Leeds Business School

Ensuring the future of packaging is sustainable

The Retail Institute has released its ‘Future of Packaging’ report, which outlines the steps the government, organisations and the public can take to making sure that packaging is recyclable and sustainable in the future. In this guest blog, Olga Munroe and Ben Mitchell discuss the report’s findings.

Published on 19 Oct 2020
The Rose Bowl

Global plastic pollution is a problem that fundamentally brings into question the role of packaging in society. The Retail Institute’s report on the future of packaging tackles that question by presenting the findings of its collaborative industry group. The group, consisting of businesses and trade organisations from the retail packaging supply chain, came together to discuss the environmental impact of packaging, following increased scrutiny of the industry as a result of greater public awareness of plastic pollution.

Six collaborative sessions were led by Professor Jeff Gold using a ‘futures and foresight’ approach to explore strategies for responding to anticipated opportunities and challenges. The process helped the group to jointly generate new knowledge. It also supported each group member in preparing their own organisations for developing resilience and capacity for possible and preferable future scenarios. The report represents the collective views of the group and contains analysis and calls for action under themes including consumer behaviour, environmental measures and waste infrastructure.

Findings and reflections

Consumers are integral to the success or failure of packaging innovation. While the group recognised that businesses and government can do much more to reduce environmental impacts, consumers often are unaware or do not recognise sustainable packaging improvements. They often dismiss them as businesses merely acting in self-interest. This indicates a failure by businesses to communicate why they use certain packaging formats and materials. In addition, for new products and processes to be financially viable requires consumers to change their behaviour. Therefore, successful innovation depends on evidence of effective communication and how consumer behaviour is likely to change when businesses introduce alternative products and packaging materials.

While the circular economy is a key principle for defining environmental impact, there is also a need for clear, universally understood metrics of what is environmentally friendly. Differences in calculations of carbon footprint, material recyclability and likely consumer behaviour mean that blanket approaches can ignore the technicalities of packaging solutions. This can produce unintended consequences that generate negative environmental outcomes.

Recyclability is one of the main justifications of using plastic packaging. However, current recycling rates in the UK and elsewhere are far too low. All plastics are recyclable but there is not the infrastructure for all. For flexible plastics, collection is a key challenge. Improving collection rates would generate the tonnage of flexible plastics to make recycling commercially viable. The report states that government investment is essential to develop new waste infrastructure solutions and enable dynamic end-of-life innovation.

While plastic’s ubiquity comes from its usefulness, ocean pollution leads to calls to move away from plastics to other materials such as paper, metal, glass or plastic alternatives. Bioplastics and compostable materials are being explored by industry players as alternatives for existing packaging. Understanding trade-offs between materials and their complete journey from feedstock to end of life is critical to developing better, holistic approaches to environmental product development.

The group also recognised the challenges and barriers to change that businesses face as they move into new areas of operation. These include costs, investment risks and diverse customer demands. Therefore, organisations must build sustainable practices into their core business strategies to enhance commercial viability and decision-making. Regarding legislation and the role of government, the report calls for strong evidence of what works and what produces the best sustainable results. Packaging trade associations have a responsibility to ensure that the Government has the right information to make effective policy, leading to legislation based on independently verified evidence.

Calls for action

The report concludes with a collective statement, calling for action at both an individual organisation and global level. While the packaging industry continues to work hard to create better products for the environment, the waste infrastructure requires the same amount of innovation. Although greater standardisation of recycling systems will enable better packaging design, we must also allow disruptive solutions to emerge and have the flexibility to implement them.

The Retail Institute is building on what we have learned in the collaborative groups by continuing to work with industry in developing strategies for the future of packaging. Our Annual Briefing, held online in September, included presentations from the British Plastics Federation, Coca Cola and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. There were also several contributors from Leeds Business School covering the future of retail, crisis management and bioplastics.

The Retail Institute and the Collaborative Group members have set out in the report the need for collective action to tackle issues that are too big for individual organisations to manage alone. Overall, the report demonstrates the continuing need for knowledge and understanding to inform collective strategies.

Part of Leeds Business School, the Retail Institute works with a range of clients and applies academic knowledge to solve industry challenges in consumer engagement with products, packaging and retail services. Discover more about the Retail Institute.

For a copy of the Future of Packaging Report contact the Retail Institute via email on RetailInstitute@leedsbeckett.ac.uk.

Olga Munroe

Head of the Retail Institute / Leeds Business School

Olga Munroe is Head of the Retail Institute at Leeds Beckett University, a research centre that specialises in innovation and consumer behaviour in relation to retail.

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