Over 70 attendees from across the food and grocery sector, including packaging materials manufacturers, food and grocery manufacturers, brands, retailers, waste management companies as well as key circular economy organisations, trade associations and NGOs were welcomed by IGD to an insightful discussion on sustainable packaging systems. The focus of the day was to connect, collaborate and identify where IGD could add real value in supporting systems change across the whole packaging value chain. IGD has an excellent track record of driving scale and impact through its industry working groups and programmes. Here are some of the key discussion highlights from the day.
Consumer trends & shopper insights
It’s not an easy time for the grocery sector with a fairly weak UK economy. Part of this can be attributed to Brexit, although political uncertainty and turmoil have discouraged business investment and made shoppers cautious too. Most UK citizens believe that the socio-political “system” is not working for them with feelings of unfairness and impatience for change. This could lead to radical action and a move towards a moral space such as the ‘Greta effect’.
From IGD’s own ShopperVista research, where IGD talks to over 1000 shoppers a month, we know that shoppers have a lot to say on issues such as packaging and plastic. They trust businesses on functional properties such as quality, safety and accurate information but that is perhaps not arguably a high bar for performance. The bad news is that levels of trust are lower on environment and society – where shopper interest is growing.
‘The majority of shoppers are claiming to make choices based on packaging’ – it may be because of the “Blue Planet Effect” or it might be because packaging and packaging waste is a very visible, local issue where general economic harm is dispersed. Three-quarters of shoppers now state they have become more aware of plastic packaging in the last 12 months. There is less awareness of the benefits of packaging in terms of preservation or convenience as well as the wider environmental impacts of all packaging materials other than plastic.
It’s important on getting packaging right for both the retailer and the shoppers – adding both the emotional and practical benefits that shoppers need to bond with the product. Giving packaging a life or purpose beyond the consumer is also intriguing – looking at returnable packaging for example where durability of packaging is more important than perhaps the design.
Challenges in creating a sustainable packaging system
How can we overcome some of the key challenges around creating a more sustainable packaging system across the whole value chain?
It was recognised that it’s really hard to not only align with business drivers such as sales and profit but to also balance the key environmental challenges of ocean plastics, recycling and climate change when making packaging decisions. And then you also need to think about the implications throughout the whole packaging value chain and, the ‘unexpected consequences’.
Many business sustainability ambitions are focused on remove, reduce, reuse and recycle - the core circular economy principles. But ‘What does good look like’? There was a recognition that ‘we should be doing a lot better’ and ‘we are lacking a coherent message and vision’ across the packaging value chain.
We should be aligning packaging systems design with infrastructure investment. Investment needs to be done today for action to be effective in 3-5 years. We also need to identify and work on where there are gaps, for example, there is currently no legislative framework around flexibles. More support is needed for SMEs too.
There is a clear drive to move away from plastics but not a clear drive on what to use instead. Where alternatives are being used, it’s not necessarily the right decision for the environment, product or value chain partners. It’s a social challenge.
Consumers are looking at product labels when shopping but there is not the right information on pack to help them make informed decisions. Could tax levels be displayed on pack in line with EPR to inform consumers on performance level of recycling and help drive behaviour?
Whole supply chains need to change to make reuse mainstream. We need to peel back all the layers of supply chain operations and think differently, for example, on retail check-out points and flows – Or reverse it and ask ‘what check-in points do we need?’. We need to go through a test and learn process with consumers. We also need to make sure the process is streamlined to minimise additional carbon impacts and that those products can be recycled at end of use.
To achieve higher recycling rates, packaging solutions need to be more harmonised and policies to help deliver behaviour change enhanced. For example, can we simplify the recycling process by using a number system on products and displayed on bins to make it clearer and consistent for residents no matter where you live and what colour your recycling box happens to be?
Challenges can be easy to define but how to overcome them is the tricky part. Some of the key recommendations raised include:
- Align direction and vision - look to the future and work back on how to get there
- Look through the eyes of the customer to help inform changing behaviours
- Harmonise packaging – standardisation is key
Do current initiatives and collaborations align?
There are some superb initiatives and collaborations such as WRAP and the Plastics Pact, RECOUP, CEFLEX, OPRL and Advance London (LWARB) already happening which are bringing together organisations across the packaging value chain. Experience from these show that people are willing to be involved and make compromises, but it can be difficult to know which to get involved in. It was noted that more dialogue needs to happen between these to make people more aware of outputs - as well as working together more effectively on catalysing and optimising on the need for action.
A few gaps highlighted are collaborations between SME product developers and the waste and recycling industry where more can be learnt from each other. Another gap is around the reuse / refill operations and the economies to make it work.
A blocker to collaboration is that not everybody is clear on the why and what they are trying to achieve. Are they motivated by long term health and environment, or to get rid of plastics to make consumers happy? A clarity on ultimate objective and the best way of achieving this is needed. Who is best placed to set this overarching goal? Government intervention is clearly needed with strong targets on reduction and reuse as well as recycling – but we can act quicker than that. We also need to ensure it is based on evidence.
It is crucial to take a systems approach. We need to recognise the key players and what they need to do to effect change and make the system work. Economists also need to be included in the debate as it’s also an economic opportunity.
Bringing about effective collaboration
The main outputs from the day, summarised by IGD’s CEO Susan Barratt, gave rise to 3 key areas that IGD can potentially drive and add value including:
- Creating a collective vision, bringing together key stakeholders, experts and government; this should recognise the economic reality of sustainable packaging system change and set a joined up ambition
- Building on our new free resources to provide evidence-based guidance to the whole system, including visibility of innovative initiatives that could be scaled up
- Considering new research to understand how we can shift consumer behaviour towards packaging re-use.
Find out more
Visit our website for more information about IGD’s Sustainable Packaging Systems programme including useful links and a technical design guide, Circularity for plastic packaging.