Single-use containers. Individually wrapped items. Multi-material packaging. In our push to make our products so. very. useful. to consumers, food and beverage brands have sacrificed sustainability.
In doing so, we’ve relegated waste management to the consumer.
Since I attended the AmericaPack Summit in New Orleans in February, I’ve been thinking deeply about our role as food and beverage marketers in the interconnected problems of material sourcing, waste, and branding. For our industry, this won’t be a fix that’s quick, easy, or cheap.
We Can’t Label it Recyclable and Call It Done
We talk about how sustainable we are, and even package our products in “recyclable” materials. Note that I’ve put the word ‘recyclable’ in air quotes: Most of this stuff isn’t actually recyclable in any practical sense. According to an article in Forbes, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to recycle food and beverage packaging:
The U.S. doesn’t have a federal recycling program and instead leaves it up to individual communities to make their own decisions and run their own programs. The result is a disjointed system with uneven access and unequal services, which is frustrating people and hurting the environment.
Research has found that 94% of Americans support recycling and 74% say it should be a top priority. But only about 35% of people actually recycle. Why the disconnect? It often comes down to confusion and inconvenience. People don’t know how to recycle, what can be recycled or what to do with it.
In many cases, companies put the burden on customers to manage their enormous packaging footprints.
We put the chasing arrows symbol on our boxes and bottles and call it done. That symbol is literally an expression of how futile our recycling system is.
Detangling a Complex Issue
Sustainability in food and beverage packaging is a complex issue with implications that span geography and industries. And the “good guys” and “bad guys” in the sustainable packaging debate change positions so quickly, it’s hard to keep up.
One minute, plastic is evil — but recycled plastic is hard to come by and virgin plastic is cheap, so plastic becomes a lesser evil. The next, paperboard is evil — but recycled paper is hard to come by and, as paper manufacturers shift from printing paper to cardboard, virgin paperboard is cheap, and so paper is the lesser evil. Tetra-pak? Paper clamshells? Bioplastics? Compostables?
According to an insightful Greenpeace report, simply switching from one packaging substrate to another isn’t the simple answer to reducing overall global pollution. There are liners, adhesives, inks, closures, and all kinds of other elements to consider. What’s more, focusing simply on the end-of-life aspect of the package ignores all the upstream concerns about material safety and human and environmental impact.
5 Steps for Developing More Sustainable Packaging
I think we can all agree that packaging waste is a huge problem and that brands need to step up and take the burden of solving it off consumers’ shoulders. It’s also massively complex and expensive, and will take years to solve. So how can brand leaders even begin? Let me share five steps we can all take as we start down this path:
1. Shift your organizational thinking. Recognize that your packaging is a brand asset and not a cost of goods sold. With that mind shift, you’ll realize that the package is part of your relationship with the consumer. It communicates with them after they’ve made the purchase. When the consumer is disposing of the container, that is your goodbye. Find a way to make that transition easy and clear for them to navigate.
Consider the shift from plastic and paper bags to reusable bags at retail — those bags are brand assets. Every time you reuse them, you see the brand. It’s a little different with packaging, of course (unless it’s reusable), but the thinking is similar: The package is one of your important brand touchpoints. What do you want it to say to your consumers?
2. Decide what your brand’s legacy will be. Not just in next year’s financial report, but rather your brand positioning 5 or 10 years from now. If your organization looks at packaging as a COG instead of a brand asset, you’ll cost engineer it down to a financial line item instead of considering the life cycle of the package from start to finish.
If your brand is on it, you own it until its death. Your role as a marketer is to advocate on behalf of consumers and convince your C-suite to care about packaging — enough that they’re willing to pay an extra few cents per unit for a more sustainable container.
3. Understand what’s possible and start small. This initiative is more or less complex depending on the size of the organization. Small brands have far more flexibility; they can access supplies of innovative and novel packaging because their scale is more manageable. You don’t have to be an environmental warrior to make these kinds of changes.
If you do nothing else, do this: Map the life cycle of your packaging from source to end of life. You’ll see that it’s totally linear. Now, how can you add some curve to the graphic? How can you begin to create a loop?
You might start by reducing the amount of weight in the package, removing glue, eliminating the plastic window from the paperboard box, or ditching the foil lining on the paper packaging. Every step is a win.
4. Recognize the opportunity. Sustainability is a massive consumer-facing story. Look at your packaging as a key part of your brand narrative, a chance to build a different kind of relationship with your consumer. Consumers expect the brands they favor to behave admirably. They demand this from us — just as they demand that the products we sell are safe.
If you were to get a customer service call tomorrow asking what your brand is doing to resolve the waste problem, what will you be able to tell them?
5. Advocate and invest. Start to work within your major markets to advocate for public utilities to expand collection and processing. Take a public stand. Talk about this with your fan base. Try a new packaging option in a test market, follow the waste from store shelf to recycling center to understand how it moves and what the barriers are. Test, learn, repeat, roll out.
Especially in the U.S., our recycling system is broken. As marketers, we’ve done all the work to make it easy for a person to buy something. We’ve taken all the friction out of the purchase; you can see something on your phone and press a button and buy it. But once that’s done, we as manufacturers don’t care what happens. We don’t make anything other than purchase easy.
If we can make purchasing easy, we can make the rest of it easy. We just have to care enough to do it.
We’ve been working with several brands recently on sustainability initiatives. Let’s get in touch to discuss how we can help your team navigate this immense challenge.