The Importance of Sustainability in Packaging

28 April 2017

The Importance of Sustainability in Packaging

The Importance of Sustainability in Packaging: Major brand owners and retailers in 5 key European markets speak up




Pro Carton is pleased to present the key findings from the study it commissioned from Smithers Pira into brand owners and retailers´ perception of sustainability in packaging, writes Tony Hitchin, Pro Carton General Manager. It is intriguing to see how the environmental benefits of cartonboard packaging have been perceived by our target audiences and I am delighted to note that our strengths of recyclability and renewability are now well appreciated. Almost all the respondents felt sustainable packaging was important to their business. However, it was interesting to see that a lot of emphasis is put on reducing packaging weight. This, of course, makes good sense, especially when talking about a non-sustainable packaging material, but there are times when a sustainable material could be used instead. Trying to use less of a non-sustainable material (e.g. plastic) is still a bad choice for the environment when an alternative more sustainable material could be used! Quite rightly, folding cartons are seen as being the most sustainable packaging format. It would be good to think that cartonboard will, therefore, always be brand owners’ first choice as a packaging medium.

I hope you find the research thought provoking and useful.


Outline of the Study

This study was conducted in the five major European markets: Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain. This research was aimed at investigating views and attitudes amongst major European brand owners and retailers on sustainability in packaging and its importance to the retail business. The main fieldwork for this project consisted of a series of 100 telephone interviews with leading decision makers.


Key Findings

The survey revealed that 96% of respondents felt the use of sustainable packaging was important to

their business with just over half (52%) saying this was either ‘very important’ or ‘critical’.

The top criteria for packaging to be considered ‘sustainable’ were a) that it is a recyclable material (29.2%), b) that it uses renewable & abundant materials (19.6%), c) that it uses minimal lightweight materials (15.5%), d) that is has a low environmental footprint’ (8.2%) and e) that it is biodegradable or compostable (5.1%). Respondents expected the expansion of multichannel retailing to drive strongest growth in folding cartons over the next five years; these were perceived to be not only the most ‘versatile’ but also the most ‘sustainable’ form of primary packaging for more complex distribution channels. Brand owners’ choice of folding cartons as the ‘most sustainable’ packaging format was based on their unique ability to meet a combination of key environmental considerations:

  • They can be made from renewable forestry (and FSC Certified) resources
  • They are widely collected and easily recycled many times over
  • They usually incorporate a high percentage of recycled materials
  • They are lightweight, offering good product protection and low (transport) costs
  • Over time they are bio-degradable
  • Even if incinerated to generate energy, they can be considered ‘carbon neutral’


    Importance of Sustainability in Packaging

    Recyclability is the most important factor: 81% find it important, 48% even say it is critical.

    Unsurprisingly the brand owners and retailers interviewed in our survey rated ‘protecting the product’ as the most important role of packaging. ‘Recyclability’ and ‘cost’ along with providing the required ‘technical performance’ were ranked as the next most important criteria. Recyclability scored more highly than sustainability which suggests that the focus amongst our respondents tends to be on end of life rather than whole life when assessing the suitability of packaging formats. It is perhaps concerning that the holistic view of packaging’s whole life cycle from “cradle to grave” may not be as important a factor as its recyclability.

    Country Comments

    GERMANY “We set goals to use only sustainable ingredients and packaging. Since 2014 we have only used certifiable forest products and guarantee that 90% of packaging is from sustainable forestry. We have also set the target of using 100% renewable raw materials and packaging by 2020.”


    UNITED KINGDOM “We are looking at all our materials at present and aiming to use recycled board” “We are using more

    cartonboard and we recycle everything we possibly can”


    ITALY “We are trying to achieve 100% of packaging in paper instead than plastic” “We have added information about recyclability on packs and are trying to use mono-material packaging” “We are increasingly careful to select suppliers capable to supply environmentally sustainable solutions”


    SPAIN “We use less material and lowered the thickness” “We are reducing weight in cartonboard and plastic”


    Impact of Consumer Attitudes

    It is consumers who steadily push for more sustainability.

    A majority of the survey respondents said that it was consumers who are steadily pushing retailers and brand owners to use more sustainable packaging with a particular emphasis on recycling and the use of renewable resources. Consumers themselves are being driven by increasing media coverage and concern about waste and resource usage generally. Change at consumer level is, however, perceived to be slow, steady and long term but nevertheless only heading in the one direction – i.e. for more sustainable packaging.


    Criteria to be ‘Sustainable’ Packaging

    Recyclable, renewable, lightweight are what counts most concerning sustainable packaging.

    The respondents ranked the five key criteria for packaging to be ‘sustainable’: a) that it is a recyclable material (29.2%), b) that it uses renewable & abundant materials (19.6%), c) that it uses minimal lightweight materials (15.5%), d) that is has a low overall environmental footprint (8.2%) and e) that it is biodegradable or compostable (5.1%). Interestingly, France, Italy and Spain ranked using renewable & abundant materials much less importantly than did Germany or the UK. Germany was the only country to rank this as the most important criterion, which suggests that there is still a great deal of educating to be done in the rest of Europe.


    Future Growth

    62% of the brand owners and retailers expect a growing need for sustainability in packaging.

    The consensus of opinion was that the need for more sustainable packaging will grow over the next five years, with 62% expecting growth, compared with 18% expecting the need to remain static and 19% expecting decline. The majority of respondents were expecting ‘slow’ or ‘quite strong’ growth but 15% were expecting growth to be ‘very strong’. The UK was by far most positive about the expectation of strong growth in sustainable packaging.


    Key Drivers of Growth

    Rising consumer awareness as well governmental policies and local authorities are key drivers of growth. Most respondents said growth was driven in principle by the rising consumer awareness of environmental issues, waste and packaging with emphasis particularly on increased recycling and the greater use of recycled materials. Specific current issues cited included the strong drive for less land-fill, changes to local authorities' waste collection, rises in land-fill gate fees and government policies on the circular economy


    Country Comments:

    ITALY “Consumers are starting to pay greater attention to sustainability issues”

    “The awareness and need to recycle is booming, consumers are part of a virtuous circle” “Companies will be pressurised by the market to adopt environmental sustainable policies to remain competitive”

    SPAIN “The new generations are more aware of sustainability


    Most Versatile Packaging Type

    Folding cartons are number one as the most versatile primary packaging. Folding cartons were rated as the most versatile form of primary packaging to adapt to the more diverse and complex distribution channels with flexible packaging rated next best. The main reason for choosing folding cartons and flexible packaging was their ability to adapt to different product types, applications, shapes and sizes. Easier transportation, lower weight and lower transport costs were also important.

    Italy and Spain seem less convinced as to the benefits of cartons in these new distribution channels.


    Most Sustainable Packaging Material

    78% chose cartonboard over rigid and flexible plastics as the most sustainable.

    When pushed to choose between rigid plastics, flexible plastics and cartonboard as to the “most sustainable form of packaging” an overwhelming majority of respondents (78% across all five countries) chose cartonboard. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that 22% believe that these plastics are more sustainable than cartons. The strongest preference for cartonboard was found in France and Germany, whilst it appears that there is a lower level of understanding of the key issues surrounding packaging sustainability in Italy, Spain and to a degree the UK.


    The full report can be downloaded , in multiple languages directly from Pro Carton’s website

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