Sustainable Packaging: The Ultimate Catch-22

By Lee Ann Head, VP Research, and Suzanne Shelton, CEO

Consider the plight of the brand or product manager who receives the following mandate from on high: “Figure out the sustainability story for your brand.”

We work with a lot of folks who are in this spot. And we’ve observed that they immediately gravitate towards “greening things up” in five areas:

  • Ingredients in the product itself
  • Manufacturing processes (reducing waste and overall footprint)
  • Energy used to manufacture the product
  • Packaging of the product
  • Community/social initiatives to which they could tie the product

We also see that, after thinking about all five options, most brand managers make a beeline for packaging. It’s really difficult to change manufacturing processes, get renewable energy systems installed and/or mess around with ingredients in a highly successful product. But packaging’s fairly easy to change – especially since all the companies that make packaging and packaging materials are pushing sustainable options.

To offer insight and guidance to our clients on this front, we’ve asked consumers about packaging quite a bit in the last couple of years. In focus groups, they’ve pretty bluntly said they “buy the product, not the package.”  But they’ve also indicated they don’t like overpackaging or wasteful packaging, and we know they have opinions about packaging materials (whether or not those materials are a reason to buy or not buy the product). So we probed a little more in our soon-to-be-published Green Living Pulse study, for which consumers were given a list of common packaging materials and asked to rank-order them in terms of sustainability. The graph you see at the top of this article shows how this exercise worked out.

So are consumers right? We did our own digging and found that not only is there no clear-cut answer to this question, there are some alarming “downsides” to most options. While all of the materials/industries noted above make the claim that they are the most sustainable alternative (supported by valid arguments) the “correct” ranking ultimately depends upon your personal/corporate priorities, such as health or environmental impact (e.g., carbon footprint or recycling rates) and the packaging category.

Now, it’s VERY important to note that the vast majority of consumers aren’t going to do that much digging. So most consumers will likely stay clueless about any downsides, with the exception of emerging (and highly publicized) concerns about heating foods in plastic containers and (to a lesser degree) BPA. When asked to choose the best description to read about a product’s packaging, Green Living Pulse respondents preferred “recyclable” (28%), “biodegradable” (19%) and “made of recycled content” (14%).

Knowing that, brand managers should prioritize and incorporate recyclable, biodegradable and recycled-content materials into their packaging whenever possible/practical (regardless of the actual material), and should note the recyclability or biodegradability of the package on the package.

And if you’re a manufacturer of one of the materials on the list above – and you don’t like where consumers have ranked you – get to work on defining and communicating your sustainability story through the lens of what matters most to end consumers.

Lee Ann Head

About Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann started Shelton Group's research department in 2000 and now oversees all custom and proprietary research. She directs a staff that designs quantitative and qualitative studies, and she oversees secondary analyses, digging deep to find the nuggets of information that pave the way for successful insights, strategies and creative. She regularly presents findings to clients and industry groups around the country, as well as in her posts on the Shelton Insights blog.

View all posts by Lee Ann Head →


  1. sustainability in general is a blessing not a curse for one important reason, we cannot destroy the planet and claim we are building the future.

    Express Green PAK designs, manufactures and distributes certified, tree-free, recycle paper packaging for food processing, retail and consumer packaging industries. Our mission is to focus on biodegradable and recycle environmentally friendly packaging that protects consumer wellness while minimizing deforestation, which has enormous ecological impact on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

    • Brooks Clark

      Thank you for your comment! Keep up the good work!

      Brooks Clark
      managing editor
      Shelton Insights

  2. Manufacturing takes turns under all types of economic systems. In a free market economy, manufacturing is usually directed toward the mass production of products for sale to consumers at a profit. In a collectivist economy, manufacturing is more frequently directed by the state to supply a centrally planned economy. In mixed market economies, manufacturing occurs under some degree of government regulation.,,*-

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