In recent years, the global sustainability movement has propelled consumers to scrutinise every aspect of their purchasing decisions, particularly when it comes to the packaging of the products they purchase. However, once highly regarded sustainable solutions in packaging are now facing wavering consumer sentiment. While there are a variety of sustainable packaging types and “recyclable” is seen as the most mainstream, we’ll focus on biodegradable, compostable packaging and packaging made out of recycled material in Western Europe and show how these options are no longer enjoying the unwavering support they once did. In this article, we delve into the evolving perceptions surrounding these packaging types and deep-dive into how generational gaps vary widely in opinion and how companies can use online SKU data for redefining strategy to respond to changing sentiment.
Sustainability perception of packaging types largely declines across Western Europe
Tracking consumer sentiment for sustainability packaging options over a multi-year time period can be very advantageous for identifying just how much these long-term trends and patterns are changing at the country level. Taking the largest five countries by GDP for Western Europe shows that the majority of consumers, with the exception of Germany, see biodegradable packaging to be considered the most sustainable or better for the environment option compared to compostable or made with recycled content packaging options.
In Italy and Spain, for example, there is a double-digit percentage difference in consumers’ perception across the 4-year time period that consumers see biodegradable packaging as more sustainable than compostable packaging or packaging made with recycled content. However, despite the higher perception across nearly all countries, consumer sentiment in 2023 is trending down for biodegradable packaging and this is for a number of reasons including a lack of clear standards and certifications, and trust in the transparency and efficacy of the process and infrastructure, as well as consumers feeling that the packaging products themselves are not high enough quality to be real solutions compared to other packaging options.
Tracking sentiment over multiple years can provide context to other categories to determine if trends are isolated or part of a larger movement. We can clearly see that the challenges that biodegradable packaging is facing are not unique. All three sustainable packaging solutions in question show that 2023 consumer sentiment is lower than in one of the previous years, indicating that there is no “upward” momentum of consumers’ support for these packaging options.
Consumer sentiment towards biodegradable packaging, compostable packaging, and packaging made with recycled content is lower in 2023 than in previous years
Source: Euromonitor Voice of the Consumer: Sustainability Survey, fielded January-February 2023
Companies need to be working on addressing consumers’ overall concern of greenwashing as well as showing tangible benefits of these sustainable packaging options and restore consumers’ faith in the process and efficacy.
Italy’s perception of compostable packaging varies strongly by generation type
In order to make concrete decisions on how to restore trust and support in the products themselves, diving into consumer segmentation can provide a more effective way to address the problem. We’ll look at Italy, in particular. The country has made a strong commitment to compostable packaging in the previous decade by creating trade association partnerships to work with the government to establish clear frameworks for producers and stakeholders. In 2020, various companies created a new 100% compostable and high barrier packaging that complied with European standards and disintegrated in 45 days. Along with other initiatives, consumer sentiment on compostable packaging rose significantly from 38.5% in 2020 to 45.6% in 2021.
However, in the two years since, opinions in the country seeing compostable packaging as sustainable or better for the environment dropped to 42.5% in 2023. In order to change consumer opinion on the impact of packaging, it’s important to first gauge where sentiment is most strongly changing. As we can see in the bubble chart above, four generations of consumers’ opinions differ greatly. What’s most glaring is the change in sentiment among Generation Z consumers: their consideration of compostable packaging to be sustainable or better for the environment is not just the lowest in 2023 at 30.3%, but in just two years that opinion has declined by 13.5 percentage points. These consumers are clearly either not believing the claims that this type of packaging solution provides or are not receiving education on the benefits of these products. Either way, in order to help change overall consumer sentiment and reverse eroding support among the public for this packaging solution, prioritising Generation Z consumers is an effective place to start, especially given how changing opinions now can have longer-term dividends given the right message and product.
Online engagement metrics differ drastically between sustainable packaging options
With packaged food manufacturers and packaging suppliers looking to increase consumer sentiment within sustainable packaging options, zeroing in on how often consumers rate stock-keeping units (SKUs) online can shed light on areas for improvement as well as help potentially explain some of the disconnect between sentiment. For example, looking at packaged food SKUs online across the five European markets shows a drastic difference in the average number of ratings different products received, segmented by their sustainable packaging. Average number of ratings for SKUs provides insights into how engaged consumers are, given consumers are taking the time to provide feedback on the product itself. While layering additional metrics such as the quality of the ratings as well as sentiment of the feedback can provide additional insight, for this piece we’ll solely focus on the number of ratings.
While there could be a number of reasons that a product would receive a higher or lower number of ratings by consumers besides just the packaging, we can see that across all markets, with the exception of the UK, SKUs with biodegradable as well as compostable packaging have far fewer average number of consumer ratings besides those made with recycled packaging. In the case of Italy, those products with compostable packaging averaged only 82 reviews per SKU, indicating lower engagement than its European equivalents. In order to help increase overall sentiment in these packaging types, suppliers, retailers and all stakeholders need to work on promoting not just the message of the effectiveness of this packaging solution but also the individual SKUs to raise greater awareness. Enhancing sustainable certifications marketed towards specific consumer segmentations and generations is one such way companies can look to bolster and restore consumer confidence.
Note: Euromonitor Voice of the Consumer: Sustainability Survey, fielded January-February 2023, sample sizes: France (2020, n=1,008; 2021, n=1,007; 2022, n=1,007; 2023, n=1,004), Germany (2020, n=1,002; 2021, n=1,009; 2022, n=1,035; 2023, n=1,003), Italy (2020, n=1,131; 2021, n=1,006; 2022, n=1,042; 2023, n=1,004), Spain (2020, n=1,008; 2021, n=1,000; 2022, n=1,037; 2023, n=1,012), UK (2020, n=1,013; 2021, n=1,009; 2022, n=1,003; 2023, n=1,003). Italy Generation Type sample size for 2023 (Baby Boomers = 447, Generation X = 254, Generation Z = 116, Millennials = 187). Sample based on SKU prices found in Euromonitor International’s e-commerce tracking tool Via with data extracted in May 2023. Please note that due to ongoing improvements to the AI-led product matching of SKUs to categories, supplier, and brands, data and SKU counts can be revised based on system updates. SKU counts used for packaged food sustainable packaging analysis: France (436), Germany (685), Italy (949), Spain (521), UK (8,696) based on leading online retailers.