Sustainable Packaging: The Ultimate Catch-22

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.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann started Shelton Group's research department in 2000 and paved the way for us to become the insights-grounded creative agency we are today. After 17 years leading our research team, she recently handed down the title of Vice President of Research & Insights, but remains an integral part of that team as she continues to oversee proprietary studies.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and GreenBiz.com.

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insight

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Penny Kemp

VP Account Management & Strategy

Penny leads our client engagement process, overseeing activities from both a strategic and a tactical level to ensure our work generates desired results. She works closely with Suzanne, President & CEO, to develop strategic marketing plans and with Matt, VP Creative, to foster creative campaign ideas. Before joining Shelton Group, Penny had developed expertise in brand management and marketing while working with award-winning agencies and shepherding programs for the likes of Ritz-Carlton Hotels, Russell Athletic and James Hardie Building Products.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Glen L. Vesser III

VP Finance and Administration

Glen manages Shelton Group’s finances and administration, ensuring our internal systems run smoothly so we can provide exceptional client service in a seamless and timely manner. Glen’s financial and administrative expertise has been shaped by decades of experience in a variety of industries, including public accounting, media distribution and health care.

Mike Beamer

VP Business Development

Mike joined our team to help provide strategic vision and foster our agency’s growth by overseeing new business leads and managing agency marketing and website content. He arrived in Knoxville steeped in energy efficiency and renewables – he previously led client service for an agency division in Boston dedicated to marketing communications strategy and branding for B2B and B2C clients in that space.