Having the competitive edge in food packaging

bigstock-Young-Housewife-With-Pretty-At-233980663Food brand packaging has ultimately always been about the shelf – getting it to shelf in good condition, and then using the pack appearance on the shelf to entice purchase.  Facilitating product use emerges as a factor in certain instances, the Glad Wrap cutting bar being a memorable one, but in most categories the basic packaging format is fairly standardized across all players in that space.

Recently, however, packaging has taken on an added dimension. Food brands are under increasing pressure to take responsibility for the “sustainability” of their product packaging.  Obviously, making anything more than cosmetic changes to a product’s packaging has potentially significant cost, functional and operational issues.  For many brands, however, the greatest challenge in delivering “sustainability” is to understand what it means to consumers.

Start talking to food brands about packaging sustainability and most will immediately cite the Australian Packaging Covenant.  More than 80% of all packaged retail brands sold within Australia have signed up to this comprehensive, though not obligatory, agreement.

It’s important to note, however, that the Covenant is focused on waste. From minimizing packaging waste through the various stages of reuse, recycling, recovery, and the ultimate disposable of what can’t otherwise be utilised, the Covenant has a clear statement of intent.

These principles make sense to everyone, and the continual media publication of graphic waste related images, whether its people sifting for food through mountains of garbage or sea creatures choking on plastic bags, keep waste in the public eye.  The emergence of pop culture references, e.g. “fatburgs” and the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” confirms that most people understand that waste is a major environmental issue, and that packaging, particularly plastic, is central to this serious issue.

Unfortunately for food brands, however, the implicit assumption that sustainability is about all waste minimization is not nearly enough for our “beloved” Millennials (18-34 year olds).

Mention Millennials to most marketers (and their Baby Boomer parents) and phrases like “self obsessed”, “indulgent” and “unpredictable” soon come up.  A lot of marketers will also add that Millennials are a key target market but are one that doesn’t necessarily respond to traditional marketing media and messages.

Stylish girl with a red basket takes canned vegetables from the supermarket shelf. Woman buys canned vegetables in the store. Purchase of products in a supermarket.

It comes down to mindsets

In FMCG, we traditionally speak of “consumers”.  As a food brand, we “make” something, and our customers “consume” it.  It’s basically a funnel.  And the Waste Covenant encourages us to take what comes out the bottom of the funnel and pour it back in at the top; we call that recycling.  Baby Boomers get it.  Their whole lives have been about saving up money to buy and consume things.

Millennials have a different mindset.  They do like nice things, but they are generally less concerned about those nice things being a status symbol, and more focused on the extent to which things enrich their life experience.  A short study of the “avocado toast home-ownership meme” will explain all you need to know about why Millennials and Baby Boomers just don’t “get” each other.

Let’s start by reconfirming that Millennials are into recycling: 73% try to buy products in packaging that is recyclable, 59% look for beverages in packaging that is made with renewable materials.  But just recycling waste is not enough for Millennials.

For the typical Millennial, their sought after personal “enrichment” is a two-way exchange.  They want to keep on consuming things like avocado toast, but they also want to produce good things.

Vegetarians are a good example.  Millennials are the key driver of the extraordinary rise in vegetarianism; with Australia’s packaged vegan food market the third-fastest growing vegan market in the world (2017 Mintel data).  Along with health reasons, improving animal welfare is a common reason given for not eating meat.  The Millennial logic here is fairly simple.  The choices that I make when purchasing and consuming food are not just about minimizing my waste output, they can also make a positive contribution to the great circle of life.

Australian companies are already working in sustainable packaging.  Plantic Technologies, which makes packaging entirely from a combination of recycled and renewable material, hit the headlines recently when Coles partnered with it to make their meat trays.  Flinders University is hoping to soon commercialise its oil spill cleanup ‘sponge’ that is made from petroleum waste products.

However, perhaps the example of an innovation that best meets the Millennial mindset is that of Victorian manufacturer, Close the Loop.  Their unique technology is making superior road surfacing materials using an additive recycled from plastic bags, printer cartridges and glass bottles.  Close the Loop ticks every box in the Millennial mindset. It’s reducing harmful waste, its repurposing the waste into something new, and the repurposed output is a product that has greater durability and hence reduces the need for road resurfacing.  It’s a win, win, win.

Australian food brands may well ask “So what?”  They are probably signed up to the Packaging Covenant, and they are also likely to be actively working on using recycled or recyclable packaging.  The “so what” is that it doesn’t have to end there.

The first point is that food brands need to start thinking about packaging sustainability right from the first conceptualization of the product.  Many food brands are so focused on the development of the food that packaging design, including its ease of use and marketing potential, are almost afterthoughts.  Even though both ease of use and pack marketing are proven category-winning tactics.  Not surprisingly then, the sustainability of the packaging just does not get the attention it deserves.

The sad irony is that designing sustainability into the packaging from the very earliest product concept planning will almost always ultimately lead to better outcomes than any last minute “Band-Aid” efforts.

Utilising waste reduction packaging will soon become a fundamental consumer expectation and will then cease to be a competitive advantage.  However, the benefits of implementing sustainable packaging approaches that actually improve the world have huge untapped potential.

Dr Angeline Achariya, CEO – Monash Food Innovation Centre.

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