Consumer research on people’s attitudes to packaging, carried out for INCPEN over the years, shows that people have little or no perception of packaging - either good or bad – when they go shopping.
They have almost no understanding of its role or any appreciation of its environmental, social, economic, technical and aesthetic contribution to their everyday lives.
When prompted however, they believe there is too much - though they can seldom point to an example from recent purchases - and that it is vaguely a bad thing.
INCPEN – the Industry Council for Packaging & the Environment was set up in 1974 by a group of manufacturers and retailers who recognised that they needed packaging to enable their products to be protected and to survive the stresses and strains of the supply chain.
They set about doing basic research to find out about packaging’s social and environmental impacts with the aim of identifying where improvement was needed and of obtaining information to explain its role.
This is still INCPEN’s remit today and it’s why I enjoy working as its Director. Commercial issues are not part of the brief and INCPEN is not a trade association, though its members are businesses.
My background is in biochemistry and I appreciate being able to stick to the science and present the findings of research objectively, no matter how contrary they are to current public opinion.
The research we have done has convinced me that packaging in general makes a huge positive contribution to society.
In less developed countries without the sophisticated distribution and packaging systems that we have in the UK, as much as 50% of food never reaches consumers.
Packaging typically protects food and goods which contain more than ten times the amount of energy and resources used to make the packaging.
No type of packaging has a monopoly of environmental virtues. Whether it’s degradable, compostable or inert; derived from renewable or non-renewable sources; capable of being refilled; recyclable or not, all of it is processed and distributed using fossil fuel energy.
From an environmental perspective, policymakers have tended to focus on so-called ‘packaging waste’ – strange that they don’t refer to ‘car waste’ or ‘newspaper waste’!
Unfortunately, this focus has drowned out information about packaging’s role in the supply chain so much so that some companies now promote their products and packaging on the grounds that there’s less of it and it’s more recyclable.
On a global scale we need more, not less, packaging to ensure that the food that is already grown and could feed the whole population, actually reaches people.
There is also a real danger too that innovation will be inhibited if companies reject multi-layer, laminate packaging on the grounds that it is not recyclable, even though this sort of packaging is sometimes the most resource-efficient option.
To turn this round, we need to help consumers appreciate what packaging does for them. To realise, for example that if packaged goods did not exist, we would be unable to live in cities, let alone enjoy safe, wholesome food and undamaged goods.
This is a communications challenge that will certainly keep me busy.