As international shoppers develop more and more aware of the environmental toll of plastic packaging, many manufacturers have taken steps to scale back their use of plastic. However on the identical time, some manufacturers have adopted a a lot much less productive method to the anti-plastic motion: They’ve begun including superfluous paper packaging on high of plastic packaging with the intention to make their merchandise look extra environmentally pleasant with out really decreasing plastic waste. The authors’ analysis demonstrates that this type of overpackaging can certainly be efficient in boosting shoppers’ perceptions of sustainability, although it’s demonstrably worse for the surroundings (to not point out dearer for producers). Nonetheless, additionally they discovered that merely including a “minimal packaging” label to plastic packages can scale back the misperception that overpackaged merchandise are extra sustainable, enabling manufacturers to draw environmentally-conscious shoppers with out creating pointless paper waste.
The environmental menace posed by plastic packaging is well-known. The popular press and environmental groups alike have lengthy careworn the risks of plastic merchandise, from their affect on marine wildlife to their buildup in landfills. In distinction, paper is commonly seen because the sustainable, environmentally pleasant various — regardless of the truth that greater than six million tons of paper packaging find yourself in U.S. landfills yearly.
Whether or not on account of real concern for the surroundings or the widespread vilification of plastic amongst shoppers, many corporations have invested closely in decreasing their use of plastic packaging. Unilever, for example, has pledged to halve its use of non-recycled plastic by 2025, whereas British grocery store chain Tesco launched a sustainable packaging initiative to scale back its annual packaging footprint by 1.5 billion items of plastic. And these efforts might certainly have a optimistic environmental affect. However one other development that’s grown out of the anti-plastic motion is so much much less optimistic: overpackaging. Increasingly more manufacturers have begun including superfluous paper packaging on high of plastic packaging with the intention to make their merchandise look extra environmentally pleasant, with out really decreasing plastic waste.
For instance, skincare model Nivea sells plastic bottles of physique lotion packaged in cardboard boxes, regardless that an analogous product from the identical model is offered in simply the plastic bottle. Equally, Sensodyne toothpaste is usually bought in plastic tubes that come inside further paper packaging, though it can be bought with out the paper packing containers. This type of overpackaging is all over the place, throughout product classes and geographic markets, regardless of being each more expensive to fabricate and worse for the environment.
Sadly, there’s an excellent motive corporations are adopting this clearly problematic method: It really works. By way of a series of eight studies with greater than 4,000 individuals from throughout the U.S., the UK, and the Netherlands, we discovered that buyers will understand a product’s packaging as extra environmentally pleasant if it’s plastic with an extra layer of paper than if the product is visibly packaged in an identical plastic packaging however with out the paper. In different phrases, merely slapping some paper on high of plastic packaging makes a product appear extra environmentally pleasant, even for those who can nonetheless see that it’s wrapped in precisely the identical quantity of plastic. These perceptions in flip make shoppers each extra seemingly to purchase a product, and prepared to pay extra for it. In a single examine, for instance, individuals have been prepared to pay a median 15 cents extra for a granola bar in the identical plastic wrapper if we added further paper packaging on high.
Curiously, we additional discovered that these perceptions of sustainability weren’t simply decided by whether or not the product had paper packaging or not, however by the relative proportions of plastic versus paper packaging. In a single examine, we had shoppers think about shopping for cherry tomatoes that have been wrapped in paper and plastic. We stored the quantity of plastic the identical for all individuals, however diversified the quantity of paper — and we discovered that their perceptions of environmental friendliness elevated in keeping with the quantity of paper used.
A part of what makes this overpackaging development significantly insidious is that it’s most salient for shoppers who’re most environmentally aware. Curiosity in sustainability varies throughout political affiliations and countries, however we discovered that individuals who reported partaking in additional eco-friendly behaviors have been extra more likely to view overpackaged merchandise as environmentally pleasant. Consequently, the very shoppers who’re most excited about pushing corporations to make sustainable selections are seemingly inadvertently encouraging the environmentally dangerous apply of overpackaging.
The excellent news is, overpackaging isn’t the one technique to sign sustainability and appeal to environmentally aware shoppers. In our research, we discovered that as a substitute of further paper packaging, merely including a “minimal packaging” sticker to plastic packaging might appropriate the misperception that overpackaged merchandise are extra sustainable. Particularly for merchandise for which plastic is critical to make sure secure transportation and lengthen shelf life, this sort of specific messaging might help scale back shoppers’ biases in opposition to the accountable use of plastic packaging (with out the necessity for pointless paper waste).
This type of messaging is efficient as a result of alongside the widespread notion that “plastic is evil,” shoppers immediately are more and more conscious of the significance of minimal packaging as a purpose in and of itself. Certainly, greater than half of respondents in a recent Deloitte survey mentioned they’d take into account a product sustainable if it used minimal or recyclable packaging, no matter what that packaging was fabricated from. Many manufacturers are already incorporating this development into their methods, explicitly signaling their dedication to accountable packaging by means of slogans comparable to Zara’s “Our packing containers are fabricated from packing containers with a previous,” an online statement from Kiehl’s that almost all of its merchandise don’t use “secondary packaging,” or 12 Tides’ “compostable packaging” label on its chip baggage.
In fact, these advertising and marketing efforts have to be complemented by real funding into sustainability — and “minimal packaging” labels actually ought to solely be used if a model has really ensured that it’s utilizing the minimal attainable packaging, ideally below the supervision of a commerce group or regulatory body that maintains clear, constant requirements. However for corporations seeking to package deal extra responsibly whereas guaranteeing their merchandise nonetheless look environmentally pleasant, a easy “minimal packaging” label can provide a significantly better various to the more and more widespread (and demonstrably dangerous) apply of overpackaging.