Sustainability transforming the competitive landscape

Packaging expert Paul Jenkins of ThePackHub tells why sustainability has fast become THE competitive advantage and one of the most complex hydras of our time.

From the conveyor belt of huge wind turbines and sleek electric vehicles to the growing popularity of business practices focused on the environment and net zero, it’s clear that the planet is in the midst of a sustainability-driven transition.

Today, sustainability is beginning to transform the competitive landscape, leading brands to change how they think about their business models, products and packaging, and technologies to shift toward a more sustainable mindset.

Governments and investors keep an eye on how businesses navigate this uncharted but vibrant world of green innovation. While companies understand the importance of sustainability, the biggest challenge relates to its implementation. 

ThePackHub‘s Innovation Zone has tracked the latest packaging innovations over the last six years. The platform now has more than 7,200 initiatives listed, and new ones are being added at a rate of 25 new weekly entries.

“The packaging sector is well and truly out of the blocks and is competing for the fruits of the green economy,” said packaging expert Jenkins.

“The prizes for the winners will be huge. That’s why, over the last 12 months, 82% of the initiatives we list can be linked specifically to sustainability.

“Commercial businesses need to develop a competitive advantage. They need to do something better than their competitors. This commercial aspect is a key driver of packaging innovation and why businesses want to change their actions.”

Jenkins has attended every Easfairs packaging exhibition for the past 11 years. One of the stand-out evolutions, which has only quickened in pace and grown in scale in recent years, has been consumers buying based on their values and choosing brands that do right by people and the planet.

The demand for sustainability is particularly obvious at exhibitions such as London Packaging Week, where people want the highest quality without compromise – pushing big brands to find inventive, eco-friendly solutions.

“The rules of engagement have changed,” Jenkins commented. “And I think we saw more and more packaging manufacturers offering sustainable initiatives and solutions at the Birmingham event. 

“Every exhibitor at the event five years ago has had to change. They’ve had to change their products, packaging portfolio, and production to consider ways of delivering their products more sustainably.

“I think that’s the biggest change. Everyone has had to start considering sustainability, which is far more front and centre. That will then play into the offerings of every exhibitor that we’ll see in London. What people will be offering will, quite rightly, be in stark contrast to where they were three or four years ago. And that’s because of the challenges around sustainability, with its recycled content, improved recyclability of different materials, reduced materials, reusable packaging, and all those factors will be integrated into the solutions available.

“Every single exhibitor will be promoting and demonstrating that they’re sustainable. Whereas five or six years ago, people would go with the occasional poster about being environmentally friendly. To say it wasn’t quite the primary topic it is now would be a colossal understatement.”

Currently, supermarkets and manufacturers are rapidly reappraising the packaging of every product in light of government collection and packaging reforms designed to cut waste.

There are the early adopters and the people who are challenged by it. Then there is the increasing noise from consumers, keen on more support and building their understanding of what’s happening and why.

“There are two parts,” Jenkins added. “There is a desire for businesses to do the right thing and to show their corporate responsibility by introducing more environmentally friendly packaging – again for commercial advantage.

“But then there are the sustainable initiatives which are forced upon them by changes in regulations, laws and pacts.”

Some packaging changes are subtle. You may have recently tried, unsuccessfully, to wrestle the top off a fizzy drink only to be foiled by the bottle’s new “tethered” design.

At Christmas, Quality Street came in recyclable paper wrappers rather than foil and plastic for the first time, and more recently, Wrigley announced plans to move from plastic to paper-based packaging for its Mars, Snickers, and Milky Way brands following three years and AUS $2.5 million worth of intense research and development.

“We’ve had many anti-plastic and plastic reduction changes over the last few years,” he said.

“Not everyone has been selling the right thing for the environment at the time, but I think we had a bit of a kneejerk reaction years ago where businesses were rushing to get rid of as much plastic as possible.

“But we’re not seeing brands increasingly reneging on their commitments to go plastic-free within a short time. They tend to return on their word because it’s hard, and plastic is a really good material.

“Increasing the sustainability of a given portfolio is not without its challenges. Without doubt, a daunting journey lies ahead for brands wanting to make the switch.”

First, it was the yoghurt pot lids, coloured milk bottle tops and best-before labels, removed in the name of the war on plastic and food waste. But in a “supermarket first”, Sainsbury’s sucked the air out of packs of mince. And for some shoppers, their vacuum-packed mince was a bridge too far and even made some people squeamish.

“You’ve also got a situation where consumers are inconsistent,” said Jenkins. “We have surveys saying shoppers will pay more for sustainable packaging, but the reality is quite different. A high-profile example is Sainsbury’s minced meat pack.

“They reduced the amount of plastic in the packaging based on the vacuum construction because consumers are telling them they want less plastic and for retailers to do more for the environment. So they’ve done that and communicated clearly on the pack that the amount of plastic has been halved, and the consequence is that the pack doesn’t look quite as nice, and the meat is all condensed, and the juices are concentrated – and it looks pretty terrible.

“So, it doesn’t necessarily land well, even though it has the best intentions. It’s very difficult, and it is a constant headache. The other thing to consider is there isn’t a rule book that says this is the best packaging for this product. Even a lifecycle analysis can be calculated differently depending on where the products are sourced, the supply chain journey, etc.

“I think it’s about sticking to your principles and sticking to some logic and some data to support those decisions.

“You’ve got the actual functional change, the implementation and then the rationale and communication about why you are making that change. And sometimes, brands need to be brave and make changes based on what’s right for their criteria, their objective and not what they think consumers will react well to. So that it might mean similarly increasing the amount of plastic because that has an overall moving out of a heavy glass bottle into a plastic recyclability bottle might be the best thing for the environment.”

The challenge now, according to Jenkins, is for the next generation of designers to re-envision packaging design as a less environmentally destructive practice than it presently is and examines an array of techniques and methodologies for creating innovative and sustainable packaging designs, from first concept to final production. 

Food & Consumer Pack will again be a melting pot of innovation projects, packaging technologists and designers working for FMCG brands and retailers, inspiring them with the latest products and knowledge, and connecting them with the packaging suppliers who will help them create the future of their packs.

The two-day exhibition at ExCel London in September will paint a vision of the market’s future – and how to navigate it – with top designers, brands, and innovators discussing the key trends and challenges in the market.

Jenkins added: “You could argue at some point all brands will be challenged with, ‘Why have you got that sleeve on there when it’s cosmetic only? Do you know how many trees you have cut down to make your packs look better on the shelf?

“You’ve got things like toothpaste tubes with a cardboard box around them. The brand owners will say it’s for the barcode and extra packing information and maybe stick a leaflet in there, but other brands are managing to supply just the tube so that it can be done.

“It merchandises better in a box. And it’s better for distribution. But maybe those reasons aren’t good enough anymore, and maybe in 20 years, we’ll be looking at nostalgic packs in 2023 with a cardboard sleeve on them, and we’ll laugh.”

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