Visit P&G's Crest toothpaste website and you’ll find this announcement: “With NEW Scope Squeez mouthwash concentrate, a 1-L mouthwash bottle fits in the palm of your hand. Simply add water, and squeez [sic] to control your minty intensity. Finally, you can customize your mouthwash experience.”
Customizing my mouthwash experience was not a problem that I’ve ever considered. Not 20 years ago. Not today. And I doubt that it’ll be on my problem-solving bucket list tomorrow.
What’s fascinating is that rather than this ho hum, “solve a problem that doesn’t really exist” marketing attempt, there is a true strong sustainability story here; the tiny 50-mL bottle of concentrate and the included cup deliver the same level of “freshness” as a Liter bottle of non-concentrated mouthwash.
That’s a 20:1 reduction in bottle volume to deliver the same number of doses.
Ironically, you’ll notice that while moving to a concentrate significantly reduces both the retail and environmental footprint of the product, the package includes both a non-recyclable overwrap and a disposable cup. Further, P&G doesn’t mention anything about sustainability on the product website (as demonstrated in the copy above) or in TV commercials.
Obviously, there is no intention to focus on packaging sustainability for this product, at least when it comes to consumer messaging.
Why is that?
Here’s a clue. In the 1980s and 90s, P&G tried mightily to get consumers turned on to concentrates. But the public was suspicious of the smaller size bottle with the full-size price and rejected them. Either the message was too complex and not credible, or consumers didn’t really care. Or both.
It wasn’t until 20 or so years ago, when Unilever reintroduced laundry detergent concentrates that the concept took off.
Why was it successful then?
Because the launch occurred while Walmart started growing an eco-conscience and rolled out its infamous environmental scorecard. There were so many benefits to detergent concentrates that Walmart mandated that ALL laundry detergents come in concentrated form. Thus, the entire value chain — from producers, through retailers, to consumers — was forced to accept this “new and improved” form of product delivery.
Here’s another clue.
On May 12, 2023 The Washington Post published an article entitled Where's the Beef? Here's Why the Fake Meat Sizzled Out [Note: this is a gated article]. Here’s the relevant paragraph: “It’s hard to shame adults into eating something. Let’s stipulate that shifting toward fake meat could reduce carbon emissions, require less land for animal cultivation and decrease antibiotics in food. Studies show most people do not change their preferences regarding plant-based substitutes even when they’re given informational nudges about the environmental impacts of meat production.”
The referenced study was released one year ago by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) in the Journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy under the title "Consumer willingness to pay for environmentally sustainable meat and a plant-based meat substitute." The supporting research was funded by the USDA Economic Research Service and conducted at Purdue University.
Digging a bit deeper, the study shows that neither plant-based meat substitutes nor sustainably produced beef moved the consumer preference needle! (To this point, The Retail Wholesale Department Store Union Local 338 Retirement Fund just filed a securities class action lawsuit against Beyond Meat, claiming the company "made materially false and misleading statements and omissions, and engaged in a scheme to deceive the market.”)
Does all this mean that consumers do not generally make purchase preferences based on sustainability factors? Yes, it does.
But we need to add the word “today” into the mix. Right now, sustainability is an “externality” in the consumer preference equation. That could and probably will change at some point.
Both examples listed above indicate that the good old packaging benefits of convenience, functional performance, and price are driving consumer purchase decisions when they shop, as opposed to when they are in focus groups.
However, you brand owners would be wise to include sustainability in your products' benefits portfolio, you never know what the future may bring. Plus, it sometimes feels good to pursue something because it’s the right thing to do for tomorrow’s sustainability bottom line, rather than today’s purely economic one.
Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. He is Executive Director at SPRING, The Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group. You can also write him at [email protected] or visit his LinkedIn profile.