It’s Not Easy Being Green: 6 Takeaways on How To Balance Sustainability With Consumer Experience

  • Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword — it’s quickly becoming a mandate for industries that make packaged goods. However, definitions of sustainability (and goals to achieve it) vary widely across companies and industries.
  • A CPG company’s approach to sustainability might not have a significant impact on the environment or society (or align with consumers’ needs and preferences).
  • CPG companies should balance the demands for heightened sustainability measures with innovative thinking and a focus on convenience for consumers.

In an era of COVID and climate change, consumers care about safety, integrity and environmental impact. But at the same time, “more than ever, consumers desire convenience,” says Stuart Leslie, Vice President of Industrial Design at Product Ventures.

“Case after case, product after product, things that deliver on improved convenience, make things faster or allow them to do something more easily, always went out on the shelf. And that hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s increased. But it flies in direct contradiction with sustainability.”

If the CPG companies eliminate the packaging components with convenience-based functionality — resealability and portability — “then the consumer has to come along on that journey,” Stuart adds. “Right now they’re not there.”

What consumers are willing to accept can be at odds with what’s most effective for achieving sustainability goals. For example, companies can damage their brand with ill-conceived sustainability efforts that consumers ultimately reject. This is the dynamic companies in the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industry need to understand as they pursue sustainability initiatives.

We held a roundtable with Product Ventures’ executive leadership to address this friction — and discussed strategies for finding a balance between sustainability and convenience. Additional insight from:

Read on for their insights on planet-friendly packaging as well as “greenwashing,” “lightweighting” and the perpetual problems of overreliance on recycling.

1. Metrics matter: What does sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability isn’t a finite target. It’s a fairly nebulous concept, and sustainability efforts are almost always secondary to market realities.

The first thing CPG companies should ask themselves is: How do you measure sustainability?

Is it the amount of material used in packaging? Is it the amount of greenhouse gases you produce?

One of the challenges in the CPG space, says Eric, is that there’s not a universal way to quantify sustainability across companies or industries. Most organizations develop goals (and ways of measuring them) internally — if they even have goals at all. Sometimes those goals are abstract or insignificant, which can mean mixed messages for consumers.

For example, recyclable plastic packaging doesn’t necessarily reduce a company’s plastic footprint: In the U.S., less than 6% of plastic produced ends up being recycled.

Recycling infrastructure in the U.S. (and around the world) is disparate because each system was developed locally. There’s no universal standard across all of the systems. Without a standard, different companies pursue different sustainability initiatives with little consistency across the industry or consumer experience.

“How can consumers not be confused?” Eric asks.

2. Packaging with purpose: Sippy cups over straws

Companies have to define the metrics for sustainability success as well. A company might measure success simply by consumers being cognizant of their efforts. Most consumers feel great about choosing goods packaged in 100% recycled plastic or — better yet — ocean waste plastic. But other initiatives are less appreciated.

Restaurants getting rid of plastic straws is “very high visibility, but not a great consumer experience,” says Stuart. “And I’m sure most consumers are getting a little pissed off.” Plus, whether paper straws are “actually making a difference is a whole other story.”

“Sometimes it’s a material replacement in a way that’s pseudo-greenwashing,” Peter chimes in. “You’ve also compromised a consumer experience — paper straws are kind of flimsy and don’t have the same characteristics as plastic.”

He notes that some coffee chains found a smart way around this. Drinks have a “sippy cup” style top that negates the need for a straw. The overcap is necessary to seal off a large, deep-draw cup, but its double functionality is an elegant solution.

“There’s always this opportunity for innovation to step in and just say, don’t just do a material shift from plastic to something else, maybe rethink the delivery system for the sake of sustainability,” he adds.

3. Lightweighting and right-weighting

So is sustainability in product and package design about getting around the issue?

Not necessarily, says Peter. Over the recent decade or so, we’ve been “renovating” existing packaging formats. He thinks there is “definitely more scrutiny” about the mass of materials used in packaging — which some call “light-weighting,” but he thinks of it more as “right-weighting — getting to something that structurally performs [but] still doesn’t compromise that consumer experience.”

“Right-weighting” is apt: This trend is mostly about removing unnecessary materials that are present only because they are more convenient and financially advantageous for manufacturers, who can charge for these extraneous materials.

Now, we have digital tools like finite element analysis, which allows packaging engineers to optimize the precise amount of material necessary to achieve structural performance.

But this, too, can go too far if it means angry (or simply annoyed) consumers. For example, the bottled water industry went overboard in an effort to purge unnecessary plastic.

Consumers complained about grabbing bottles that spill from the sheer force of holding them in one’s hand, “or the sound of the crinkling plastic, which really overemphasizes the material of plastic to them,” Peter says.

A leading bottled water company spearheaded the “lightweighting” movement, but the impetus for it was to reduce costs in the Asian market. Research showed consumers in China dismissed the brand because its water was “cheap.”

“This company prides itself on the purity of its water everywhere around the world,” Stuart says. “But the consumer perception was that it was cheap water — the other waters were all better waters, higher quality waters. Culturally in China, nobody wants to be seen with cheap water. It’s very status driven.”

To rehabilitate its image, the company created a bottle with heavier plastic content and was able to sell it for twice as much in Asian markets. Consumers perceived the product inside to be of a higher quality because it was heavier.

“It was rigid by a combination of design elements and extra plastic,” says Stuart.

4. Playing for keeps: A ‘durable’ and innovative approach to package design

Perhaps the most exciting development in the CPG space is the shift from plastic to reusable containers: The “keepsake refill.”

The evolution of consumer purchasing behaviors — e-commerce in particular — can unlock the potential for the keepsake refill, Peter points out.

In brick-and-mortar stores, consumable items don’t typically share shelf space with durable goods. When they do, durables move much more slowly. Think of mops with disposable cleaning pads: Consumers buy the mop handle once or twice, but they purchase refill pads regularly.

Most grocery stores are designed for high turnover and won’t provide shelf space for an item to gather dust. If the average consumer buys a durable mop component once every five years, that might translate to three sales a week for the store, “which is sort of the minimum for consumables,” Peter notes. Brick-and-mortar resistance to merchandising disposables and durables together “was holding us back for the longest time.”

But “e-commerce doesn’t care about that,” he adds. There is no shelf space to manage online. Durable goods can be sold alongside disposables more easily and the keepsake model can thrive.

5. Paper tigers: Consumer perception = reality

Sustainability plays like lightweighting and other innovations that reduce unnecessary materials have a downside for CPG companies: “It’s not obviously apparent they’ve done something that’s sustainable,” says Peter.

Brands want to be known as stewards of the earth, “and they want something that’s profound,” he adds. “They want consumers to look at a product and immediately say, Ah, that’s a better environmental option.”

When sustainability first became a hot topic, brands telegraphed their environmental consciousness by packaging everything in brown boxes with cream lettering.

“That matte varnish coat all of a sudden says it’s more sustainable,” Stuart says. “And consumers swear those chip bags that are just printed matte are better for the environment.”

Peter agrees: He attended a conference where an executive from a quick-serve restaurant chain spoke about the shift from bleached white bags to brown craft paper bags. Although the bleached bags ran through machinery much faster and had less environmental impact than the brown bags, “perception becomes reality when it comes to the consumer, as far as the market is concerned,” he says.

Paper can be a paradox in the packaging world. While paper cartons may be perceived as better choices than plastic bottles, liquid can’t be stored in paper without a barrier — which is usually plastic.

“The moment you add a plastic barrier to a paper product, it becomes totally not recyclable by anybody anywhere,” Stuart notes. Plastic bottles typically are recyclable, but consumers like paper — it’s “an emotional thing.”

Even if a company commits itself to innovation within a sustainability framework, consumer desire tends to win out. For example, when a confectionery company learned consumers wanted to store their chocolate product in the freezer, the company knew it needed to develop packaging that resealed and snapped. Although its chocolate was already pretty well wrapped, the “convenience and experience” of frozen chocolate meant “everything got plasticky really fast,” says Stuart.

6. Recycling infrastructure is mission-critical

Consumers may want to store chocolate in the freezer or purchase water in a box, but the ongoing impacts of climate change will likely disrupt preferences. What can CPG companies do to lead the way towards meaningful sustainability?

Stuart says change needs to happen in stages, and the first, most important step is effective recycling.

“That means having an infrastructure in place that can actually recycle plastics,” he says.

“And that’s where the government has to step in,” Eric adds.

He applauds the number of companies aiming for completely recyclable packaging by 2025.

“But the reality is that unless the infrastructure changes, whether packaging is recyclable or not, it’s got a 90% chance of not getting recycled,” he says.

Companies should do what they can to influence elected officials to develop universal recycling infrastructure: “Rather than doing so many things that are consumer-facing, do something that’s really going to make a difference,” says Eric. “Focus on lobbying to get these systems in place.”

That strategy is a win-win for manufacturers as well as consumers, says Randy.

“Because without that infrastructure, it’s dependent on individual companies to bear the burden and absorb the cost of the change.” Anything effective will be more expensive, and companies will pass it on to consumers if it eats into their profits. But in a mandated system, everyone will have to absorb the costs — “so somebody’s not losing out if somebody else is doing the right thing.”

Companies may want to change and consumers may be willing to do their part, but the lack of infrastructure undermines it all. “Somebody has to take the lead before the consumer gets so disenfranchised that they never want to recycle again,” says Eric.

At the moment, inflation and supply chain issues are causing massive stress on the industry — which means sustainability agendas might go on the back burner. While new materials like bioplastics have promise, they’re not viable right now due to limited resources and prohibitive costs.

“Our clients are typically big businesses and big scale,” Peter says. “Those folks can make the most profound impact on the environment, but it’s even more challenging for them because the cost of goods is critical to their high-volume sales.”

Product Ventures works with the best-known brands to provide a holistic approach to product and package design. What can we do for your company? Contact us today to discuss your next challenge.