Oct 11, 2021

Sustainable pack design vs greenwashing

German consumer rights organisation Verbraucherzentrale NRW takes a closer look at some pack designs and uncovers some problems.
Elisabeth Skoda

The packaging and design industry has been working hard to make their products more sustainable. However, greenwashing, and enticing consumers to buy a product with sustainability promises that don't stand up to scrutiny remain an issue.

Whether it is organic milk packaged in what looks like a carton made from 100% cardboard, a vegan drink in a pack that claims to be "easy to recycle" or sausages in composite packaging with "65 percent less plastics" - these packs are designed to appear particularly environmentally friendly with green colours, a "natural" design and various seals highlighting the sustainability of the packaging material used.

But are these actually sustainable? Are consumers available to understand and check these claims? German consumer rights organisation Verbraucherzentrale NRW took a close look at 60 different packs (33 personal care products and 27 food procucts) and chose some examples to discuss with consumers as well as experts. The result: Consumers judged the packs to be more sustainable than the experts did.

Verbraucherzentrale NRW describes the use of drinks cartons in a "recycled paper look" as particularly problematic.

"This makes some consumers think that they can recycle the pack as paper. However, it's a composite pack that should be disposed of in the yellow bin (used for plastic, metal or composite materials in Germany), says environmental expert Philip Heldt.

"Outer packaging made of paper with a recycled look - for toothpaste, for example - also suggested special eco-qualities to the participants, when you could argue that in fact, the additional wrapping of the plastic tube is unnecessary and uses additional resources."

On pack claims such as "recyclable packaging" or "easy to recycle" also resulted in a positive consumer evaluation that was unjustified.

"This is a marketing trick that works well, advertising the obvious. It is a legal requirement nowadays that packaging should be reusable or recyclable," says Philip Heldt.

On the other hand, drugstore products whose packaging actually has a very high proportion of recycled plastic (more than 90%) have attracted positive attention from potential buyers and experts alike. In some cases, so-called "social plastics" was used, plastics that is collected from the environment and then recycled.

"If this concept is explained on the packaging and credibly supported by further links, it is particularly well received by consumers," says Mr. Heldt.

However, the study found that it was difficult for the participants to understand the percentages and extrapolations for larger packs. The on-pack information intends to convey that material and transport distances are saved compared to smaller packaging units - an actual gain in terms of sustainability that was not immediately apparent to consumers, however.

"Since at the moment there are no standards for sustainability claims on product packaging, consumers are left to their own devices when it comes to evaluating them. This results in both 'greenwashing' effects and incorrect disposal," concludes Mr. Heldt.

Elisabeth Skoda

Editor of Touchpoints magazine, writer for Packaging Europe magazine and design enthusiast!
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