Five Sustainable Packaging Trends Shaping the Future

As our world has moved to buying patterns focused on convenience, on-demand and single-use products, the amount of packaging produced — particularly plastic packaging — has spiked to keep up. Most plastic is designed to only be used once and then disposed of, leading roughly 5 billion tonnes of plastic to wind up in landfills and the natural environment over the past 70 years. Packaging is also a not-insignificant contributor to a consumer packaged goods company’s greenhouse gas emissions, comprising roughly 10% of the business’s carbon footprint on the low end and up to 30% on the high end. The need for sustainable packaging has become imperative. 

It will take participation from everyone in the ecosystem — brands, governments, consumers, manufacturers and more — to make actual, lasting change and move toward a circular economy. Though there are certainly challenges for brands to deliver on these sustainable solutions, there are also plenty of opportunities. 

In a follow-up to our 2019 survey that captured hard data on plans, challenges and opinions around sustainable packaging, Jabil partnered with SIS International Research to field an online survey to 186 packaging decision-makers. Participants came from a variety of consumer packaged goods (CPG) markets, including food and beverage, pet care, personal care, home care and industrials. The survey posed a range of questions about sustainability progress and goals as well as specific product-level approaches to achieve sustainable packaging. 

Through the survey, we learned that the vast majority of brands are developing sustainable packaging programs with mostly overlapping goals. They are looking to expand the possibilities of new sustainable materials and are re-evaluating the role of virgin plastic.  

Here are the biggest takeaways in sustainable packaging programs across CPG companies. 

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1. Most companies have implemented sustainable packaging programs 

Despite the push toward sustainability that consumers and the climate demand, only 68% of survey respondents have made a public statement about their sustainable packaging intentions. Only about half of those statements (36% of respondents) contained clear commitments to sustainability. A quarter of companies have said nothing publicly about their sustainability plans. This finding could be due to the fact that survey respondents skewed on the smaller side; 69% of companies had revenues under $1 billion. 

That’s not to say CPG brands aren’t doing their part. Brands have largely been responsive to the groundswell of consumer demand for better packaging options, which has only grown as younger generations have taken to social media to call for change. A November 2021 progress report from the 500-plus companies that have signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment — representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally — shows that the use of virgin plastic is set to drop 20% worldwide by 2025 (compared to 2018 levels). Similarly, nearly all of this year’s respondents have taken some sort of action to make progress on their sustainable packaging goals. 

Overall, sustainable packaging programs are still in development. Just under half of respondents (45%) said they have made good progress but still have work to do, while 38% are still in the testing or pilot phase. Only 16% of respondents said their sustainable packaging program was fully mature. This aligns with the finding that 19% of respondents who said their packaging teams did not have a reaction to their company’s public sustainability commitments. Sustainability was simply business as usual and an integral part of company strategy.

2. Business strategy and environmental concerns align with ambitious goals 

With scientists and environmental experts issuing increasingly dire warnings about climate change, it makes sense that companies’ efforts to expand their sustainable packaging portfolio stem from a genuine concern for the environment. More than two-thirds (67%) of survey respondents said this worry is a motivating factor for sustainable packaging, up from 52% in 2019. 

Still, as consumers increasingly learn the difference between savvy but deceptive marketing (known as “greenwashing”) and genuine sustainability efforts, embracing eco-friendly packaging is also a strategic business decision on the part of CPGs. For this reason, 61% of survey respondents said protecting brand reputation is a motivating factor for adopting sustainable packaging, while 57% say consumer demand is driving their changing portfolio.  

These motivating factors connect directly to brands’ sustainable packaging goals. The most popular goal among respondents (65%) is keeping up with consumer trends. Similarly, more than half (54%) aim to use sustainable packaging to manage the public perception of their brand. 

While fewer respondents reported that decreasing their carbon footprint and shrinking their landfill contribution rate are goals of their program in 2021 than in 2019, that could be because they’re meeting those aims through tangible actions. For example, the percentage of respondents who have a goal of incorporating post-consumer content into packaging has jumped from 36% in 2019 to 54% in 2021, while 53% of this year’s respondents aim to reduce single-use plastics in their portfolios. Though a 25% reduction in plastic use by a single company may sound like it would have minimal impact, for a multinational corporation, that could translate to millions of barrels of oil saved each year — helping to shrink their carbon footprint. 

Shifting the sustainability focus to these types of self-imposed mandates could also reflect the fact that, in most cases, it’s simpler for a CPG to take actions like increasing the amount of PCR material in their packaging or adding a reusable component to their offerings than to set a fixed carbon emissions target. While a CPG brand can track the emissions of their own offices and factories with relative accuracy, getting the full picture of a company’s emissions requires tracking scope 3 emissions, or the greenhouse gases emitted by suppliers and each link along a product’s supply chain. Scope 3 emissions are the largest source of corporate emissions, and the tracking of data from so many sources make it an imprecise and unwieldy task. 

That could also help explain why the number of companies with sustainability goals that are clearly defined — with measurable targets, timelines and other quantifiable benchmarks — has dropped. More than half (53%) of respondents had clear goals in 2019, but that figure fell to 41% in 2021. Another 26% of respondents said they have clear targets with no associated success metrics, a slight drop from 2019’s 29%. Perhaps due to the public pressure to take some sort of action on sustainable packaging, more companies are reporting that they have vague sustainable packaging intentions with no set targets — up to 27% in 2021 from 14% in 2019. 

Of the companies that have set goals, almost all are confident they will be able to achieve them — with 47% saying they can “definitely” be achieved and 50% hedging slightly, saying they’ll “probably” be achieved. That confidence is up from 2019, when only 36% of respondents said they would “definitely” achieve their goals. At this point, the question is not if sustainable packaging goals can be achieved but when. 

For most CPGs, internal and external difficulties could slow this timeline. 

3. Lack of internal expertise and changing regulations are brands' biggest challenges to delivering sustainable packaging 

Of the companies that did report challenges to delivering sustainable packaging, those hurdles mainly exist within organizations. Almost half of respondents (49%) said they lack internal expertise to meet the innovation challenge, while 41% report a lack of leadership, management and budget. While there may be a knowledge and leadership gap, the technology gap appears to be narrowing. Only 32% of companies said the technical solutions they seek don't exist yet, down from 44% in 2019’s survey. 

Also, sustainability goals have become clearer and more achievable. More than a quarter of 2019 respondents said their goals were too aggressive and not clear, but only 17% and 22%, respectively, of 2021 respondents said the same. 

Looking specifically at challenges to developing sustainable packaging, rapidly changing regulations and shifting compliance targets are the biggest difficulties companies face. For more than a decade, companies have been making sustainable changes in direct response to consumer demands on a brand-by-brand basis that worked within their business infrastructure. Now, the sweeping, industry-wide regulations mandated by governments to mitigate the impacts of climate change are posing the greatest sustainable packaging challenge for 20% of our survey respondents. With sustainability regulations differing from nation to nation and state to state, the cost and scale involved with meeting new laws are hurdles that companies from the smallest startup to the largest international corporations must deal with. 

However, cutting-edge regulations in one region could push CPGs to make sweeping sustainability changes across their portfolio. For example, the state of California has mandated a phased increase in the amount of recycled material that plastic beverage containers must contain. Soda bottles, bottled water and all other beverages must contain at least 15% recycled plastic by the end of 2022, 25% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. For brands, creating one type of bottle specifically for the California market is an inefficient and expensive proposition. But, considering it is a state of roughly 40 million people, the size of the market may incentivize companies to implement the change across the entire North American market. 

As new packaging regulations, like extended producer responsibility policies, expand across the globe, CPGs are looking to implement new circular packaging materials. 

4. Brands are exploring new types of sustainable packaging materials 

For brands, consumer demand for more environmentally friendly products, driven primarily by the climate-conscious Gen Z, and growing awareness of greenwashing has accelerated innovation in the sustainable packaging space. 

Thus, CPGs are experimenting with all sorts of new materials as part of an overall plastic reduction plan. More than two-thirds of companies (68%) are adopting or evaluating paper-based packaging for their sustainable packaging portfolio, with 49% indicating that paper-based packaging is their highest priority for sustainable packaging. Easy to recycle and with a simple-to-understand construction, paper and cardboard packaging is intuitive for consumers and is quickly recognizable as “sustainable” when seen on a store shelf. For companies, it’s also simple to reincorporate recycled paper into new packaging material. 

This interest in paper also ties into a move toward both recyclability and the use of that recycled material. Half of respondents said they are working to improve the recyclability of their current packaging portfolio, while nearly the same number (48%, up from 40% in 2019) are adopting or evaluating the incorporation of post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials into their packaging, including post-consumer resin. To help drive the amount of available PCR, the European Union has begun taxing non-recycled plastic material, which has a disproportionate impact on the harder-to-recycle HDPE polymers. This is both an attempt to encourage manufacturers to use more-recyclable PET polymers and an effort to create more uniformity in plastic, which makes recycling and reusing plastics much simpler. 

Some companies are introducing entirely new materials into their portfolios. A growing number of companies are evaluating compostable materials for their sustainable packaging efforts — 48% in 2021 versus 41% in 2019. One potentially related trend that appeared in this year’s survey is that more companies are willing to give a little on long-term packaging durability in favor of enhanced sustainability. In 2019, 81% of respondents said any sustainable packaging option must include equal or greater product protection as non-sustainable options, while 19% were willing to consider a slightly lower level of protection to gain sustainability advantages.  

Those numbers shifted significantly by 2021. While more than two-thirds (68%) still aren’t willing to compromise on product protection, 32% are open to a bit less protection for sustainability purposes. This could open the door to experimentation with compostable or lightweight plastic packaging formats, both of which can require a reduced barrier between a product and the outside world. Still, the strong demand for packaging that protects the product inside means that a paper-only option — with no recyclable plastic or laminate material lining — is still a work in progress. 

To reduce the total amount of new packaging in production, consumer brands are showing a growing interest in reusable packaging. More than half (53%) of brands are adopting or evaluating the use of reusable packaging, led by food and beverage (64%) and home care (62%) companies. Beyond the tangible end-of-life benefits of reusable packaging, it — like paper packaging — gives consumers a visible sustainability signal. Without clear labeling, a customer probably can’t differentiate between a plastic bottle made from virgin plastic, recycled plastic or compostable plastics on sight. But they can certainly identify a paper bottle or hard plastic container meant for refilling. 

Closed-loop options could even be the future of sustainable packaging. When asked what will be the ultimate solution to sustainable packaging, more than a third (37%) of survey respondents chose reusable packaging — up from 30% in 2019. In that time, CPGs have begun adopting various forms of reusable packaging in response to consumer demand.  

This has been seen primarily in the home care and personal care sectors, which favored reusable packaging the most (50% and 48%, respectively). Individual brands have launched refillable products, like Dove’s 2021 release of refillable deodorant in a reusable stainless steel case. The reusable container program Loop, which has partnered with grocery, home and personal care brands like Haagen-Dazs, Clorox and Love Beauty and Planet, is moving into Walgreens and Kroger brick-and-mortar stores to make it simple for consumers to pick up and return their containers. In the U.K., supermarket chain Asda opened a sustainability-focused trial store where customers could purchase product from brands like Kellogg’s cereals, PG Tips tea and Persil laundry detergent in bulk using refillable containers; the store planned to roll out more of these stations in other stores throughout 2021. In Jabil’s 2021 consumer survey about subscription services, 27% of respondents said they use auto-replenishment through refillable connected packaging for at least one type of household staple. 

These companies might be interested in reusable packaging over the long term, but it’s unclear how much they are currently working to develop it. Only about 27% of survey respondents said implementing reusable packaging is the highest priority of their sustainable packaging efforts, putting it in the middle of the pack by popularity of packaging options. 

In the more immediate term, the focus of most companies is improving their products end-of-life with more sustainable packaging materials.

5. Replacing virgin plastic with more sustainable materials is highly possible and highly effective 

Aligning with consumer demand for options outside of traditional plastic, the CPGs who responded to our survey believe that replacing the use of never-used plastic with more sustainable materials would be the packaging approach with the potential to have the greatest positive impact on the environment. More than half of respondents (53%) rated replacing plastic as a “high impact” option, while 52% rated the implementation of compostable packaging and 45% rated the use of PCR resins as “high impact.” 

Beyond the materials’ ecological impact, companies also believe they can be implemented effectively. Compostable packaging and PCR resins are “definitely possible” to incorporate and replacing plastic with other materials is “likely possible” for 52% of respondents. Brands are clearly interested and somewhat confident in their ability to experiment with new materials, but plastic’s many benefits and dominant position in the CPG market could be challenging to overcome.  

Though brands are expressing confidence in their ability to create change, when it comes to implementing sustainable solutions, we have a problem — all of us. Real progress lies in a collaboration between social science, environmental science, civic engineering, politics and corporate and consumer responsibility. No single entity can tackle this problem by themselves; developing the circular economy will require cooperation among solution providers, CPGs, municipalities, retailers, NGO’s and individual consumers. 

The road to sustainability is not straightforward, simple or quick. Everyone has a role to play. It is a massive undertaking that will only be resolved by bridging various industries, civic and organizational leaders and consumers. It will require an overhaul and improvement of the current manufacturing and packaging processes, recycling infrastructure, government services, retail outlets and more.  

We’re already on the road to progress, with many brands already putting their plans into action. They are ready to face the challenges and do their part in ensuring optimal health for every living being and providing a safer future for the planet. And we, at Jabil, are committed to help them get there. 

 

Download the Sustainable Packaging Trends Survey Report

Insights from over 180 packaging decision-makers at global enterprises on their sustainable packaging goals, initiatives and challenges.