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The Right Message: Translating Sustainable Packaging to Consumers

By: Beth Scherer
Posted: October 26, 2012, from the November 2012 issue of GCI Magazine.

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.”