Sustainable Food Trade Association in Portland, Ore. "It's often overlooked and it's not sexy, but at the end of the day, it is a part of your product."
LIGHT MAKES RIGHT
Moving to sustainable packaging often cuts costs. "A lot of the easiest things to do are also things that improve efficiency," says Katherine O'Dea, senior fellow and director of advisory services for Charlottesville, Va.-based nonprofit GreenBlue, which helps businesses with environmental sustainability.
Companies can make packaging more sustainable by cutting down on the amount of materials used. Minneapolis-based General Mills, for instance, reduced the size of its Hamburger Helper packaging by 20 percent several years ago without decreasing the amount of product in each box, says spokesperson Sheila Kley.
"When research revealed that consumers did not value the variety of different pasta shapes in Hamburger Helper, [General Mills] cut the number of unique pasta shapes in half and increased the density of the pasta shapes so they could be packed more tightly in a smaller box," Kley says.
In 2010, General Mills narrowed the width of its Nature Valley granola bar package by a half-inch and the depth by a quarter-inch, again without reducing the amount of product. In doing so, the company slashed the product's paperboard usage 13 percent for a reduction of about 6.2 million pounds of paperboard a year.
Besides spending less on paperboard, General Mills can load more cartons of product per truckload, trimming transportation costs while contributing less air pollution. "Resizing often results in more fuel efficiency on the truck and fewer trucks on the road, fewer greenhouse gases and a great benefit," says O'Dea.
Because reducing size is arguably the easiest step on the path to more eco-friendly packaging, "a lot of companies have already ‘light-weighted' to the point they can, and they're now moving to other sustainability efforts," O'Dea says. For many companies, the next step entails seeking out packaging that uses more recycled content, is recyclable or compostable, or is manufactured in a more environmentally responsible manner.
The good news, according to Schlachter, is "there are alternatives to current packaging in just about every variety. You can look into recyclable plastics. You can look into bio-based plastics."
Pittsburgh-based Heinz has started using the latter, says Michael Okoroafor, vice president of global packaging innovation and execution. It is now using the Coca-Cola Co.'s PlantBottle packaging, which is made from up to 30 percent plant material, a renewable source, for its 20-ounce Heinz Ketchup bottles. This effort, he adds, has "received positive feedback" from consumers. (Coca-Cola began using the bottles for some of its products in 2009.) Heinz also has redesigned its Weight Watchers Smart Ones trays so that they use 40 percent less plastic, replacing some of the plastic with calcium carbonate, a readily available material found in limestone and chalk.
Similarly, General Mills recently redesigned the bowls of its Betty Crocker Warm Delights desserts so that they contain 40 percent calcium carbonate in lieu of polypropylene. The bowls had been made entirely of non-renewable polypropylene, a petroleum product. Not only does the company now use 300,000 pounds less plastic each year, saving an estimated $500,000 a year, but Kley says the new bowls also "perform better in the microwave."
Last year, Lundberg Family Farms, a Richvale, Calif.-based manufacturer of rice products, was honored by the Responsible Packaging Project, a nonprofit joint venture spearheaded by the Sustainable Food Trade Association, among others, for switching to packaging with more recycled content. It now uses paperboard made of 100 percent recycled content, of which 65 percent comes from post-consumer recycled content. (The remaining 35 percent was recycled from other content, such as manufacturers' castoffs, that had not yet reached consumers.)
But increasing the amount of post-consumer recycled content in packaging requires much more than researching and possibly switching paperboard suppliers. Post-consumer recycled board is weaker than other recycled content or virgin board, as its fibers have been weakened by previous use. Therefore, manufacturers need to stringently test the strength of the packaging.
Lundberg Family Farms
"Parameters still have to be met regarding food safety, the shelf life of the product, and the investment to buy new machinery," says Lundberg's vice president of marketing Todd Kluger. "You're in a battle with light and air most of the time to put food on the shelf."
Lundberg is trying to win that battle by using plastic bags with more eco-friendly film for its rice. "Rice goes into a multilayered plastic-based bag, flushed with nitrogen for safety and quality," Kluger explains. "To switch to a different type of package, we have put this charge out there to our packaging suppliers and developers." But because demand in the marketplace is currently low for this sort of "film," the company has to work with the packaging manufacturers' research and development divisions to try to develop it, a process that he admitted could take years.
SPREAD THE WORD
Adopting packaging that uses a higher percentage of post-consumer recycled waste has not only saved Lundberg money, according to Kluger, but also increased sales.
Implementing a major packaging improvement "gives us a chance to go back to the retailer and the consumer to talk about our line of products," he says. Marketing campaigns introducing the new packaging helped to raise the company's profile. The more-sustainable packaging also makes Lundberg's products more appealing to grocers that have sustainability guidelines to adhere to, leading to more store placements and shelf space, and in turn more sales.
To make sure consumers knew about its bio-based ketchup bottles, Heinz launched a nationwide sweepstakes, "Guess What We Just Planted?" in September 2011. Specially marked bottles featured QR codes, text information and a URL for consumers to answer an eco-themed trivia question and be entered for a chance to win one of 57 prizes.
When reducing package sizes, manufacturers should reassure consumers that they haven't reduced the amount of product within, assuming that's the case. At the same time, don't make empty boasts or, as Kluger says, "just slap a recycling symbol on your packaging and leave it up to the consumer" to determine just how eco-friendly your company really is – especially because of shoppers' skepticism. According to the Gallup survey, roughly 90 percent of consumers said companies' environmental efforts fell short of their promises.
"The world of packaging is kind of like the Wild West right now," Schlachter says. But, he adds, "the FTC is getting stricter and cracking down on compostable claims and organic claims. And if there's enforcement, hopefully there will be a change in the market."
All the more reason for CPG manufacturers to double their efforts to implement more eco-responsible packaging. "A company that is not thinking about sustainability," says Kluger, "probably will not be sustainable in the long run."