Focus on: Sustainable packaging

12 June 2023, 07:27 AM
  • With more pressure on producers than ever before, we explore what consumers want to see from the labelling and packaging industry in 2023
Focus on: Sustainable packaging

Labelling and packaging – it’s the first thing a shopper sees and can often be the deciding factor in whether they purchase the product or leave it on the shelf.

But the sector is facing a plethora of new challenges, bringing sustainability, provenance and transparency to the forefront of packaging and labelling considerations.

We find out what consumers are looking for in 2023 and how can producers and independent retailers can cater to demand in a challenging environment.

The shift towards environmentally-friendly labelling
In 2023, consumers are becoming more demanding about knowing where their food comes from and the impact of its production.

According to Catherine Chong, ESG expert and engagement lead at CLEAR, there is an apparent lack of system thinking on food labelling regulation. “At the moment, the socioecological data infrastructure in agrifood is yet ready to support a fully transparent impact labelling system. We need policy change to drive the necessary innovation and commitment.

“But it is never too early to take consumers with us, along the journey, whether it is enacting laws to create a conducive environment for sustainability-focused labelling or envisioning the kind of SFL they want to see,” she tells Speciality Food.

In terms of what consumers want to see food and drink producers declaring on their labels, it appears that they are increasingly interested in environmental impact. Indeed, a new UK-wide survey commissioned by the Vegetarian Society has found that over half of all young adults agreed they would choose to eat more sustainably if carbon footprint labelling was included on food packaging.

With the government committed to reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions by almost 80% by 2035, these findings suggest that carbon footprint labelling could play a key role in reducing the consumption of high-carbon foods such as beef and lamb.

It’s not just the younger generations who would be willing to choose sustainable eating habits. Over one in three adults (37%) aged 55 and over agreed that they would choose to eat more sustainably if given the information, according to the same survey.

Richard McIlwain, chief executive of the Vegetarian Society, explains, “Carbon footprint labelling could be a game-changer in the fight against climate change and it is heartening to see that so many young people are eager to make sustainable choices. We are therefore calling on the government and food manufacturers to act urgently in rolling out clear carbon labelling on food packaging.”

Indeed, as Catherine argues, “The journey to understand the linkages of food production and consumption with human and planetary health is incomplete without the information on how our food is farmed, processed, and manufactured.

“For instance, the socioecological impacts of food consumption in the global north have transgressed planetary boundaries such as climate change, fossil resource use, freshwater ecotoxicity, and freshwater eutrophication, many times beyond the limit of the planet.”

A question of sustainability
Like labels, consumer demand for sustainability is driving the packaging industry away from plastic.

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, explains, “Plastic is an indestructible material that is the product of amazing engineering. However, it is a material that is overengineered and overused in the modern world. We don’t need to be wrapping our food in a material which will not decompose for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

“These facts are becoming increasingly at the forefront of the public consciousness and therefore the sector will be forced to change. We now see consumers looking to brands to take the lead on creating sustainable change and global regulators are beginning to take serious legal action against greenwashing.”

But shifting away from plastic isn’t a simple swap. According to John Kirkby, creative director at Sheffield Hallam University’s commercial design consultancy, Design Futures, “Companies seeking alternatives to plastic packaging need to ensure the overall life cycle of the pack is considered to avoid creating harm to the environment whilst trying to save it.

“This includes understanding what happens to materials in the waste stream and how some seemingly environmentally responsible materials can cause more problems than the less green alternatives.

“Product development can play a significant role in packaging reduction. The right sizing, hydration and dilution, as well as efficient supply chain systems, can all play a part in reducing packaging materials and carbon footprint.”

The cost-of-living effect
Despite consumer demand, the packaging industry was severely affected by the war in Ukraine and the subsequent cost-of-living crisis, putting sustainability concerns at risk. Indeed, as John explains, “The current economic situation has put an unbelievable strain on the finances of food and drink producers. With a steep rise in all costs, there is currently no spare money for non-essential expenditure.”

With prices rising across the board for production, John warns there is a danger that financial pressures could force a move away from sustainable packaging solutions which are often more expensive than less responsible alternatives. Coupled with the Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT) which came into force last April, charging producers who have manufactured or imported plastic packaging components which contain less than 30% recycled plastic, there are tough decisions to be made in 2023.

“Of course, a brand must look at its margin and the future of the business, but I urge business owners to look at the demand by consumers for change, the mounting evidence of plastic’s toxic impact and the impending legislation that is bound to affect a business in the sector, whether they like it or not,” argues Sian.

Despite mounting costs, however, according to John, “Customer awareness regarding the impact of packaging waste is so acute that a decision to move away from sustainable packaging solutions might affect sales more than it might save in reduced expenditure. Well-considered structural packaging design can create alternative packaging solutions that are sustainable but also more cost-effective rather than just swapping one material for another.”

The future of packaging
Producers have a lot to consider when it comes to packaging choices, but what does the future look like?

When asked this question, Patrick Ford, director at Bartec Paper & Packaging Ltd., sees the future of packaging as “A definite shift away from single-use materials. We are committed to future-proofing our offerings by sourcing and supplying new and innovative materials that can be either reused or recycled.”

Indeed, according to John, “Future packaging needs to be fully sustainable. Closed-loop packaging systems, reduction of materials and efficient recycling systems need to be implemented to reduce the negative impact packaging waste has on the planet. A change in the way we use packaging is intrinsically linked to the way we produce and retail food and drink.”

In order to do this, Sian suggests a shift towards permanent packaging as a solution. “This is not a new model, but with smart tech and adoption at a mass level, it will give the shopper the convenience that will always be key and reward them for micro shifts in behaviour.

“Any solution now needs to be approached as a significant step forward; no more talk of trials and pilot schemes.  We’ve been doing that for years with zero impact.  Now we need collective commitment from the big brands (and polluters) to change not just the material, but the entire system of how we take, make, and waste.

“Businesses should not fear such legislative shifts. The industry needs clarity and a level playing field for the wholesale change we require to be realised. A legislative framework that fosters creative solutions to the plastic crisis over the carnivorous corporate inertia of the past decades.”

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