As the world emerges, haltingly from COVID-19, new challenges emerge. In this feature, New Hope Network provides an ongoing update on those challenges and the opportunities they hold. Look for the Industry Health Monitor every other Friday to learn the major news that is affecting the natural products market immediately and the less obvious insights that could dictate where the market may struggle or thrive in the months to come.
If the symbols on the labels matched the writing on the wall, the “packaged” chapter of the story of consumer-packaged goods would be more encouraging, but if there is one message brands should be reading right now it’s that consumers are paying attention, and when people are paying attention it’s a good time for a conversation.
One that could include that “writing on the wall” part about how urgent the need is for sustainable packaging.
Where all attention is being focused becomes more clear in consumer research deployed this week by New Hope’s NEXT Data & Insights team. Not surprisingly, consumers were most aware of “recyclable” as a sustainable packaging concept, but the fact that “reusable” ranks as high as it does and that “recycled plastic” is a well-known idea, is encouraging. Outside research, however, is also clear: consumers don’t understand enough about the complexity of packaging. That’s where the natural products industry should be engaging in conversation.
Without a conversation, consumers could be forgiven for being confused. A “recycling” symbol that’s been deprived of its meaning by varying definitions isn’t telling the story. The word “compostable” has been seriously compromised. The way the language around sustainable packaging has been fuzzed up and blurred out suggests, at least to us, that the natural products industry can set itself apart by going beyond the buzzwords and that pesky recycling symbol.
- Explain what steps have been taken on cardboard and paper packaging to make it fully recyclable (a lot of paper is less recyclable than it looks).
- Say not just that a package is compostable, but also where and how it’s compostable (not everything works in that backyard bin).
- Tell consumer where the recycled plastic in their bottles comes from.
- Partner with an organization like PlasticBank and The ReSea Project to combat ocean plastic, while being clear that their containers are not necessarily made of ocean plastic.
- Be transparent about the manufacture of new plant-based packaging.
- Talk about what is being done to reduce packaging in manufacturing before the products even leave the loading dock.
Few of these topics are as simple as they at first sound, but that’s where the conversation comes in. Brands are still figuring this out—and may be only one or two steps ahead of consumers in their understanding—but neither side should want feel-good simplification that overstates the impact. The planet doesn’t need brands and consumers to not feel bad. It needs them to do good.
The natural products industry has been the leader on such challenges before. That’s where organic standards came from. Now, perhaps because there is so much packaging inherent to the industry, it’s time to do a better job of leading on this challenge. New Hope Network provided this Sustainable Packaging Toolkit as a starting point for leadership. Other great resources include data provided by NielsenIQ at the Natural Products Expo West session "Building a Sustainable Business: Reimagining Growth Strategies," as well as the session on "Packaging Policies for the Future," both of which are available on demand on the Natural Products Expo Virtual Community platform.
The industry’s consumers can read the writing on the wall. The industry needs to help them understand what it means, and then how consumers and brands can do something about it together.