Sustainable packaging: the retailer challenge

When it comes to sustainability, one issue is leading the charge: plastic. Thanks in large part to Sir David Attenborough's Blue Planet II series and the ensuing public outcry that followed, consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of their plastic usage and looking for brands and retailers to help reduce its amount in the environment.

Although large multinationals have begun switching over to sustainable packaging, smaller businesses are still lagging and risks losing customers by not adopting sustainable practices.

Writing on the wall

Retailers and suppliers are starting to see the writing on the wall: they must do their part to reduce packaging and pollution. With public pressure coming from all corners, as well as politicians, NGOs and the media, realisation has set in they must act now to combat an environmental crisis that is only growing. And they're doing it — through packaging policies in which they commit to strip out unnecessary offer recycling collection points, and switch to materials other than plastic.

The retail industry has widely pledged to remove any unnecessary plastic packaging and move away from single-use plastics. One of the most publicised examples is Iceland, which has banned plastic packaging on all own brand products by the end of 2023.

The packaging industry is reeling in the wake of this market pressure.

In complete contrast to the past, both consumers and large retailers are now demanding that products are environmentally friendly. This brave new paradigm has meant that packaging can no longer be designed without having end of life in mind—those placing packaging on to the market need to take responsibility for it from cradle to grave.

No easy fix

The move to sustainable packaging is not without its challenges. It’s a complex system of interconnected issues, with no easy fixes.

Replacing conventional plastics with alternatives can be difficult — costs can rise, and margins can shrink. Most businesses are focused on profitability, but for retailers, this goal must be balanced with both the health of our planet and the call from consumers. It can be a high wire balancing act to succeed financially while also being environmentally friendly, but it can be done.

There's also the risk that food waste could increase, as alternative packaging materials may not always be the most efficient. In other words, don't judge a material by its cover: greener alternatives need to be fully understood to determine whether they're actually the best option.

Sustainable alternatives

For consumers and brands alike, there's still a lot of ambiguity surrounding the concept of eco-friendly packaging. For some, it means using recycled materials; for others, it's all about reducing waste or using renewable alternatives.

With varying ideas around what constitutes eco-friendly packaging, retailers are left with a challenge: how can they package their goods in an eco-friendly way that’s both cost effective and resonates with consumers?

When the UK's Blue Planet II aired, it helped launch a sea-change in consumer awareness of plastic pollution, denting the crucial but fragile confidence that consumers had in their packaging choices. Education has proven to be key in navigating this minefield.

Some retailers have gone beyond simply announcing their commitments, by promoting the positive impacts of their sustainability efforts and how they impact the world around them. Rather than leaving it up to consumers to investigate these impacts, they also actively educate about the key aspects of sustainable practices — from procurement, manufacture and shipping to packaging choice.

Public enemy number one

Some say that major retailers are actually perpetuating plastic's bad public image.

In their effort to reduce waste and provide sustainable products, many of the world’s most prominent businesses and brands have committed to eliminating single-use plastics from their supply chains. However, this focus on single-use plastics has overshadowed the benefits of a more environmentally conscious packaging strategy that also includes plastic packaging.

NGOs have also been a huge driving force behind this environmental movement. In response to rising incidences of plastic pollution, they have been able to mobilise the masses — in particular, millennials — and raise awareness of this highly-controversial issue. With the help of some powerful PR firms and savvy advertising campaigns, these organisations have rallied their community through social media and driven their message into the spotlight.

Tipping point

There's no doubt that Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough have opened consumer eyes to the devastating state of the environment over the last few years. The younger generation – Generation Z – has taken notice, too. They share a severe concern for the planet, and they’re the ones wielding a lot of power (specifically, spending power for retailers).

Given this situation, the retail industry is quickly approaching the tipping point when sustainable action is becoming essential to their very survival.

In response to the expectations of customers, stakeholders, and governments, they must now embed sustainable practices for procurement, production, distribution, and consumption of products to not only stay ahead of the sustainability demands that threaten their business model, but also ensure they're living up to their own values as environmentally conscious businesses. Competition from alternative commerce channels and the rise of social media are also coming into play.

Above all else, the recent wave of sustainable consumerism will only put further pressure on retailers to rethink their sustainability strategy completely — or risk being left behind by the competition.