Scientific studies investigating consumers’ sustainable purchasing behaviours have found that the availability of eco-labels on food packaging influences consumers’ attitudes and behaviours towards more sustainable consumption and recycling. Why then do so few brands and retailers use them? Dr. Igor Popovic, Vice President of Global Sales and Commercial Excellence at Huhtamaki, lets us know more.
One approach that packaging manufacturers can use to communicate with consumers is eco-labels. Eco-labels identify products or services proven environmentally or socially preferable within a specific product or service category. Packaging manufacturers can use eco-labels to communicate their competitive advantage compared to other manufacturers that adopt respectful production methods for the future of society and the environment as part of their green marketing efforts.
They can also use eco-labels to reduce information asymmetries among producers and consumers. Notably, there are over 450 eco-labels in existence in Europe alone, with the European Union indicating that more than 37,000 products sold on the EU market bear the EU Eco-label, signifying adherence to rigorous ecological criteria.
However, a research visit to a supermarket reveals that only a few packaged foods contain any type of eco-label, and even fewer feature both: food- and packaging-related eco-labels. While some labels describe the origin of the food and its production cycle, there is a significant lack of information about the origins of packaging and the required recycling process after consumption.
The question arises as to why packaging manufacturers make little use of eco-labels to communicate with their consumers and why food and packaging producers do not collaborate in providing consumers with more information about the effects of food and packaging on human health and the environment.
Drawing from recent scientific research studies, I propose that there are at least two reasons underlying packaging manufacturers’ limited deployment of eco-labels. Firstly, packaging manufacturers often perceive themselves as business partners to the food producers rather than serving the end consumers.
They are in conversation with the food producers supporting them in providing packaging solutions for their consumers. Yet, they stay invisible in the marketing of the products. However, with the growing societal awareness of the effects of packaging on the environment, climate, and human health, packaging manufacturers need to take a more proactive role in communicating with end consumers. Research shows that consumers increasingly evaluate the entire product, including the effects of packaging, when buying food.
For example, a recent cross-national study of Belgian and Romanian consumers revealed that when evaluating food, consumers search for cues to assess the food’s quality, health, and environmental effects. Quality is assessed through the food’s freshness, taste, and appearance. Health is evaluated based on ingredients, nutrition facts, and additives. Finally, the food’s environmental impact is assessed through packaging, food origin, and sustainability of production.
One way forward for the packaging manufacturers is to assume their role in the entire product and to engage with the “ingredient branding” and “co-branding” strategies. Ingredient branding is a marketing strategy where a component or an ingredient of a product or service is pulled into the spotlight and given its own identity. For example, NutraSweet aspartame in Diet Pepsi or Intel chips inside HP computers are good examples of ingredient branding.
Packaging manufacturers can also make ingredient branding alliances to put sustainable packaging solutions in the spotlight. In turn, co-branding refers to a strategic marketing and advertising partnership between two brands wherein the success of one brand brings success to its partner brand.
Among successful examples of co-branding are Starbucks and Spotify, Dr. Pepper and Bonne Bell, or Taco Bell and Doritos. Considering consumers’ increasing knowledge of the food and packaging effects on health and the environment, co-branding with a packaging manufacturer can offer food producers a competitive advantage. In both branding strategies, eco-labels and other types of labels play a crucial role in communication.
Second, packaging manufacturers continue to focus on rational explanations as to why consumers buy food in environmentally friendly packaging. A recent bibliometric study showed how explanations about consumers’ reasons for sustainable purchasing have evolved over the past two decades. Yet, the existing explanations mainly concern consumers’ rational decision-making, such as why consumers would pay more for foods in environmentally friendly packaging.
While this perspective sheds some light on the topic, many industry experts call for understanding the emotions of consumers who make sustainable purchasing decisions. For example, a recent study of how eco-labels for food and packaging affect the consumers’ perceptions of food quality and safety in Italy showed that consumers perceive food to be of higher quality and safety when both eco-labels (i.e. food-related and packaging-related) are present. Consumers felt proud when buying eco-labelled products.
This finding aligns with other research on the role of self-conscious emotions, such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment, in influencing green and socially responsible choices, providing a fresh perspective on consumers’ sustainable purchasing behaviour.
Working with eco-labels presents an opportunity for packaging manufacturers to engage in direct communication with their consumers. By recognising their importance as ingredient producers, they have the chance to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. A recent study investigating whether adding a recycling message sticker increased consumers’ recycling of Unilever and Boots products revealed a 5% increase in recycling of bottles with a sticker compared to those without.
Moreover, researchers noted that labels using a directive tone, essentially instructing the consumer what to do, were preferred over advisory tone labels, applicable to both on-pack food storage guidance and recycling information.
An essential conclusion drawn from these scientific studies is that eco-labels enable packaging manufacturers to communicate directly with consumers, a desire that is increasingly evident among consumers today. Consumers are no longer mere buyers of food; instead, they actively engage in society and strive to protect the environment. Furthermore, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about eco-labels and their meanings.
Research on consumers’ eco-literacy demonstrates that at least 50 percent of consumers can read eco-labels. It also shows that consumers want to know more about the products and their packaging and be informed about the origins of not only food products but also about the origins of packaging and the processes required to recycle them.
This creates an important opportunity for packaging manufacturers to start using packaging-related eco-labels and to stay in a conversation not only with the food producers but also directly with consumers.