SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING is everywhere, but should consumers really be that impressed by it?
There is an argument often made that small environmental wins add up to a big environmental win. The flaw in this logic is that it ignores the rebound effects that can result from ostensible “wins”. A classic example of rebound is the energy-efficient lightbulb, which would save small amounts of energy if used to replace its non-efficient counterpart. The trouble is, people most often end up leaving an energy- efficient bulb on for longer because they are comforted by the fact that it is consuming energy less quickly.
The idea of greening packaging is seductive, because who would advocate the annoying and upsetting amount of waste created by packaging? And the kind of rebound that occurs with lightbulbs is unlikely to happen here: consumers are unlikely to purchase more products simply because the packaging is less environmentally harmful. After all, there are more powerful economic drivers that would prevent this logic. People will continue to buy at similar rates, regardless of the packaging that wraps the products. So shouldn’t we make that packaging less harmful for the environment?
The answer is “of course”. And yet such greening could create another kind of rebound. If people think that by buying greener packaged products they are doing their small part, this could reduce their motivation to take bigger steps – the kind of steps that have a much bigger effect on the environment.
We all know people who think they are absolved from any further environmental responsibility because they use bags-for-life rather than plastic bags – even though the environmental benefit of replacing plastic bags is minimal. As Mike Berners-Lee wrote in “How Bad Are Bananas”: “When someone in the developed world walks home from the shops with a disposable plastic bag full of food, the bag is typically responsible for one-thousandth of the footprint of the food it contains.”
The researchers Nina Mazar and Chen- Bo Zhong demonstrated this rebound phenomenon in their 2010 study involving online purchasing. They found the group that had bought “green” products online was subsequently more likely to behave in unethical ways compared with the group who looked at green products but did not buy them.
This, the authors explained, was because in purchasing these products the participants felt they had achieved a “moral licence” to do whatever they wanted in the future. This is called the “moral licensing effect”. Those who did not purchase the green items had not met their moral quota, as it were. Greening packaging has the potential to create “morally licensed” consumers, who are free in other areas of their lives to be as unsustainable as they please.
So what’s the verdict on green packaging? To quote Berners-Lee again: “It is good if your supermarket is taking action on plastic bags, but don’t let that stop you from asking what it is doing about the other 999 thousandths of its carbon agenda.” In this case, we cannot allow green packaging to impress us too much, when often nothing changes for the business producing these goods other than the exterior – an exterior which is carefully designed by clever advertisers to generate consumption (and a premium: see page 25 Sptember issue).
Ultimately, people just need to buy less. Very often, it is the packaging, green or not, that convinces us to buy items we otherwise wouldn’t, or convinces us that there is a real difference between an item and its virtually identical competitors. Vance Packard’s 1957 book “The Hidden Persuaders” and Robert B Cialdini’s 1984 book “Influence” explain just how susceptible we are to the manipulation of packaging, even when the products inside are 100% identical.
In an ideal world, in terms of a sustainable consumer culture, all products would have environmentally friendly packaging, but it would all use the same plain colours and fonts and contain a simple, truthful description of the product, what it does and how to use it, to minimise these manipulative effects.
It is not just the materials that make our packaging unsustainable. It is the message it communicates, which compels us to buy more and more things that we don’t really need. So where does this leave food and drink businesses?
Consumers have become increasingly concerned with the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions. When it comes to food and beverage packaging, a study by Ipsos InnoQuest found that consumers were most likely to pay more for value- added features that related to freshness and sustainability.
The sustainability of packaging is clearly an integral part of a brand’s positioning. It’s also often the first point of reference for consumers. Brands often use packaging as an educational tool too, to communicate their environmental messages. We know that eco-labels can be a worthwhile tool to communicate sustainability claims – a 2013 TetraPak survey indicated that 54% of consumers trusted environmental labels, compared with 37% in 2011.
A study by the packaging firm MWV, meanwhile, concluded that respondents were equally likely to purchase a CD in a plastic case versus a coated paperboard box when both were listed at the same price. However, when a label reading “recyclable” or “biodegradable” was added to the paperboard package, consumer preference changed dramatically: nearly 70% of consumers preferred the paperboard box over the non-labelled plastic case.
Focusing on product packaging is one of the ways in which the sustainability discourse is being dominated by free- market logic. Giving the consumer the power to buy the “sustainable” option is one way of making them responsible for the environmental problems we face. It also teaches the public that their only real power is in their role as consumer, which undermines their responsibility far more.