Consumer needs must be at the center of decisions about reusable, recyclable, reduced packaging, and other alternatives.

Shira Horn, Executive Vice President

May 28, 2021

6 Min Read
AMC Global Shampoo Bars by Karolina Grabowska-ftd.jpg
Photo supplied by AMC Global

More brands are experimenting with packaging formats and researching packaging approaches to be more sustainable. And consumer perceptions of packaging and sustainability are taking a more central role in decision making.

It is not just consumers, and the companies, who are starting to demand a closer look at sustainability when it comes to packaging; many governments around the world are beginning to issue guidelines and laws to help increase recyclability and reduce the use of seemingly environmentally unfriendly packaging like single-use plastics. Even ecommerce giants like Amazon are implementing package design changes, requiring improvements along the partner supply chain. 

No matter the reason behind a move toward sustainable packaging — company standards, consumer demand, government regulations — it is good for business. It keeps companies at the forefront of trends, while also fulfilling consumer demand. However, launching something that initially sparks consumer interest but ultimately doesn’t meet consumer needs is counterproductive for organizations. Maybe it doesn’t live up to the hype, perhaps it does not deliver the same quality as before, or there could be leakage or other waste issues. Testing before or at launch is critical to ensure consumers are delighted by the entire experience.

Brands have been experimenting with different approaches to rethinking current product packaging or creating new, sustainable packaging for new products. Efforts in this area have uncovered surprises about consumer behavior, further underlining the need for comprehensive consumer research to support pack changes.

Here are six options for improving the sustainability of your packaging:


1. Experiment with reusable packaging.

Many brands have been experimenting with reusable packaging to meet demand for sustainability. For example, Procter & Gamble is planning to launch a reusable aluminum shampoo bottle this year. Consumers refill their aluminum bottles using special refill pouches. These refill pouches are made using 60% less plastic, and can be recycled.

This type of reusable approach is smiled upon by consumers. Another good example is Loop, which offers consumers a new way to shop for their favorite consumables with zero-waste. Customers of Loop place a refundable deposit on reusable packaging to house their product, and then return the empty pack so it can be cleaned and reused. Many major brands are hopping on the Loop train and giving consumers what they want.


2. Innovate with new packaging materials.

Paper has begun replacing plastic in the most unusual ways. For example, Seed Phytonutrients, from L’Oreal, houses its products in unique recyclable paper bottles that are water resistant, use interlocking edges instead of glue, and can be shipped nested for greater efficiency along the supply chain.

And multipack plastic rings have been on the no-no list for decades. Many consumers who do come home with them carefully cut them up before discarding, after seeing videos of birds entangled in them. Some companies have come up with alternatives like gluing their cans together or using paperboard-based multipacks.

Other companies are looking for better alternatives to their single-use packaging. Numi Tea has created a plant-based wrapper, a fully compostable tea bag, and uses planet-friendly soy-based inks as it continues to strive for sustainability for its products.


3. Remove unnecessary packaging components.

Another tea company is also taking note. Celestial Tea does not use strings, staples, or individual wrappers for its tea bags. The company says these practices prevent 3.5 million pounds of landfill material a year.

Minimizing packaging throughout the whole supply chain is important, as well as using a minimalist approach on the product itself. According to an article from Pak Factory, “minimalist packaging is proven to have a huge influence on consumers’ purchasing choices and bottom lines.”


4. Try new forms of recyclability.

“The end of life for a package is determined at the beginning when it’s designed” according to The Recycling Partnership, an organization that is working to transform the state of recycling in the US. Brands are working with this organization, and other groups, because they are taking recyclability seriously.

Brands that have already implemented more recyclable pack options abound. Pringles UK started a trial last year in conjunction with TerraCycle and Tesco for a new recyclable tube. Anheuser-Busch InBev is striving for “100% returnable packaging or packaging made of at least 50% recycled content by 2025.” There are many challenges in the recycling landscape, and everyone must work together to find better solutions.


5. Learn from the rise of the pod.

Some consumers look around at all the plastic bottles containing their personal care and home care products and feel there needs to be a better alternative. Responsibly produced and sustainably sourced pod-based alternatives have risen in popularity for home cleaning needs, allowing customers to avoid the ubiquitous large plastic containers.

For example, Dropps has risen in popularity over the past couple of years, a pod-based laundry and dish detergent made from sustainable plant based materials and packaged in recyclable packaging. Shampoos and conditioners are also trying to kick the plastic bottle to the curb, exploring approaches like zero waste and pod approaches.


6. Consider alternative product creations.

Pods aren’t the only way personal products are eliminating plastic and becoming more sustainable. Some companies, both new and established, are offering different products that lend themselves naturally to sustainability.

For example, the eco-conscious shampoo bar with zero plastic or the GemZ single-use shampoo product are housed in recycled and recyclable paper wrappers and do not use or waste water in the manufacturing process.

Another personal care product getting creative is toothpaste. Unpaste tooth tabs eschew the plastic toothpaste tube and instead offer tooth cleaning tablets in plastic-free, fully compostable bags. In a similar play, home-cleaning company Blueland offers concentrated tablets and a “forever” reusable spray bottle to make “your own” cleaning products for the kitchen, bathroom, and glass surfaces.


The need for understanding the consumer.

Thinking about experimenting with a new and creative approach to packaging? With all these sustainable packaging options, brands must put their consumers first. Using market research to evaluate new concepts or tracking the launch of a creative new pack will be key to long-term success — especially with new packs that really push the boundaries of consumer expectations, routines and/or comfort zones.

Sustainable packaging may be the best choice for the environment and brand identity — but, most importantly, it should be the best choice for your consumer. Through consumer testing, brands can discover how to provide the consumer with the product experience they are looking for and the sustainability they desire.

Brands are creatively addressing the call for sustainability head-on, using consumer research as a basis for their packaging innovations. Whether these are new products coming on the market to meet consumer demands for environmentally friendly options, or established brands that want to do better, this is a growing space. The US sustainability market is projected to reach $150 billion in sales by 2021, according to Nielsen.

This steady growth — coupled with consumers who are outspoken about their expectations and increasingly look for brands to take a stand on environmental (and other) issues — means that sustainability should be a critical part of every brand’s packaging plan for the future.

About the Author(s)

Shira Horn

Executive Vice President, AMC Global

Shira Horn, executive vice president at AMC Global, has almost 20 years of deep market research experience. She advises clients on how to leverage insights and grow brands. She has expertise in taking data and harnessing it into digestible, actionable insights for clients. This can range from tactical to strategic guidance for how to grow in the short-, mid-, and long-term. Horn enjoys long-standing partnerships with clients and seeing their businesses growth and succeed over time. She has a diverse background in primary quantitative and qualitative research, with a focus on market structure and opportunity, customer engagement and acquisition, product design and launch, decision pathways, price optimization, competitive effectiveness, segmentation, and positioning.

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