Sustainable Packaging: What It Means to the Global Consumer

Sustainable packaging is not only here to stay but is growing in relevance. There is no doubt that consumers are losing their tolerance for products that are not packaged in some environmentally friendly way.

Sustainable Packaging What It Means to the Global Consumer

Sustainable packaging continues to grow as an area of focus for many retailers and brands. However, understanding what this really means to your market and to your consumer requires a granular approach.

Sustainable Packing – Overview

Sustainable packaging is not only here to stay but is growing in relevance. There is no doubt that consumers are losing their tolerance for products that don’t have an eco-friendly packaging. Sustainability is now mainstream across many sectors. The rise of ESG investment (‘Environmental, Social & Governance’) will ultimately require public companies to address their own long-term impact on society and the environment and this will only enhance the role of companies in changing our behaviour as a consumer.

Initiatives, such as the Prince of Wales’ Terra Carta further underpin this shift in corporate behaviour by setting out a 10 point action plan for business to address our current sustainability needs, which already some 220 global corporates have signed up and committed to. Investments will lead to innovation and one can therefore expect this to feed into how products are packaged.

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Clearly, there is a shift change. We can therefore expect to see government and business collaborating more effectively in the short term. The more complex question is what this means for you as a Brand or retailer. Sustainability is a broad term, and with it comes a myriad of complex issues that need to be addressed. Looking at them all at once can certainly be overwhelming at a product packaging level. This is particularly true if you are selling into multiple markets. There are three key areas that retailers or brands need to be aware of: consumer perception, market relevance and commercialisation.

Consumer Perception

In a recent report published by McKinsey (December 2020) on ‘Sustainability in Packaging’, which is based on findings from a survey conducted on 10,000 people from different countries, the findings clearly identify different global perceptions of what sustainable packaging means at a consumer level.

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Fig 1, Consumer Perception on sustainable packaging by country, McKinsey (Dec 2020)

The graphic clearly shows that there is general alignment on what are the least sustainable options, but not when it comes to the most sustainable options. This consumer perception is critical for packaging design. In fact, it largely dictates the materials that need to be used for a specific market.

However, a little note of caution that perception and behaviour are not always in agreement. In 1965, Sten Gustaf Thulin, a Swedish engineer working for a packaging company, introduced a new type of bag; the ‘plastic’ bag. His bag was more durable and could easily be re-used. He genuinely saw his product as an opportunity to address the waste that was building up with paper bags. It is ironic that some 65 years later his bag is now one of the symbols of global pollution.

Sustainable Packaging – Market Relevance

Even though consumers can have a view on what is more sustainable, the regulatory environment at Government and local Government levels cannot be understated. There is no point in making a fantastic package for a product when there is no capability in market to deal with the end-use of that packaging.

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Put simply, you can come up with the best compostable or biodegradable plastic package but if the right conditions are not available (even for home composting) then the effectiveness of the decomposition is hindered. The European Bioplastics Organisation has consequently published a paper earlier this year clarifying the use of claims of biodegradability and compostability on packaging. Similarly, if you use certain types of plastic that are not recyclable in a particular market due to a different steer in Government investment, there will likewise be end-use issues. Aligning to your sales market and being relevant are key considerations.


Although in certain sectors there is growing evidence that the consumer will pay more for a product if it uses or incorporates some kind of sustainable packaging, price can be prohibitive. It is packaging after all. Given the consumer does not generally need it post-purchase, brands don’t spend much money on it.

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There is a delicate balance between the function of the packaging and the product quality. Both the use of alternative materials (such as pulp, bamboo, post-consumer resin [PCR]) and re-engineering the packaging (i.e., removing the amount of material used) need to be considered as part of this balance, which will also ultimately help manage price.

ET2C & Sustainable Packaging

We are working with our clients on many initiatives around sustainable packaging and products from across our sourcing markets. This includes bamboo packaging, the use of PCR in plastic packaging and re-engineering boxes to be made from pulp materials. Understanding your market, consumer and price-points are key aspects of identifying opportunities for you to look at sustainable packaging options.

We have local teams on the ground already working with suppliers in this field. Surely, we will be more than happy to discuss your needs with you. For all your sustainable packaging requirements, please contact us at

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