Alas, packaging’s not the Holy Grail

Alas, packaging’s not the Holy Grail

If you’re a Consumer Packaged Goods manufacturer there are roughly five areas you can target to improve the sustainability of your product:  the manufacturing process, the energy used in the manufacturing process, corporate social responsibility, ingredients and packaging. Most brand managers we know and work with are laser-focused on the last three and, judging by the proliferation of packaging conferences and the growing number of attendees at those conferences, packaging is getting the bulk of the attention right now.

For the last three years in our Eco Pulse study we’ve asked Americans, “how do you determine if a product is green?”  The top answer three years in a row?  “I read the package.” So, for the last two years we’ve taken packages into our annual, proprietary focus groups to test the believability of the messaging on them.  And for the last two years we’ve heard lots of confusion about the jargon we all like to throw around, the alphabet soup of GMO’s and VOC’s and BPA’s.  But over the last two nights, in this year’s focus groups (in Boston and LA, with Skeptics and Seekers), we’ve heard one message loud and clear:

“I buy the product, not the package.”

As Dasani’s plant-based bottle, Seventh Generation’s paperboard detergent package and Triscuit’s box with the seed packet imbedded on the back were passed around consumers, frankly, were not impressed.  In fact, sadly, sometimes they were put off:

“What does it mean it’s plant-based? It’s plastic, how can it be made from a plant? And all those bottled water manufacturers are now doing that less plastic thing and it makes the bottles hard to hold…they slip out of your hand.”

“So I now have to take apart my detergent bottle to recycle it?  I’d rather just have one package I toss in my bin.  And with that paper outside, wouldn’t it leak or not be as durable? I’m not sure I’d get through all 60 loads before it falls apart.  And why does every ‘green’ thing have to either be the color green or in some kind of yuchy brown paper?”

“Seeds on a Trscuit box? What does Triscuit have to do with gardening? Looks like a gimmick to me.”


My takeaway was that those of us in the green marketing industry are WAY more excited about our packaging innovations than consumers.  Consistently they said the packaging innovation not only wouldn’t get them to buy that product, it might actually give them a reason to distrust the manufacturer.  They did also consistently say that cardboard or paper packaging is better than plastic (the Seventh Generation package aside), they don’t like it when there’s too much packaging (though that didn’t seem to be a deterrent to purchase) and if a product with a packaging innovation was the same price — or cheaper — than the other options on the shelf, they might try it.

One other interesting note:  when we asked, “which is better:  Made in the USA or Made with Recycled Content” every group split right down the middle.

So maybe that’s a sixth bucket manufacturers can look at as they green their products.


About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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