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Selling shoppers on sustainable packaging

Selling shoppers on sustainable packaging

What's driving the sustainable packaging trend and how can you sell your customers on its benefits? Here's a look at some of the top issues and trends in sustainable packaging.

Once upon a time, a package had a simple job to do: protect the product inside. But then manufacturers realized packages were effective marketing vehicles and designed them with plenty of real estate to crow about a product's benefits. Packages got bigger, shinier and sturdier. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the landfill: Consumers started to care about sustainability.

A recent report from Accenture, a global management consulting company, found that 80 percent of consumers believe climate change will affect their lives, and they're looking for products and packaging that offer sustainable solutions. According to the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based business research company, demand for sustainable packaging is projected to increase 3.9 percent annually, creating a $41.7 billion market by 2014.

Consumers expect natural products, in particular, to come in sustainable packages. “Looking at the environmental benefits of your packaging is really necessary to maintain the brand attributes of your marketing,” says Adam Gendell, project associate at GreenBlue, a nonprofit organization that oversees the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

At Natural Products Expo West in March 2011, the Responsible Packaging Coalition—a nonprofit collaboration of organic and natural products stakeholders—reinforced this concept by rewarding eight companies for raising the eco-bar on packaging standards. (Look for new awards at Natural Products Expo East this month.)

Here's a look at some of the top issues and trends in sustainable packaging that you'll likely see at Expo East and beyond.

Mixed motives

Many manufacturers green their packages simply because it's the right thing to do. “A lot of companies take sustainability very sincerely,” Gendell says. Others attempt to play into consumer perceptions of sustainability without making any authentic changes—but that group is shrinking. “We've been seeing a fairly significant reduction in the amount of greenwashing out there,” Gendell says.

That doesn't mean manufacturers can't make green by going green. “If you're a consumer packaged goods company, you are motivated to make money,” says Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency focused on sustainability. “You are looking at greening your products for a couple reasons. One is to save money by using less material and incurring lower fuel costs.” Another is the notion—misguided though it may be—that greening your package will win you more business. “The percentage of the population that buys based on the package is very, very small,” Shelton says.

But the biggest reason companies are turning to eco-packaging? “Because Wal-Mart says so,” says Shelton.

Though maligned in the past for its environmental record, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer, which has more than 3,800 stores in the U.S. and another 4,500 worldwide, has mandated that its suppliers reduce packaging by 5 percent by 2013. That may not sound like much, says Marc Major, cofounder and principal of Boulder, Colo.-based Cleargreen Advisors, but “Wal-Mart has the volume to make very small things add up.”

If you're skeptical of Walmart's commitment to green packaging and natural products, consider this: The chain is the largest retailer of organic milk, and also carries products from organic and natural stalwarts such as Amy's, Avalon Organics, Earth's Best, Muir Glen, Pacific Natural Foods and Spectrum Naturals. As consumers begin to see reformulated packaging from these brands—in mainstream stores, no less—they'll undoubtedly come to expect it from others.

Thinking outside the bottle

Perhaps the most significant trend in sustainable package design is lightweighting—reducing the size and weight of the package to conserve materials as well as transportation fuel costs. Manufacturers also are focusing on new, more eco-friendly packaging materials.

Other sustainable packaging innovations recently introduced by natural products manufacturers include:

  • Plum Organics and Revolution Foods—part of the Emeryville, Calif.-based Nest Collective of brands—use plastic-and-foil pouches (known in the industry as flexible laminates) to hold baby and toddler foods, instead of traditional glass jars or plastic cups. One truck, using 250 gallons of fuel, can carry 364,000 pouches; it would take nine trucks and 2,250 gallons of fuel to carry the same number of jars, the company says. And because the pouches are less prone to breakage, there's less food waste.
  • In 2010, Richmond, British Columbia-based Nature's Path began packaging 12 of its cereals in a stand-up version of its Eco Pacs: recyclable, resealable bags that eliminate the need for an outer box. The company says this innovation uses 66 percent less packaging than a standard cereal box and averts more than 437 tons of paper every year, the equivalent of more than 2.2 million newspapers. Nature's Path also offers 50 cereals in its EnviroBox, which uses thinner cardboard and reduces packaging by 10 percent.
  • Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation made a splash at Expo West 2011 with its molded-pulp laundry detergent bottle. Made from recycled cardboard boxes and newsprint, the outer package resembles an egg carton, right down to the hinge. The two halves open to reveal a thin plastic pouch that holds the liquid. The bottle uses two-thirds less plastic than a 100-ounce laundry detergent bottle, but does an equal number of wash loads. “It's made out of only polyethylene plastic—the same type of plastic they make grocery shopping bags out of,” says Peter Swaine, packaging director for Seventh Generation. And just like those bags, the liner can be dropped off in grocers' bins for recycling, while the cardboard can be recycled curbside.
  • Durham, N.C.-based Burt's Bees now puts its soaps in wrappers made from Terraskin—a tree-free, mineral-based paper alternative that degrades after six to nine months when exposed to direct sunlight and moisture. The new wrappers also use less material than the old boxes.

The starting line

Manufacturer packaging innovations are just beginning, however. In the case of Nature's Path Eco Pacs, the bag is recyclable, but the company is on the hunt for a new film—the industry term for the thin plastic—that is compostable and not made from genetically modified organisms, says Jason Boyce, Nature's Path sustainability manager. And Nest-brand pouches, though BPA and phthalate free, are neither recyclable nor compostable, according to Nest Collective CEO Neil Grimmer. Instead, the company works with Trenton, N.J.-based recycler TerraCycle to upcycle Revolution Foods packaging, turning them into pencil cases and lunch bags.

For Justin Gold, founder and CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Justin's Nut Butter, upcycling isn't the answer. “The energy and resources it takes to separate and clean that product before you can transform it into another product won't push the needle,” he says. “It's a clever alternative to throwing things away, but it's not forcing us to [develop] something better.”

Gold is particularly invested in the issue because some of his products come in portable squeeze packs, so consumers can refuel while biking, hiking and skiing. But like Nest's pouches, Justin's squeeze packs use nonrecyclable, noncompostable film. “I basically got frustrated because we had a premium organic product in a nonsustainable, wasteful package, and I just felt criminal doing that,” he says.

Even with a sustainable film barrier, nut butter squeeze packs present an additional hurdle, Gold says. “They have a liquid that might be a little acidic or oily, and they're hard to contain. The last thing I want is for peanut butter to burst or compost prematurely in your pocket.”

To find alternatives, Gold hosted a “Squeeze Pack Summit” in Boulder last October, attracting the likes of Wal-Mart, Cargill, Nestlé and GU. With some of the best minds in the industry working on the problem, Gold hopes to eventually create a more sustainable squeeze pack.

The film used in Justin's Nut Butter packaging is made up of three thin layers glued together. Gold's short-term goal is to get one layer from a sustainable source and, over time, convert the other two layers. “As far as compostability goes, there aren't many communities that can compost anyway, so let's focus on where film resin comes from for now,” he says. “In the future, we'll worry about compostability.”

Gold says his company has looked at four different films since the summit, and is sharing the information with his competitors. “We're not interested in owning this technology,” he says. “Not only does [sharing the technology] make the world better, but it drives down our cost because more people are using it.”

Strength, consistent availability and cost are the sticking points for what currently seems like the most promising film for products such as Justin's peanut butter pouches. “We're doing life tests to make sure it holds up to the vigorous activities our consumers do,” Gold says. “Then we'll discuss if it's available to use.” And then he'll decide whether the company has to raise prices or if it can absorb costs.

Still, others question why anyone needs squeeze packs at all. Major, who focuses on sustainable packaging at Cleargreen Advisors, says a better solution would be a reusable design—say, a sleeve that consumers could refill with peanut butter.

One company that has taken that notion to heart is Replenish, based in West Hollywood, Calif. The company's dishwashing product is contained in a spray bottle made from recylced PET plastic. The bottle has a recessed bottom with a screw-in socket, so consumers can attach a “replacement pod” filled with concentrated cleaning solution. The consumer then turns the bottle upside down, squeezes the pod to fill the measuring cup with cleaner concentrate and fills the bottle with water. Each pod makes four full bottles of cleaner, and the bottle itself can be used for years.

Convenience still trumps sustainability

For all of the creativity in package design, the biggest hurdle is consumer acceptance. “The best innovation in the world isn't any good if people don't want to buy it,” Major notes.

For most consumers, the package alone isn't a selling point. “Unless it provides a health or convenience benefit, you're going to have a tough sell,” Major says. “If it's the same price, the same quality and it's more sustainable, then they'll go for it. Otherwise, they'll say, ‘I'm sorry. It's a recession, and what can one package do for the world?'”

Shelton has run focus groups on this concept, and her results echo Major's point. “The consumer can't perceive that the package innovation in any way makes their life less convenient,” she says. “What we heard in focus groups about the Seventh Generation bottle is, ‘It's two pieces now, so do I have to recycle it in two different ways? It looks flimsy—am I really gonna get through 66 loads before it falls apart? It looks like it's going to make my life less convenient.'”

In fact, if a “green act” requires an increase in time commitment and price, participation rates drop 13 percent, according to a recent report by Dallas-based market research firm MARC Research. “To change behavior, the incentive to change must be compelling. This gets back to the idea of tangible benefits,” the report notes.

Retail strategies

To sell customers on what's holding the product as well as what's in the product, adopt the following strategies:

Use loyalty cards.

Starbucks offered free coffee to people who brought in their own mugs on Earth Day. Natural products retailers should offer similar incentives, says Carolyn Cozad, president of Bounce Enterprises, a holistic business consulting practice in Henderson, Nev. “If you have a loyalty card, you could track the purchases of people who are buying a certain percentage of goods in sustainable packaging, and you could reward them for buying more, maybe with a discount.”


Rafael Mael, marketing strategist at Baltimore-based Brand Launcher, says retailers—particularly those in the natural and organic space—often assume their customers have more insight about environmental issues than they actually do. “The key is to accept that consumers, as well-intentioned as they may be, are bombarded with confusing, conflicted messages,” he says. “It's your job, as the retailer, to explain in crystal-clear language what, exactly, the differences are.”

Consumers need specific, concrete numbers to make the environmental benefit tangible—and not just once, but repeatedly, via different media, Mael says. Distribute educational articles near products with sustainable packages or at the cash register. Use videos, but don't limit them to your website; play them on an in-store monitor, where the effects will be more immediate.


“People always think of demos as food sampling, but they don't have to be,” Cozad says. “Show what [a sustainable] package looks like when it breaks down versus another one that doesn't break down.” For example, after Frito-Lay reformulated its compostable but notoriously loud SunChips bag, the company produced a time-lapse video (available at that depicts the bag disintegrating over 14 weeks. Ask manufacturers if they have like-minded videos that you can broadcast in store.

Alternately, Cozad says your demo could be a simple display of several products, with shelf talkers indicating the breakdown time—or other environmental advantages—of  each.

Collaborate with partners.

Gendell and Major say retailers must not see themselves as isolated in the eco-packaging effort. “Think of sustainability as giving you the opportunity and excuse to build a bigger team,” Major says. “Collaborate with people outside your organization.” One strategy: Encourage customers to drop off compostable packaging at your store, and develop partnerships with local composting facilities to pick it up.

Set standards.

Gold says more retailers could follow Wal-Mart's example and require that manufacturers use sustainable packaging. After all, many naturals retailers have standards regarding preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and other ingredients in their foods. Why not apply similar standards to what holds the products you sell?

Walk the talk.

To show your customers you care as much as manufacturers do, consider investing in sustainable packaging in your deli and produce sections. (For tips, see “Foodservice packaging ideas” on page 43.) 

Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.

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