Circular Packaging from a Consumer Perspective

Many companies shy away from converting well-established packaging, knowing that routine and recognition effects are of enormous importance for the purchasing habits of consumers. But, since a great portion of today’s packaging is not yet recyclable, change is inevitable. So, how can the transition to more sustainable packaging succeed? As part of the Consumer Insight Action Panel (CIAP) packaging club, we accompanied new packaging pilots to find solutions.

Modern packaging has many aspects to consider: it must protect products and bring them safely to consumers, be reasonable in cost, easy to handle, and efficient to transport. On the shelf, it should look good, inform, and promote its contents. In view of the EU Green Deal’s Circular Economy Action Plan, it is becoming increasingly important that packaging is also circular. Considering that many complex and multi-layered packaging examples do not meet this requirement yet, major changes in packaging will be underway in the coming years.

As part of CIAP’s plastics club and together with a retail partner, we accompanied the test phase of a new packaging looking for two things in particular: which factors play an important role in terms of consumer acceptance and how risks can be avoided. Here are some of our findings:

Design is information

The visual impression of shape, colour and haptics is a central communication channel. In attempts to make packaging more resource-efficient and recyclable, packaging designers and product managers often find inspiration in sustainable approaches applied in other product groups. What is often overlooked is considering that what worked for one product group might not work for another: milk in a glass bottle might be well accepted, but rice in the same bottle may not. Sustainable packaging should reflect the established package design characteristics that consumers are used to in order to be acceptable.

Engaging retailers and leveraging placement

Shelf placement was found to be essential for product visibility. It should be kept in mind that a better placement also means an upgrading of the product. Products that are placed in shelf rows with higher-priced brands are not only more visible, but may also be intuitively perceived as being of higher quality. Here, the support of retailers can be essential. In the distribution of the highly-competitive shelf space, this requires new placement approaches that go beyond the logic of sales optimisation and include criteria of sustainability and circularity.

Focus on the target group

Manufacturers and product managers know their target groups. But how does the target group react to new circular packaging? Do they understand and welcome it as a positive environmental impact? Or is the changeover in itself a (too) big imposition? Our tests showed that the environmental factor did not play a major role in the price-sensitive target group. Other factors such as fragrance, design, practicality, and the price itself, proved to be much more decisive in comparison.

Routine (often) beats rationality

The perception of a new innovative packaging depends to a large extent on buying behaviour: customers who are more willing to experiment are more likely to recognise new variants, but most consumers are trapped in their ‘routine tunnel’. They work through mental or real shopping lists and look for the familiar, tried and tested. In order to establish new routines, sometimes, only a more radical change is effective, e.g., by changing all product variants at the same time. The irritation of routine buyers usually lasts only a short time. If product loyalty is high and the new packaging basically meets the relevant requirements, a rapid habituation effect can be expected.

Observation and questioning lead to insights

In order to test the perception of new recyclable packaging and to investigate possible barriers and purchase motivations, in-store observations were combined with short semi-structured interviews. Interviewers could identify the most significant barriers to purchasing the packaging alternative. It showed that besides the fact that the new packaging was widely overlooked, most shoppers had considerable doubts about the practicability and aesthetics for use at home. With these findings, organised in an intelligent behavioural tool such as the COM-B model (Michie et al., 2011), interventions and implications could be derived.

The Consumer Insight Action Panel (CIAP) is an initiative by the CSCP; its packaging club is dedicated to the role of consumers in closing packaging loops. The members of the club come from the retail, packaging, food service, research, and waste management sectors, among others. Regular workshops with all club members form the basis of the project work; in smaller working groups, specific contents are deepened. In concrete trials, challenges for the switch to circular packaging from a consumer perspective are highlighted and effective interventions are tested. Findings and results will be translated into tools and workshop formats for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and recommendations for policy makers.

The Consumer Insight Action Panel is currently running clubs on packaging, electronics and textiles. If you are interested in this initiative and how it works collaboratively with key stakeholders of one sector to consider consumer behaviour in transitioning to a more circular world, please contact us.

For further questions, please contact Stephan Schaller.

Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash.