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CORONAVIRUS, SUSTAINABILITY AND THE EVOLVING ROLE OF PACKAGING

CORONAVIRUS, SUSTAINABILITY AND THE EVOLVING ROLE OF PACKAGING

        

AUTHOR: SETH HICKS, MANAGING DIRECTOR, WESTPAK

Seth is the Managing Director of Westpak Group Ltd. You'll find regular updates from Seth including his thoughts on the latest industry developments on the Westpak news feed as well as via our monthly email newsletters and social media channels.

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The coronavirus pandemic continues to change consumers' perceptions around the packaging industry. But this adjustment in thinking is anything but straightforward. On one hand, we are seeing an increased dependance on traditional forms of packaging as one of the key lines of defence for preventing the spread of Coronavirus through food produce. One the other hand, awareness around sustainability and environmental best practices becomes an increasingly pressing issue as consumers expect the highest level of environmental standard across the fresh produce and food service industries. So what specific factors are influencing these shifts in consumer expectations and how can the industry adapt?


 

A NEW PACKAGING SURGE?

 

Packaging around fresh produce and other food items has undoubtedly played a key role in re-assuring people that they have a minimised risk from catching Coronavirus through their weekly food shopping, whether purchased in person at the supermarket or home-delivered. Mike Hughes, Head of Research & Insight at market research firm FMCG Gurus, has previously commented online "In April (2020), 35% of consumers stated that their attitudes had changed as a result of COVID-19, however this has now increased to 43% in July. Of these consumers, 68% state they have a more positive perception towards packaging. In recent years, consumers have had increasingly negative attitudes towards packaging, associating it with being damaging to the environment and potentially raising the price of products. However, the research shows that due to COVID-19, attitudes towards packaging are being re-evaluated as greater emphasis is placed on product safety and reduced risk of contamination and infection."
(Source: https://www.packagingnews.co.uk/features/comment/mike-hughes-uk-packaging-trends-covid-19-environment-17-09-2020).

We only need to think back to how many of us were disinfecting and cleaning each item from our weekly grocery shop. While this procedure has generally come to be presented as less important than it once was, it shows the level of anxiety that shoppers understandably had, and, for many, continue to have, when it comes to the cleanliness, safety and packaging of their food products.

And it isn't just the grocery sector that has rekindled the prominent need for robust and often traditional forms of packaging. The takeaway industry, which has been seen as one of the economically buoyant pillars of the food service industry through the pandemic has seen a significant increase in usage of plastic packaging. As one online resource from the US states, "while takeout has been the saving grace for many restaurants, it’s also contributing to the growing heap of single-use plastic globally. Much of this kind of plastic is not recyclable." (Source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-has-worsened-the-ocean-plastic-pollution-problem/).


 

STRENGTHENED SUSTAINABILITY

 

All of these considerations must also sit alongside the value of sustainability which rightly remains a key concern for consumers and shows signs of significant growth in the consumer mindset. Part of this growth in awareness may have stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic itself. While the role of often traditional forms of packaging mentioned above has had legitimate reasons for its prominence, its continued usage will not have gone un-noticed for many.

We’ve also all seen the positive environmental impact of lockdowns with trending images online of cleaner waterways and undisturbed wildlife. This content in itself will have broadened the global reach of environmental awareness. We have also seen key landmark cultural events that continue to help awareness around sustainability gain traction. For example, the enormous reaction to David Attenborough's 'A Life on Our Planet' documentary, the continued popularity of ‘Veganuary’, which has seen a record-breaking number of sign-ups this year, as well as the UK's role in hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow on 1 – 12 November 2021 (Source: ukcop26.org).


 

OTHER FACTORS

 

As well as harmonising robust packaging needs with environmental best practices, firms in the produce packaging industry will also need to stay up-to-date with a range of other influencing factors. For example, market research firm NOA have highlighted a "shift within this (food) sector from shelf ready packaging (SRP) towards distribution outers (mail order, distribution, internet and ecommerce cartons). With an increase in online food sales, retailers will want producers to adjust production away from the more expensive SRP style packaging, and provide goods instead in cheaper format corrugated packaging, which never has to hit the shelves" (Source: https://www.packagingnews.co.uk/news/markets/foodservice/paper-pack-food-suppliers-flourish-srp-fall-06-11-2020).


 

THE IDEAL SOLUTION

 

At Westpak, we realise that while sustainability may be a vital consideration for both stakeholders and consumers, it certainly isn't necessarily simple. We work with business at key points in the food distribution chain to realise their sustainability goals while minimising disruption and risks to their business model. We understand the broad sustainable impact of each option available and we're able to provide an enormous range of choice through our product collection. We have also been able to offer more bespoke levels of service to a number of major clients to help bring unique or highly tailored visions to life, providing the ideal packaging solution to an exact and highly specified set of criteria.