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Do Consumers Really Want What They Say They Want?

By 3p Contributor

By Elisabeth Comere

Globally, the sustainable packaging market is expected to hit $244 billion by 2018 (The Future of Sustainable Packaging to 2018. Smithers Pira (2014). While this number reflects activities across a variety of industries, there’s little doubt that awareness and interest in sustainable packaging is growing, both in the food and beverage industry and beyond.

The significant growth reflects a new reality when it comes to the characteristics of consumers. Numerous studies have shown that consumers want products to be sustainably packaged – and that they are willing to spend more money on products that are sustainable and products from companies that are socially responsible.

But do consumer purchasing behaviors related to sustainable packaging follow their opinions on the topic? That’s a million-dollar question and the answer is not straightforward given research into purchasing habits is typically based on consumer intent rather than follow-through.  To help companies and brand owners answer this question, we examine a number of interrelated questions from the consumer perspective.

Is sustainability important to consumers?

Seventy-seven percent of consumers say sustainability is an important factor in their food purchasing decisions (Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker (2014). Although family satisfaction and health and nutrition rank more highly in terms of factors affecting food purchasing, this response highlights the growing importance consumers are placing on sustainability when it comes to their food purchasing. Consumers simply want products to be sustainable in addition to their other requirements.

Similarly, while consumers rank food safety, nutrition, and whether a product is local among their top concerns related to food purchasing, sustainable packaging is also becoming a critical issue. In fact, almost 70 percent of consumers rate sustainable packaging as a top concern to them.

What these findings suggest is that while consumers evaluate a product first for its ability to meet their specific needs (e.g., taste, nutrition, etc.), and then by how it is packaged (e.g. sustainably packaged, conveniently sized, long shelf-life) – sustainability related factors and issues are becoming a significant part of their purchasing considerations. For companies, these findings suggest sustainable packaging efforts shouldn’t happen in a vacuum – they need to be backed by a satisfactory product that meets consumer expectations.

Does sustainability foster brand loyalty?

One of the benefits associated with a company’s sustainability efforts comes in the form of enhanced brand loyalty. The 2015 Nielsen Global Sustainability Report showed that when it comes to sales intent, corporate commitment to the environment has the power to sway product purchase for 45 percent of consumers. A company’s commitment to social values and the consumer’s community also have this effect – on 43 percent and 41 percent of consumers respectively.

The negative brand impact that can result from companies failing to live up to their consumers’ views on sustainability may be even more important than projected benefits. One study showed that 62% of consumers would feel negatively toward a company that didn’t use the most environmentally friendly packaging available when it could do so (Scaling disruptive innovation in sustainable packaging. Forum for the Future (2014)

In a growing social networking world, companies that don’t focus, or aren’t seen to focus, on sustainability can also be called out very publicly. The website As You Sow, for example, encourages shareholders to ‘dislike’ companies that don’t have a good sustainability program.  This negative publicity can have a ripple effect on consumers who may choose to focus their funds on products from other companies. Such negative publicity can sometimes lead to unintended consequences; consumers may shift their funding to products from a less sustainable company if that company does not have a negative image.

When it comes to making purchasing decisions based on sustainability – does age matter?

Consumer behavior related to sustainability is one area where age definitely has an impact. Over half of consumers who are responsive to the sustainability actions of companies are from the millennial generation (ages 21 to 34). Millennials also represent 51 percent of those who will pay extra for sustainable products and 51 percent of those who check the packaging for sustainable labeling (Doing Well By Doing Good (Neilsen, 2014).

Over time, the influence of millennial consumers will only expand. These consumers are tech-savvy, social networkers who are both environmentally conscious and interested in a company’s sustainability actions, including packaging choices.

Does sustainable packaging translate into increased sales?

While positive consumer attitudes related to sustainability bode well for companies focused on sustainable packaging, many companies want to know whether having sustainable packaging actually impacts sales. The answer: Yes it does.

The 2014 year-over-year analysis conducted by Nielsen showed an average annual increase of 2 percent for products with sustainability claims on packaging and 5 percent for products that promoted sustainability actions through marketing programs. Brands without such activities showed an increase of only 1 percent. Over time, this gap may become larger as consumer awareness around the tangible impacts associated with resource scarcity and climate change are felt.

The existing disconnect between consumer intent and follow-through among millennials may also present a significant opportunity to increase the sales impact of sustainable packaging. Among millennials, while 51 percent said they check product packaging for sustainability claims before making a purchase, only 31 percent of total sales measured were from brands that provide those claims.

This gap between interest and action is one that food and beverage companies can focus on bridging. In a 2014 press release, Grace Farraj, SVP of public development and sustainability at Nielsen explained: “Brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share but build loyalty among the power-spending millennials of tomorrow, too.”

What can food and beverage companies learn from consumers when it comes to sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is becoming a major issue for food and beverage companies – partly driven by consumer demand for more sustainable products and their increasing awareness of product waste and other sustainability factors (e.g. climate change targets, resource management plans) in an era of convenience packaging. Different companies are taking a wide variety of actions in order to respond to consumer perspectives on sustainability, including:

Building awareness: Consumers today care more about sustainable packaging than they ever have, although they don’t necessarily understand all the factors that go into making a product sustainable. This lack of knowledge and the related gap between consumer intentions and actions has provided companies with an opportunity to educate consumers on the attributes that make a sustainable package, while also increasing awareness of their own products and packaging.

Becoming more visible: When it comes to sustainable packaging, many companies have found communications to be critically important in order to reap the benefits associated with their activities. Promoting sustainable packaging initiatives to consumers can be as important as marketing other product attributes. That’s because when everything else is equal, consumers are likely to pick the sustainably packaged option.

Companies can also get into trouble if consumers perceive they are ignoring sustainability. If companies are perceived to not be doing good, they could find themselves on consumer ‘Do not buy’ lists. By doing good, and showing they are doing good, companies and brand owners receive an implicit license to sell.

Focusing communications on consumers: Consumers may have good intentions when it comes to sustainability, but they can unintentionally make the wrong choices when it comes to their actions if they are not knowledgeable of different product and packaging options or mindful when it comes to making purchases.  This is where clear and transparent communications can make a difference. By helping inform consumers at the point of purchase, brand owners can help make it easy for consumers to do the right thing. On pack labeling can be particularly effective, for example in identifying package recyclability and use of sustainably sourced feedstocks.

Taking a leadership role: Consumers believe that both government and companies have a huge role to play in making the environment stable and sustainable. Some brand owners realize this and are moving to lead by example by doing more than implementing initiatives; they are evolving initiatives over time to have a greater positive social and environmental impact. These positive steps are not only good for the brand image and consumer awareness they also bode well for the environment.

Image credit: Pixabay

Elisabeth Comere is the Director of Environment & Government Affairs at Tetra Pak. Working out of the United States since 2010, Elisabeth is responsible for advancing Tetra Pak's commitment to sustainability in both the U.S. and Canada and oversees numerous industry and customer packaging sustainability initiatives.

Elisabeth joined Tetra Pak in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe, where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak's environmental and carton recycling strategies. Prior to joining Tetra Pak, Elisabeth served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the Environment Department of the Food & Drink industry group in Europe.

Elisabeth was educated in France, the United Kingdom and Belgium. She graduated as a lawyer from Law School of Bordeaux University (France) and earned an Environmental Sciences Master from Brussels University (Belgium).

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