As marketers, designers and packaging engineers scramble to develop more earth friendlypackaging, there is considerable skepticism about shoppers' willingness to pay for such alternatives.

Environmental concerns don't necessarily drive purchase intent, according to Bart Becht, CEO of Reckitt Benckiser. “At the end of the day,” he said recently, “it's the consumers' decision, and they are not doing anything about it.”

While this cynicism may be overstated, it's true that marketers know very little about shoppers' perceptions of packaging and its impact on the environment. That's why we recently conducted a study to address two fundamental questions:

Do they know? Do shoppers know which packaging systems are better for the environment? What features or marketing terms are most relevant to them?

Do they care? Do environmental considerations have an impact on packaging preferences and purchase decisions? Are consumers willing to pay more for environmentally friendly packaging?

We spoke with 500 primary grocery shoppers at 16 locations across the United States, using in-person interviews so they could see and touch physical packages. Unlike most packaging studies, this research was conducted with white, unbranded packages to help us isolate the impact of various structures on shoppers' preferences and their environmental perceptions.

Given shoppers' tendency to profess environmental awareness when they are asked about it directly, we simply showed shoppers two to three packaging structures from a particular category and asked them to state their preference. The point of this initial exercise was to uncover whether the shoppers cited environmental factors spontaneously, allowing us to gauge the impact/importance of such factors (relative to others such asfunctionality, portability, appearance) in driving preference. We then asked shoppers to rate each package on a scale of one to 10, with “10” suggesting that a package is “veryenvironmentally friendly” and “1” suggesting that a package is “extremely bad for the environment.” This exercise helped us determine whether shoppers know which packaging systems are better for the environment.

When shoppers were first shown unbranded packages and asked to state their overall purchase preferences, fewer than 10% made spontaneous references to environmental factors. Later, when shoppers were given a list of eight purchase criteria, only one-fourth cited “environmentally friendly” as a top three consideration. In contrast, about 40% cited superior product protection and/or functionality (ease of opening, holding and dispensing) as a primary factor. In addition, the ability to see the product (through the package) emerged as a primary driver of preference across several categories.

Recycling is the key driver

When shoppers evaluated packages on their environmental impact, the vast majority of packages came out in the 6.0 to 7.0 range (on a one to 10 scale), with a modest range between the lowest (4.98) and highest (7.5) average rating.

However, we uncovered significant differences between alternative packaging systems in several product categories:

Finding: A paperboard cereal box (6.97) was perceived to be better for the environment than a cereal bag (5.97).

Why? This advantage was driven by shoppers' relative certainty that paperboard is recyclable or made of recycled materials, as opposed to their uncertainty regarding a plastic bag. From the typical shopper's perspective, the story is straightforward: Environmentally friendly packaging is packaging that can be recycled. For this reason, packages made of hard plastic and paperboard were generally well regarded and highly rated in this study. We also found that the quantity of packaging (specifically, the presence or absence of secondary packaging) did not appear to drive environmental perceptions.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, environmental ratings did not consistently correlate with purchase preferences. In fact, the category with largest gap in perceived environmental impact (insect repellent) had 54% of shoppers preferring what they believed to be the less environmentally friendly aerosol for purchase because they likedthe format's functional advantages.

Does the money follow?

At the very end of the interview, we asked shoppers the most tempting (and

perhaps most potentially misleading) question: Would you pay five to 10 cents more for a more environmentally friendly package? Here we found some cause for optimism, as 70% of shoppers claimed that they would be willing to pay this premium, with levels

surpassing 80% in some of the higherticket categories. When this same question was asked on a general level (Should shoppers be willing to pay 5 to 10 cents more...), this figure declined somewhat, with 62% agreeing.

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However, when asked if manufacturers should be responsible for producing more environmentally friendly packaging without passing along additional costs to the shopper, a whopping 85% said yes. As these conflicting responses indicate, shoppers generally recognize that they have a responsibility, but they perceive their obligation as secondary to that of the manufacturer.

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Implications for packaging

Without question, the strongest message emerging from this study is that marketers and manufacturers have a long way to go in educating shoppers about packaging and itsimpact on the environment. Shoppers are thinking almost entirely in terms of recycling. More importantly, however, is the overwhelming lack of knowledge among shoppers-along with some definite misperceptions-about packaging materials and their impact onthe environment. In short, even if shoppers do care about the environment, they simply don't know enough to make the “right” choices at this point. For manufacturers, this “knowledge gap” has two primary implications for guiding packaging development andmessaging.

Sustainability is not enough. While sustainability may be the objective driving packaging redesign efforts, it is critical that new environmentally friendly packaging systems provide key end-benefits to users (such as the ability to see the product, and/or improved product protection). Fortunately, these goals are not mutually exclusive.

On-pack communication must improve. If marketers want shoppers to place a priority on environmental considerations-and to ultimately command a price premium for sustainable packaging-they need to convey environmental benefits in a far stronger and more compelling way on packaging. The days of the small recycling icon buried on the package bottom are over, replaced with an era where clear, legible messaging speaks in consumer language.

Marketers who link their efforts with functional benefits and clear messaging are likely to be rewarded at the shelf. They are also serving the greater good, by helping shoppersbetter appreciate, value-and ultimately help pay for-sustainable packaging.