On a recent shopping trip to Vitamin Cottage natural foods store in Lafayette, Colo., Kathleen Kenney was searching the dairy cases for soymilk when a brightly colored package caught her eye. Thinking that her 6-year-old granddaughter Chloe would love the yellow and blue creepy crawlies on the hot-pink packages of Lifeway Probugs Organic Whole Milk Kefir, Kenney reached for a 4-pack. But once the cute little containers were actually in her hands, she realized that not only did each individual-serving plastic pouch have a big plastic flip top, but the pouches were packaged in a cardboard box with a carrying handle. What looked to be a healthy surprise for Chloe's lunchbox became a moral dilemma for Kenney. Were the Probugs packages kid-friendly? Sure. Convenient? You bet. Sustainable? Maybe not so much, Kenney concluded.
In natural and conventional stores around the country, shoppers are asking these same questions. Some, like Kenney, are concerned with overpackaging and overflowing landfills. Some worry about the safety and recyclability of plastic containers. Some debate the environmental impact of manufacturing any type of packaging. And the number of these packaging ponderers is growing. Ecologically friendly packaging influences the buying decisions of 29 percent of all U.S. shoppers, according to a Times & Trends survey released in January by Chicago market research firm Information Resources Inc. "All of this interest in packaging that's better for the environment has been a real eye-opener," says Sheila McCusker, Times & Trends editor. "There really is a consumer market for this."
Conventional manufacturers are joining pioneering naturals companies such as Stonyfield Farm and Eden Foods in touting sustainable packaging. Crest is producing toothpaste tubes that don't need boxes. Coca-Cola plans to cut the plastic content in its Dasani water bottles by 7 percent over the next five years. And Estee Lauder's cosmetic tubes and caps are now made from 80 percent recycled aluminum.
But these are manufacturers' choices. When the people who make the product control the packaging decisions, retailers may feel like there's nothing they can do. "We come across things that are boxed and wrapped, then wrapped again, and we sort of feel helpless," says Mike Anzalone, retail manager at Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville, Ark. "We sort of feel like it's not our battle at this point."
But retailers have more power than they think, experts say. Here are some suggestions to help your store influence and promote sustainable packaging.
Wal-Mart knows best
Surprisingly, Wal-Mart is one of the leading retailers in pushing for sustainable packaging, and is setting an example other stores can follow.
The retailing behemoth is determined to cut its packaging by 5 percent in the next five years, and promises to become packaging neutral by 2025. It began the process last year with its Sustainable Packaging Scorecard, which rates suppliers' packaging by nine criteria, including the amount of greenhouse gases and renewable energy used during manufacture, use of environmentally friendly materials, product-to-package ratio, transportation impacts, recycled content and sustainability innovations. This February, Wal-Mart buyers began factoring scorecard results into their purchasing decisions.
"It's up to the discretion of the buyers as to how much impact the scorecards have on their buying decisions—it could be a factor in a tie-breaker situation between suppliers. I've also heard that buyers' evaluation and compensation is tied in part to how they do with the scorecards," says Maria Harris, a project analyst with Environmental Defense, which worked with Wal-Mart on the scorecard.
Whether the scorecard will truly prod manufacturers to be more eco-conscious remains to be seen, Harris says. But she points out that last year Wal-Mart worked with all its laundry-detergent suppliers to switch to concentrated detergent, which requires 30 percent less packaging. "The suppliers, which are all the major detergent companies, made the change throughout their whole lines, and are rolling out the smaller packages now," Harris says.
Just because your store doesn't have the buying clout of Wal-Mart doesn't mean you can't influence packaging decisions with your own scorecard, especially if you have a private-label line. According to Packaging World magazine, simply by reducing the packaging on 300 SKUs of its private-label Kid Connection toy line, Wal-Mart reduced corrugated materials by 3,425 tons, used 1,358 fewer gallons of oil and eliminated 727 shipping containers.
Know your sustainable shopper
IRI's Times & Trends survey reveals a surprising finding: Younger shoppers might care a lot about sustainable packaging, but they don't necessarily put their money where their morals are. The shoppers most likely to choose products—and stores—based on sustainable packaging are age 55 or older.
"Presumably, these consumers have the budget to afford sustainable products—many of which are priced at a premium—and the time to locate them, as not all are readily accessible," McCusker says.
These shoppers tend to buy certain types of products more than others, so McCusker recommends looking for sustainable packaging in the following categories (in order of amounts purchased by consumers 55 and older):
- Wine and spirits
- Weight-control liquids and powders
- Skin care products
- Cat food
- Air fresheners
- Hot cereal
- Shortening and oil
- Refrigerated juices and drinks
- Shelf-stable bottled juices
- Frozen seafood
- Paper towels
- Hair coloring
The IRI report found that 50 percent of shoppers surveyed aren't sure which products and packaging are recyclable. Labels often don't spell out other sustainability features of the packaging, either. Retailers can help educate customers about this, along with some of the more subtle ethical dilemmas surrounding sustainable packaging.
"It's very difficult to come up with that definitive packaging method and say, 'Yes, this is the best thing,' " says Heather Isley, executive vice president of Vitamin Cottage. For instance, is convenience worth a little extra packaging? Or what about the glass versus plastic debate? "There are huge issues of plastic leaching into foods, but glass is heavy to transport, which uses more gas," Isley says. Other hot-button topics retailers can address via newsletter articles or in-store signs are aseptic packaging (often not recyclable, but doesn't require energy to keep the product cool during delivery or in the store) and how various types of plastics stack up in terms of sustainability and safety. For instance, Isley points out, not only water bottles are made from polycarbonate plastic, which contains the harmful chemical bisphenol A. Meats and cheeses can be wrapped in the plastic as well.
Sharing packaging information with your customers not only helps them make sustainability choices, it also promotes your store and staff as a trusted, reliable source. Another plus: Those educated customers are better equipped to lobby companies to change their packaging practices.
Do what you can
While your store may not have the purchasing power to single-handedly change manufacturers' packaging decisions, there are some things you can do to nudge them toward more sustainable packaging.
- Give better shelf placement and more promotional assistance to companies that use sustainable packaging. "It's basically like putting a tax on their competitors," says Nancy Hirshberg, vice president of natural resources for Stonyfield Farm.
- Offer alternative packaging within product categories—juice bottled in glass or plastic, flour in cellulose or plastic bags—so customers can make their own choices, Isley says.
- Educate customers on the cost savings of choosing products with less packaging. According to Kenneth Berger, an assistant professor at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Services, $1 out of every $11 a shopper spends in a store goes toward packaging.
- Place water filters prominently next to bottled water to increase interest in nonpackaged water, Isley says.
- Give your customers who don't have curbside recyclables pickup an incentive to buy sustainable packaging by providing recycling bins at your store. "If it meant that I could bring my cans and bottles to a store rather than take them to the dump, I'd shop at that store," says Linda Upton, vice president of marketing and education for Borlind of Germany.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 58