Survey after survey shows consumer awareness is higher than ever that product packaging contributes to plastic waste in landfills or as litter in waterways.
However, after the pandemic hit, the top-ranked criteria driving consumers’ food and beverage purchases shifted to hygiene, food safety and shelf life, according to an August 2020 global survey from McKinsey & Company.
But that doesn’t mean consumers aren’t watching for products packaged in a way that reduces waste, conserves energy and curbs carbon footprint. The survey found 55% of consumers are extremely or very concerned about the environmental impact of packaging and would buy additional sustainably packaged products if more of them were available and they were better labelled.
McKinsey’s study also found that COVID-19 crisis has significantly heightened consumer sensitivity to new preferences for packaging materials—in particular, recyclable and recycled packaging and in-fiber based substitutes.
Jordan Fengel, sustainability manager, U.S. and Canada at Tetra Pak—whose low-carbon-footprint carton packaging is used in Canada by the likes of Coca-Cola on its juice brands, Flow Water, Lassonde and Grand Pré milk—says their recent consumer tracking has found increased attention on packaging. Consumers want it to be “higher performing in terms of longer shelf life,” he says, but also environmentally sustainable. “Once we come out of the pandemic, I think sustainability will regain its top position as a consumer focus, which is why we haven’t seen food and beverage vendors back away from announcing new commitments.” (see “Setting new goals”.)
In other words, sustainability is no trend. Rather, it is a critical issue for both c-stores and their product suppliers around the globe and here in Canada, due, in part, to new federal plastics regulation. It stipulates that all plastics sold in Canada be made from at least 50% recycled material by 2030.
“Packaging serves a critical role in maintaining both freshness and safety, but waste from plastic packaging is a growing issue,” says Katya Hantel, senior director of sustainability at Conagra Brands. “Sustainable packaging solutions is one part of Conagra’s broader commitment to responsible sourcing.”
“Sustainability can absolutely be a competitive advantage,” agrees Brianna Ames, director, public affairs, comms and sustainability at Coca-Cola Canada, which is testing a paper bottle. (see “Repackaged: New innovations”.) “Consumers care more and more about the environment and have higher expectations for companies to do their part.”
Major c-store operators are also all-in on sustainability as an overarching business imperative. By 2025, Couche-Tard has promised to increase sustainable packaging for foodservice and private brand consumable products by 25% over 2020. And by 2030, it hopes 100% of the packaging will be recyclable or reusable.
“For us, sustainability has evolved from being individual actions by teams within the company to now being a business lens across our entire organization,” says Helena Winberg, Couche-Tard’s director of global sustainability. “This is how we can ensure that we are having the most impact for all our stakeholders and connect the dots of individual contributors.”
But to ensure there is no breakdown in building a ‘circular economy’—recapturing the value of the materials used in packaging for new packaging—it needs to be recycled. That is where both big and small c-store operators can individually play an important role at the ground level (see “Bin it to win it”).
In addition to packaging, Mackenzie Davison, growth lead at Mondelēz Canada, says “consumer awareness and understanding of sustainability sourced products is increasing” as well. It has added a ‘Cocoa Life’ logo to its chocolate products, to let consumers know that their cocoa is sustainably sourced. “We want to give our consumers the confidence that whenever they buy Mondelēz products, it will not only taste good, but do good too.”