Perceptions of sustainability: four insights for brands

Engineering Director
Senior Strategist

You’re thirsty. You’re at the store. You’re surrounded by drinks in boxes, aluminum cans, plastic bottles, recycled plastic bottles, and plant-based plastic bottles. How do you know which is the most environmentally responsible option?

There are many ways a brand can change its packaging to be more sustainable, but if consumers don’t do their part, or even know they have a part to play, these endeavors might fail.
 
To gain a deeper understanding of perceptions of sustainable packaging, Smart Design asked 300 green-leaning people to evaluate the environmental pros and cons of different materials and packaging solutions; We asked how they interpreted the word “compostable”, and about common actions like leaving a cap on a bottle when they recycled.
 
From the survey data, we uncovered four insights to inform the design of new sustainable packaging solutions and systems:
 

1. Habits lag behind technology
Process innovations make recycling easier, but old habits get in the way.

2. People behave according to how they wish the system worked
When it comes to the promise of new materials consumers are living in a future that doesn’t yet exist.

3. The generation who cares about sustainable products can’t afford them yet
Younger generations value sustainability but lack economic power.  

4. There are as many definitions of eco-friendly as there are people buying your products
For someone who wants to make the most sustainable choice, it might be difficult to know what material is best.

Explore our insights below.

Download

Perceptions of sustainability

This short PDF highlights our insights and offers ideas to guide you forward.

Download

Perceptions of sustainability

This short PDF highlights our insights and offers ideas to guide you forward.

Insight 1. Habits lag behind technology

Process innovations make recycling easier, but old habits get in the way.

Single stream recycling has been implemented in two-thirds of the United States to remove the burden of having to sort plastic, metal, paper, and glass for city residents. In order to work, this process requires specific behaviors. For years, consumers were told to remove the cap from plastic bottles, flatten them, and then recycle them. With new technology leading to the growth of single-stream recycling, the rules have changed. Nowadays, separating the cap from the bottle does more harm than good as the cap is too small to get sorted and winds up languishing in a landfill. People think they are doing their part, but the habit of taking off the cap is actually counter-productive. A new level of consumer education is needed.

How can you help your product get recycled correctly? Some ideas:

Dummy-proof the design
By digging deeper into recycling behaviors, designers can come up with solutions that make it impossible to recycle incorrectly. For instance, a bottle cap that is tethered to a bottle ensures it makes it through the recycling process, regardless of someone’s knowledge of recycling.

Use your real estate to educate
While most brands already include recycling instructions to their packaging, they are often in the fine print and go unnoticed. Branding takes priority over sustainability in the limited label surface area. But emphasizing recycling instructions doesn’t necessarily need to be a permanent change. Imagine how impactful it would be if, for a month, your favorite soft drink replaced its iconic logo with recycling instructions front and center?

Next insight: People behave according to how they wish the system worked

Insight 2. People behave according to how they wish the system worked

When it comes to the promise of new materials consumers are living in a future that doesn’t yet exist.

Of all the materials we surveyed, people’s perceptions of “Compostable” ranked high in terms of eco-friendliness. But when we scratched beneath the surface we found widespread misunderstanding about what the term actually meant. If people are imagining their plastic bottles easily turn into dirt, the reality hasn’t caught up to the vision in their heads.
 
Compostable materials need a certain amount of heat and moisture to break down. For most compostable plastics specifically, this needs to happen at an industrial composting facility; it can’t happen in a landfill or your backyard. Without municipal support many compostable packages will never break down and may even contaminate existing recycling streams. This means businesses transitioning to compostable materials also need to think about the ways they will be collected.

How can you close the gap between what people assume is happening and what is actually happening? Some ideas:

Design backwards from the dream
Consumer compost fantasies show us the world people want to inhabit. Brands can use this information to tell them what to build. If consumers are expecting their compostable packaging to turn into dirt, maybe the best solution is giving them just that. UK brand, Snact, wraps their fruit bars in a corn and wood-based material that can decompose in a home compost bin.

Invest in infrastructure
In 2019, Nespresso invested more than a million dollars in New York City’s curbside recycling program to enable the recovery of their aluminum coffee pods. The brand serves as a good example of how to push toward a circular business model.

Use natural technologies
Long before the advent of plastic packaging, natural materials like banana leaves and corn husks were used to hold our food. Today we are seeing some businesses, like this supermarket in Thailand, return to these roots and leverage natural materials to replace plastic packaging.

Next insight: The generation who cares about sustainable products can’t afford them yet

Insight 3. The generation who cares about sustainable products can’t afford them yet

Younger generations value sustainability but lack economic power.  

Younger generations are applying pressure on businesses to make more sustainable products. Gen Z will be living with the repercussions of businesses who have neglected the environment because their data told them their customers weren’t willing to pay more. According to one study, 62% of Gen Z-ers prefer to buy products from sustainable brands compared to only 42% of Baby Boomers. Our survey results backed this up, showing that for Gen Z, having an eco-friendly product offering was a bigger purchase driver than the brand that offered it. While most spending is still being done by Gen X consumers and Baby Boomers, companies are thinking about how to build relationships now with their customers of the future.

How can you build credibility now with generations of the future while changing the habits of your customers today? Some ideas:

Offer up a holistic value upgrade
To get sustainable products into your customers’ homes, it might be necessary to nudge them to make better choices without forcing them to change their values. When you upgrade your product or packaging to sustainable alternatives, make sure it comes alongside enhanced convenience or another value add. We explored these ideas in ‘The psychology of refills’

Commit to a phase-out roadmap
In 2017, PepsiCo, Unilever, L’Oréal, and hundreds of other organizations joined the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, pledging a commitment to reduce packaging waste. In the past few years, many of the most influential CPG companies have made similar promises, striving to have 100% of packaging be recyclable or recoverable.

Embody sustainability as your brand DNA
Brands are catching on with younger consumers by embedding sustainability into every facet of their product offerings, beyond eco-friendly packaging to include clean ingredients and ethical manufacturing. Love Beauty and Planet, a favorite of Gen Z, package natural, cruelty-free skincare in post-consumer recycled bottles.

Next insight: There are as many definitions of eco-friendly as there are people buying your products

Insight 4. There are as many definitions of eco-friendly as there are people buying your products

For someone who wants to make the most sustainable choice, it might be difficult to know what material is best.

To people who specialize in sustainability, material eco-friendliness is something that can be understood by looking at the trade-offs between recyclability, carbon footprint, water consumption, and waste production. But these aren’t calculations most people are familiar with and our respondents had opposing opinions on many questions. So how are people who want to make sustainable choices evaluating their options? We spotted three trends in how people gauge the eco-friendliness for materials they find on the shelf.

Consumers prefer aluminum to plastic
People really don’t like plastic – and for good reason. It’s predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish (by weight). In our survey, 64% of participants thought that aluminum was a more eco-friendly choice (and 24% thought they were about the same) however, environmental experts say this is not necessarily correct.

Ocean plastic has a halo
Ocean plastic is a double win – not only is the plastic recycled, but it’s either taken out of the ocean or diverted from going in, which may be why 70% of our participants thought it was more sustainable than recycled plastic. This is a strong story that brands from Adidas to Windex are leaning into. It’s not a complete solution, and without a mechanism to close the loop at the end of the product or package’s life it’s still generating more plastic. It’s a step in the right direction, and one consumers are aligned with.

New materials cause new uncertainties
Our results showed that unconventional packaging formats, like cartons, paper fiber bottles, and compostable plastic, were ranked with more inconsistency than more familiar materials. Some ranked them very high and some ranked them very low, indicating a general uncertainty about these material innovations. As new options show up on the shelf, consumers may meet them with skepticism.

How can you speak about sustainability in a way that gets through to your customers? Some ideas:

Tell your story with packaging
Boutique rum brand, Fitzroy, introduced a striking marble-patterned cap in 2017 that they created from soda labels recovered from the sea. The bottle was also made of recycled glass, and the material decision tied back to the product inside by referencing a classic combo: Rum and Coke.

Elevate what your packaging is doing, over what it’s made from
Last year, shampoo brand, Herbal Essences released a limited line of product packaged in an opaque gray bottle that stood apart from their traditional translucent bottle full of vibrant shampoo. The back panel explained that the packaging was made of recovered ocean plastic that had been collected through a partnership with Terracycle, reclaiming three tons of waste.

Conclusion

The grocery store shelf is where many consumers receive their education on sustainable materials. Our research revealed widespread misunderstandings of definitions, best practices, and tradeoffs when it comes to making sustainable consumer choices. Brands have a lot of power over what consumers think, know, and do. Switching packaging material to paper fiber or recycled ocean plastic is certainly better than using virgin plastic and may earn sustainability points from consumers, but brands should not be stopping there. It will take a better informed public to make real change. As brands take steps toward their sustainability goals, they can’t overlook initiatives to inform, inspire, and make doing the right thing easier for their customers.

Download

Perceptions of sustainability

This short PDF highlights our insights and offers ideas to guide you forward.

Download

Perceptions of sustainability

This short PDF highlights our insights and offers ideas to guide you forward.

Credits

Charlie Paradise, Engineering Director
Jamie Munger, Strategy Director
Katherine Eisenberg, Senior Strategist
Luther Young III, Senior Visual Designer
Yodai Yasunaga, Visual design and Illustration
Danny Dang, Visual design and Illustration

Let’s design a smarter world together.