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The Right Message: Translating Sustainable Packaging to Consumers

Beth Scherer
  • The definition of sustainable packaging has grown in the past few years to fit new expectations and parameters, but that has also increased consumer confusion in what is and isn’t sustainable.
  • Despite this confusion, however, most consumers are seeking out sustainably produced packaging and goods, particularly women and millennials—prime targets for the beauty industry.
  • Beauty brand owners need to be smart about how they display their sustainable initiatives on their packaging, managing for clarity, space and easy consumer connection points.

Sustainability has received a lot of attention in the past decade. Rapidly moving from an innovative new concept to simply a day-to-day business concept, what once was often solely a marketing tool is becoming a set of metrics used to measure business success. Sustainability has moved from a set of certifications Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), carbon neutrality) to a comprehensive vision that balances product performance, financial considerations, and environmental and social concerns.

Nowhere is this truer than in packaging. In the past, the decision of whether to package sustainably might have been simply whether or not to purchase FSC certified stock. Now, the comprehensive version of sustainability companies are adopting incorporates many, many more elements.

And consumers care about sustainability. In fact, there is a wealth of data to support consumer interest in purchasing perceived sustainable products that are packaged responsibly. For example, in a 2009 study by Deloitte and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 54% of shoppers claimed to consider elements of sustainability when selecting both products and stores.1 Further, in a 2009 study by Tiller, 47% of consumers surveyed said they brought products from a socially or environmentally responsible company, and 76% of all consumers said they expected to purchase more from environmentally responsible companies in 2010.2

While the increase in complexity is a positive step for sustainability—making solutions more tailored to individual challenges and creating the greatest value—it also can easily create confusion. Keeping it simple and easily digestible is critical to consumers. Complicated solutions create a complicated company and product narrative, and that can leave consumers wondering what the “right thing” really looks like.

Nevertheless, the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s 2012 Retail Sustainability Report predicts, “Retailers and manufacturers alike will continue to recognize the financial and process benefits to packaging reduction and will expand their efforts to redesign products and packages. At the same time, packaging will continue to play an important role in communicating the sustainable attributes of products to consumers.”3

In this pursuit, beauty packaging companies are often challenged with helping beauty brand owners and marketers communicate with a brand’s customers. For example, Curtis Packaging offers logos for sustainable attributes that can be added to product packaging, and it also often helps craft text explaining the multifaceted sustainability efforts the beauty brand endeavors to.

But from a consumer marketing perspective, is it worth the effort? Why are beauty companies getting involved with sustainable packaging and sustainable packaging suppliers? And how do these companies leverage these efforts to enhance their brands and products?

Consumer Demand for Sustainable Packaging

The bottom line is: there is a growing body of evidence that consumers care. They want to do something to make the world better, and they want to use their purchasing power to do it. According to a 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study, 80% of consumers are likely to switch brands, similar in price and quality, to one that supports a cause.4 In addition, a recent study from Perception Research Services found in 2011, 36% of shoppers were likely to choose environmentally friendly packaging, a 28% increase over 2010.5 Moreover, a 2012 Cone Communications study found 73% of consumers want companies to provide more environmental information on the product packaging to help inform their shopping decisions.6

More specifically, women and millennials—both quite important demographics for the beauty industry—particularly want to feel not only like they are getting an effective product but that they are contributing to a valuable cause to boot. According to the same 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study, 92% of moms want to buy a product supporting a cause. Moreover, they are more likely to trade brands and purchased more cause-related products over the study period than any other demographic. In addition, according to a 2010 study by Fleishman Hillard, 88% of women say they like brands that “allow me to do something good.”7 And a 2009 study by Generate Insight noted 76% of millennials feel it’s important for brands to get involved in the green movement, although the youngest segment (ages 13–17) strongly questions paying high costs for green products.8 However, a 2010 Capstrat-Public Policy Polling saw 56% of consumers age 18–45 willing to pay more for green products, and 19% of the youngest adults (age 18–29) said they’re willing to pay “significantly more” for green goods—more than twice any other age group.9

Despite all these positive sustainability stats, however, consumers can still be confused about what sustainable means. Many shoppers in the Perception Research Group’s 2012 study also said they didn’t know which packaging was better for the environment. And, according to the 2012 Cone Communications study, the majority of consumers (71%) wish companies would do a better job helping them to understand the environmental terms they use to talk about their products and services.

Brand Owner Perspectives

Herein lies the thorny question: while consumers need simple messaging on sustainability to avoid confusion and maximize the positive feeling they get from their purchases, sustainability professionals increasingly recognize the ineffectiveness of one-dimensional solutions that are easily translated to an effective sound bite. Further, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) green guides have effectively banned general claims like “green” or “sustainable,” citing consumer confusion over the meaning of these terms. Even before the FTC’s consumer perception study on green marketing claims, consumers were questioning the validity of general claims, constantly wondering whether they were authentic or merely “greenwashing.”

So, how do beauty brands balance marketing and sustainability objectives? It completely depends on your brand, your consumers and your marketing objectives. Certifications and their associated logos remain one of the easiest and potentially most effective means of communication, provided you have the real estate necessary to use them effectively.

For example, Seventh Generation is partnering with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition on its How2Recycle label project to effectively communicate about packaging end of life using a standardized label. The new label provides a common set of icons to ensure consumers receive consistent recycling information across products and municipal recycling programs. This will go a long way to alleviating customer confusion—and ultimately getting more products recycled. Plus consumers respond well to products that they know are recyclable. The Perception Research Group’s 2012 study found packaging labeled as “recyclable” or as “made with recycled materials” fared better than packaging that touted a reduction in materials.

The drawbacks to these types of labeling programs can include high costs and stringent rules surrounding the use of trademarked symbols, including specific sizing and even color requirements. That leads to another option—text statements. These statement can be simple and effective, even though they may be less noticeable than an image. And often, when space is especially tight, communication about sustainability is left off cartons altogether and instead companywide sustainable packaging goals are promoted through channels like company websites and social media platforms instead.

Marc Castiglione, packaging operations manager for Perricone MD, explains, “As a manufacturer and retailer of high-end skin care products, Perricone MD is aware of how much product packaging has an impact on the environment. We sell a high-end skin care product that appeals to a certain demographic of customers, which we believe are well-educated and knowledgeable about environmental issues. In an effort to communicate with them effectively, we place easily identifiable logos in the same spot on each package, separate from marketing/product messages. This makes the information easy for customers to find and understand and assures them of its authenticity.

He continues, “However, space on our packaging is a premium. There are certain requirements, along with our marketing initiatives, that need to be met, and unfortunately if there is not enough space, we sometimes choose to take environmental messaging off the packaging entirely.”

Sustaining Sustainability

Despite these challenges, however, the importance of sustainable packaging is only increasingly its significance and consumer awareness.

Derrick Lawrence, senior packaging engineer for Seventh Generation, sums it up, saying, “Seventh Generation is a pioneer in providing home care products that are healthy solutions for people within their homes, for the community, and environment. Our packaging needs to reflect the company’s commitment to our vision of inspiring a revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations.”

Looking to Seventh Generation’s own initiatives in the beauty realm, Lawrence comments, “With the launch of our personal care lines, we were able to apply much of our household product knowledge. The color and quality of PCR materials has been a challenge in the past, but supply of good quality PCR has greatly improved, and we will continue to push toward our sustainability goals for this product line. For Seventh Generation, this is not an option but an imperative. The customers expect it.”

Clearly, the solutions may be complex, but the message is simple: sustainability is here to stay.


  1. GMA/Deloitte, Finding the green in today’s shoppers: Sustainability trends and new shopper insights,
  2. Tiller, Tiller Green Survey, 2009,
  3. RILA, Retail Industry Sustainability Report, 2012,
  4. Cone Communications, 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study, 2010,
  5. Perception Research Services, Packaging & the Environment, Shoppers Say: “Please Help Me!”, 2012,
  6. Cone Communications, Green Gap Trend Tracker Fact Sheet. 2012,
  7. Fleishman Hillard, Women, Power, and Money, the shift to a female driven economy, 2009, (as cited in Fleishman Hillard, Does Sustainability Factor into Consumers Purchasing Decisions: You bet, 2011),
  8. Generate Insight, Confused Teens Choose Less Expensive Over Green, 2009,
  9. Capstrat Puplic Policy Polling, Interest in Sustainability Remains Consistent Through Downturn, 2010,

(All accessed Sept 20, 2012)

Beth Scherer leads the sustainability program at Curtis Packaging, a pioneer in the sustainable production of luxury folding cartons. Curtis was the first print and packaging company in North America to operate using 100% renewable electricity, be carbon neutral and be certified by both the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). She is responsible for setting companywide environmental goals, implementing sustainability programs, and for all CSR reporting. She holds a masters of environmental management from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a BA in economics from Colby College.

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Sustainable Packaging Defined

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) developed what is arguably one of the most comprehensive definitions of sustainable packaging. According to the SPC, sustainable packaging:

  • is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
  • meets market criteria for both performance and cost;
  • is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
  • optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
  • is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
  • is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;
  • is physically designed to optimize materials and energy; and
  • is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.

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