The critical challenges facing companies in the packaging sector are clear: achieving sustainability objectives, ensuring that products are safe and convenient for consumers to use, and maintaining profitability. But how can these occasionally competing aims be reconciled? Mandi Alaterä, Senior Vice President at Stora Enso’s packaging materials division, tells us more.
In a world where consumers are increasingly demanding greater levels of responsibility from brands, and there are options aplenty, it’s no wonder that brand owners and consumers alike are having trouble navigating the packaging landscape.
Among the challenges facing food brand owners are three competing packaging challenges: providing convenient, safe packaging to consumers, meeting their own sustainability goals, and securing commercial interest and product profitability. But how can they create the right mix to satisfy all three?
Only by understanding their own fundamental requirements of their packaging and evaluating their options will brands be able to make significant headway in elevating their packaging. And the process requires a bird’s-eye view with three Cs clouding the picture: convenience, circularity, and commercial interest – all of which are also of the utmost importance to consumers.
But, depending on packaging requirements, it’s not often been possible to hit a home run and eliminate all clouds. However, with new innovations just around the corner, packaging manufacturers have an important role to play in helping brands on their journey to optimise packaging for the future.
Where are we now?
Food packaging has several unique sets of requirements and with hygiene and protection always at the fore, developing fully circular solutions has been a slow development. Consumers place high value on the performance of packaging; hot, frozen and chilled food, as just some examples, need packaging that can withstand demanding conditions. So, while there is a wide variety of packaging choices, these are quickly narrowed down to a shorter list of suitable candidates.
Regardless of the challenges food packers face, there’s also an ever-brightening spotlight on our packaging choices to contend with, and rightly so, with both policy-makers and consumers expecting better from brands than ever before. With a careful eye on best practices, brands often think they must forgo one or more of their needs – convenience, circularity, and commercial interest – but with new developments on the rise, we know that that’s not necessarily the case.
Good things come in small packages
Making all food packaging fully circular will be a development roadmap rather than an overnight change, and if brands want to come out on top, educating their customers will be key. Currently, a disconnect exists between what consumers think they want, what they’re actually willing to pay, and what brands can feasibly achieve in their packaging. Despite growing numbers of consumers (55%) saying they’ll pay more for more sustainable products, in the face of a cost of living crisis, the industry isn’t always seeing this translate into sales.
In order to successfully navigate the required changes, consumers and brands alike will need to be open to changing what currently exists as iconic packaging. What earlier was a round glass jar might become a light stand-up tube. Keeping the essence of a product’s identity to maintain fiercely won brand loyalty, while visually transforming it is no mean feat, and requires careful consideration.
This means that “new look, same great taste” slogans plastered on products can go some way to help consumers recognise their favourite products. But you can’t write a novel on a chocolate bar. Brands have multiple sustainability messages to get across; vegan, fiber-based packaging, ethically sourced, and that’s before you even get into essential (and often legally binding) messages to convey about the product itself. Carefully crafted messages that speak quickly and succinctly to consumers will be instrumental in meeting their demands and showcasing you’re a brand with concrete actions.
Brands that can successfully open a dialogue with their customers will reap the benefits, communicating their decisions on convenience, circularity, and commercial interest, and how they’re maximising all three to benefit consumers and the planet in tandem.
The food packaging industry is constantly evolving and optimising, bringing innovative alternatives to market. The seasons are ever-changing in the packaging world, so regular checkpoints and incremental updates to the latest innovations will ensure convenience, circularity, and commercial interest are kept in equilibrium. But there are ways that this equilibrium can be achieved by reimagining how to meet packaging needs through innovation. Materials and structures deemed ‘necessary’ may well not be, given enough imagination.
Food packaging can be truly revolutionised when new innovations fit existing needs to reintroduce what we thought we knew of as packaging. And when these tweaks feel less radical to consumers, and the materials are simple and well-known, the need to deliver multiple messages on packaging decreases, helping consumers to make greener choices with little extra thought.
Not only this, but circularity will also continue to sit at the forefront of development across the entire packaging spectrum. Fibers are already well used in recycling, and we’re constantly seeing new innovations in fiber cleaning, sorting and elevated end-use cases. We’re set to see fibers take centre stage in packaging circularity. Other materials are yet to step up their recycling systems and increase the number of use rounds per materials sourced.
Unfortunately, the simple answer is that there is no simple answer when crafting a one-size-fits-all sustainable packaging. Each sector, each brand, and each product will need careful planning and consideration when making decisions about packaging. But one thing’s for sure: we can innovate to create a blue sky, and clear the clouds. Brands will need to perfect their own view of convenience, circularity, and commercial interest to hit the sweet spot and packaging manufacturers will be instrumental in guiding them through the process.
There is a wealth of options out there and high stakes at play, but packaging has an instrumental role in decarbonising our food systems, so it’s crucial we dedicate the time and effort it deserves to reach sustainability goals and maximise consumer interest.
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