Sustainability and packaging have made their way into the mainstream media spotlight, thanks in large part to the increase in debates over single-use plastics and recyclability. Because of this added attention, it is more important than ever for plastic manufacturers to understand the perspectives of two target audiences: consumers and brand owners. The Flexible Packaging Association (FPA, Annapolis, MD surveyed these audiences last year to explore opportunities to address gaps in sustainability conversations and promote the benefits of flexible packaging. The study, Perspectives on the Meaning of Sustainability in Flexible Packaging, confirmed two overarching trends in the flexible packaging industry: consumers can identify sustainability terms they are more often exposed to, such as recycling; and various players in the plastics industry can mitigate the negative perceptions of flexible plastic materials by highlighting lesser-known sustainability attributes.
Understand consumer perceptions
It is no secret that consumers care about sustainability and are becoming more vocal about packaging. In fact, the FPA study revealed 86% of consumers care about sustainability in general and 79% prefer products in sustainable packaging. However, many consumers do not realize that a packaging format can be sustainable without being recyclable, an insider fact that manufacturers, packaging experts, and brand owners fully understand. In other words, consumers may misjudge a packaging format’s true impact on the environment if they cannot put it in the recycling bin.
Although consumers are most likely to associate sustainability with familiar terms like “renewable” (59%) and “recyclable" (56%), some recognize the importance of business-to-business (B2B) terms like “transportation efficiency” (24%) and “circular economy” (13%) when presented with them.
This demonstrates that consumers are already talking about sustainability, but there is still an opportunity to inject specific sustainable manufacturing processes and supply chain concepts into the conversation.
Brand owners can amplify communications about specific life cycle impacts in dealing directly with customers. In any role along the supply chain, you must be transparent and actively communicate the environmental impacts so all aspects of sustainability can be passed along to potential end users evaluating a purchase decision. Brand owners should be able to discuss how a product’s manufacturing process is sustainable and consider incorporating that information within brand promotions.
For instance, 81% of consumers think it is at least somewhat important that product packaging has been transported efficiently. Therefore, ensuring operations like transportation efficiency are measurable and can be shared with brand owners is key. Perhaps these insights will translate to on-package messaging or sustainability reports to reveal the more B2B aspects of environmental impact and introduce into consumer conversations.
Consider buying power
Plastics manufacturers can also rest assured that consumers who represent the next wave of buying power in the U.S. are receptive to flexible packaging formats. Members of younger generations are more likely than their older counterparts to believe flexible packaging is sustainable and less likely than older generations to think glass or corrugated is sustainable. This presents a unique opportunity for the flexible packaging industry to create end products that cater to this demographic and prioritize sustainability in operations.
Millennial consumers ages 18-34 are also more likely than older consumers to say they support/buy from businesses with sustainability initiatives (71% of consumers 65+; 83% of Millennials ages 18-34). We can help brand owners position their sustainability efforts and achieve a positive return on investment by prioritizing and communicating sustainability efforts in the manufacturing process. In the design process, consider how the format can be positioned to the sustainability-conscious consumer: Do the robust film layers enable reusability, or does the high product-to-package ratio result in transportation efficiency?
Overall, the flexible packaging industry has a unique opportunity to turn the sustainability conversation in our favor. Let us encourage consumers to see beyond recycling by putting other sustainability attributes in front of them. Amplifying communications to consumers starts early in the supply chain and can be strengthened by every player along the way.
About the author
Alison Keane, Esq., IOM, CAE, has served as President and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association since October, 2016, and provides strategic leadership and advocacy to advance and grow the flexible packaging industry. Keane previously served as the Vice President for Government Affairs and Industry Programs with the American Coatings Association. An environmental attorney, with 25 years of experience in the association and government sectors, Keane has also served at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland State Senate.
Click on image below to view a downloadable infographic of highlights from the study.