10 Sustainable packaging trends in 2021

With more and more companies announcing their net zero ambitions, whether that is 2025, 2030 or 2040, change needs to happen and actions need to be taken. For all companies that have any packaging in their supply chain, a serious review of what they use, where is comes from, how it can be reduced and where is ends up, will be needed.

Consumer’s awareness of sustainable topics is at an all-time high and the pandemic has only accelerated this. Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle said “The average consumer cares most about convenience and affordability. We need to accept that and offer models to play into that”.

Therefore, all trends in packaging need to keep the customer also at the front its mind if they are to gain traction and make a real difference. Businesses need to be sustainable on both the business and the environmental fronts.

1. Carbon footprint labelling

This is not a new topic but is seeing a recent insurgence. Some forward-thinking companies on the case on this already. Carbon labelling is when products show the carbon footprint embodied in the product. This includes the carbon emitted as a by-product of the Manufacturing, transporting and disposing of a consumer product.

It’s a powerful tool to support consumers decision when purchasing and an increasingly strategic lever to make real change.

In a recent survey by Carbon Trust, over two-thirds of consumers think that it is a good idea to feature carbon labels on products and in the UK half of the survey respondents would use it to support a purchasing decision.

Oatly has recently started measuring this for their products.

“We want to raise awareness around the massive effect our food choices have on the climate,” says Linda Nordgren from Oatly, the Swedish plant milk company which began putting the carbon footprint of their oat milk on their cartons last year.

Carbon labelling does have some challenges though. There is no standardised measure for companies to follow, the process can be onerous for some companies and some education pieces for the consumers are required to really drive the change needed.

2. Recycling

This is not a new topic and we have almost come a full circle on the days where we used to return glass bottles for a small deposit.

The Government and manufacturers are continuing to work in parallel on improving the recycling process. Given that not all areas in the UK recycle all materials now, it is falling heavily on manufacturers to get smarter with the materials they us and how we can recycle them.

Consumers want to know what the content of the recycled materials in each product is and how they can be recycled.

TerraCycle is leading to way on the partnerships and sustainable packaging trends. They develop deep relationships with FMCG companies to drive recycling efforts.

Expect this trend to and innovation to continue, but in the direction of consumers and local services being more locally pressured. E-commerce providers will need to provider detailed Packaging information, akin to the nutrition information provided and ways to dispose of this locally to the consumer.

3. Reduce waste, size and amount

Being a sustainable company means reducing waste. In fact, most companies work towards this! But it’s not just production or time wasted. It is analysing the packaging, with the most critical eye.

It is interesting to see how things are evolving as we are noticing things all the time which support less waste. For example, greeting cards are sold in in some brands without a plastic sleeve. Magazine subscriptions come in paper envelope, but we have such a long way to go.

Smaller and more efficient packaging means less waste in shipping containers, transport and warehousing, all which are better for the environment and the bottom line.

Amazon has many stories around their apparent disregard to reducing waste, which brings reputational damage.

Aldi on the other hand, got very creative in their efforts to reduce plastic packaging waste but releasing a geometric easter egg.

4. Refillable, returnable, reuse, repurpose

All companies should be starting to think about how they their product might work in one of these aspects. Are you going to be ready when consumer demand reaches the tipping point?

Great to see Unilever, launch their Dove Refillable Deodorant earlier this year. This will not without challenges of how much shelf distribution they can get for both the product and the refill to make it viable, but it will take the giants to sort out the logistics and demand patterns for all.

One of our recent clients works in Construction and receives a lot of construction samples. They are questioning their suppliers as to whether these can be returnable, better for the environment and better for the business too.

But also, great to see what companies are doing with the refillable sector.

Aldi (again) is having launched its first packaging-free trial in store. We are interested to see how this works for them, but most importantly, consumer uptake.

5. What is happening in regulations?

The regulatory environment will start to put additional pressure on the system for waste reduction and to ensure that the national targets are met.

In the UK, we are imminently facing approval of the new Plastic Packaging Tax . This Tax will place a levy of £200 on all Plastic packaging which do not contain at least 30% recycled materials.

This is not a perfect system, as processes are yet to be worked out for how the recycled content is going to measured and validated, what the definition of packaging is and working around the regulations which disallow recycle content in their product.

But watch this space for tighter and more comprehensive regulations to come.

6. Designing out plastics

By working at the design phase of packaging and product development, can make huge inroads into significant environmental impacts. In fact, it is a whole new industry.

Whether you are a B2B or B2C business, eliminating the ‘nasties’ out of packaging will not happen in one step, but several collaborative innovations to reach the end goal.

To guide the thinking, for business, ‘Cradle’ approaches are more prominent.

Cradle-to-gate: mostly used for business-to-business (B2B) products. This assessment considers the partial product life cycle and the total greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction of raw materials through to product manufacture up to the factory gate.

Cradle-to-grave: mostly used for business-to-consumer (B2C) products. This process considers the complete life cycle and total greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction of raw materials through to the product’s manufacture, distribution, use and eventual disposal.

When innovating and designing packaging it is important to consider the elements in the whole life cycle.

7. Innovation

Large scale innovation is required to tackle the Packaging challenges ahead.

We love to read about some completely new approach to Packaging, even concepts like Edible packaging. Who would have thought?

Grow your own and quickly compostable packaging is also featuring as future trends. Mushroom® Packaging is something very innovative which could change the whole industry.

But innovation brings lots of opportunity as well. UK company, Waterhaul has turned Marine waste into a Business. Reclaiming ocean waste and remaking into sunglasses has become a booming business with a purpose.

Additional funding is also a possibility. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is in its second phase of Smart sustainable plastic packaging challenge which is a funding program to tackle the challenge ahead. We expect to see more funding in this area as the government’s move towards their ambitious environmental targets.

8. Certification

Packaging Sustainability labels and certifications have been around a while. Recycling labels are the most obvious and accepted packaging label we have. A few others included:

FSC Certification (FSC) is an international non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization established in 1993 that promotes responsible management of the world’s forests. It is an example of a market-based certification program used as a transnational environmental policy.

Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit organization working at the intersection of business, agriculture, and forests to make responsible business the new normal. We are building an alliance to protect forests, improve the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities, promote their human rights, and help them mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.

Product Carbon Footprint Protocol is a clear identifier of products that have had their carbon footprints certified by the Carbon Trust

This is a validation of accurate footprints, providing customers with verified information about the carbon impacts of their purchasing decisions.

Cradle to Cradle Certified® program takes a comprehensive approach to evaluating the design of a product and the manufacturing process. The program assesses a product’s safety to humans, the environment and design for future life cycles and provides guidelines to help businesses implement the Cradle-to-Cradle framework.

We expect this to be even more demanded by consumers and businesses to independently validate all claims made in the supply chain.

9. Collaborations

Who do you partner with to get your packaging? What do they measure as a company and what innovation do you see from them? Having the right partner to support your business, could be make or break.

If you are B2B, watch your customer closely as they will be moving along in this space and just one strong initiative in the packaging area will set a product apart.

We see creative collaborations continuing as with UK brand Right Guard® has collaborated in a unique way to repurpose their product and build outdoor gyms with The Great Outdoor Gym Company

Challenge your current supply chain on its packaging.

Get involved with your industry to drive improvements.

Look out for and be open minded about collaborations outside your normal supply chain and industry sector.

We see strong innovation and creative collaborations and a differentiator in the Packaging space.

10. Customer focussed

The one thing is for sure is that the evolution on packaging will be led by the customer demand for each initiative. The trick will be for the developers, retailers, and manufacturers to capture the consumers interest with their innovation and make it a ‘thing’. After all we are in the Instagram generation, it needs to be appealing and practical to gain mass appeal.

Like the Coca- Colas paper bottle movement, will consumers not just accept this but desire and demand it?

But at the end of the day, packaging still needs to serve it purpose. The product needs retain its integrity, security and form. It needs to deliver a product to a customer, exactly as intended, and be sustainable too!

If you would like some help understanding your Supply Chain and its sustainability, get in touch with us at Sustainable X.


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