Ethical Packaging Practices: Consumer Rights & Expectations

The role of ethical packaging practices in upholding consumer rights and expectations

By Charles Haverfield, CEO of US Packaging & Wrapping
Reviewed by Brett Stadelmann

When it comes to making a purchase, factors like appearance, taste or convenience are no longer the only things considered by today’s consumers.

More and more purchasing choices are influenced by ethical, political, and green concerns. Research shows that 55 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly brands and 84 percent of customers say that poor environmental practices will alienate them from a company.

It’s imperative that businesses respond to these demands to secure and maintain customer loyalty.

In this article, I’ll discuss how packaging is an effective way for companies to address specific consumer concerns, and how to help businesses to engage, inform and reassure consumers when it comes to their ethical practices.

Consumer Rights and Concerns

Brands fail to meet consumer rights and expectations in several ways.

Deceptive labelling is an ongoing issue, which involves making false or misleading claims about a product’s characteristics, benefits, or ingredients. This can lead consumers to have unrealistic expectations about the product’s performance or quality.

Incorrect labelling can obscure important information about potential health risks associated with a product. For example, if a food product contains allergens but the label fails to accurately disclose this information, consumers with allergies may unknowingly consume the product and suffer adverse reactions.

In some cases, consumers may prioritise purchasing products with minimal packaging or eco-friendly packaging materials. However, limited availability or higher costs of such options can restrict consumers’ ability to exercise their preferences for more sustainable packaging. This can be seen as a violation of their right to access environmentally responsible products.

Other consumer concerns that can arise occur when brands fail to accurately represent cultural traditions or symbols risk misinforming consumers and perpetuating cultural stereotypes or misconceptions.

For example, Pepsi Cola lost its dominant market share to Coke in Southeast Asia when Pepsi changed the colour of its vending machines and coolers from deep “Regal” blue to light “Ice” blue as light blue is associated with death and mourning in their region.

Another example is when a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water was launched in Italy, but the translated version of the name turned into “Schweppes Toilet Water”, without the brand realising.

It’s clear these types of errors, can lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of products or messages, undermining consumer trust and confidence in the brand.

Finally, certain types of packaging materials, like plastics containing harmful chemicals, can leach toxins into the environment, posing risks to human health and ecosystems. When consumers are not properly informed about these risks, their rights to safety and health are compromised.

Key Factors of Ethical Packaging Practices

Bakery goods shrinkwrapped by shrink film, heat sealer and heat tunnel on roller conveyor - Discussion of Ethical Packaging Practices
A section of the pastry packaging line at the bakery in the Costco Wholesale warehouse in South San Francisco, California.
Credit: BrokenSphere

How to Address the Negative Environmental Impact

Addressing the negative environmental impact of packaging requires a multi-faceted approach.

Packaging companies should start by trying to minimise the materials used through innovative design techniques, more lightweight materials, and efficient packaging methods. This can include adopting strategies like source reduction, where unnecessary packaging is eliminated, or right-sizing packaging to better fit the product.

Promote the use of environmentally friendly packaging materials such as recycled content, biodegradable or compostable materials, and renewable resources like bamboo or plant-based plastics. This helps reduce the reliance on virgin materials and minimises the environmental footprint of your packaging.

Investing in improved recycling infrastructure and facilities is key to ensure that packaging materials can be properly recycled and recovered. This includes expanding curbside recycling programmes, implementing extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies, and educating consumers about proper recycling practices.

Businesses should try to transition towards a more circular economy model, where possible, meaning packaging materials are designed to be reused, recycled, or composted at the end of their life cycle. This involves introducing strategies like product stewardship, closed-loop recycling systems, and incentivising the use of circular packaging designs.

Raise awareness among consumers about the changes you have made to your packaging to reduce its negative environmental impact. Provide information about the eco-friendly packaging options you’ve introduced across your website and social media platforms. You can even include the changes you’ve made on the packaging itself.

Examples of brands communicating their sustainable and social efforts include confectionery giant Mars, as it helped to overcome the growing distrust for ‘Big Food’ companies.

It announced that all the cocoa used in the manufacturing of their chocolate products would be Fair-trade certified. By proudly displaying the Fair-trade mark on its packaging near their list of ingredients, consumers were immediately aware of their Fair-Trade cocoa sourcing initiatives.

Large brands like Coco-cola, Nestle, Cadbury and PepsiCo have followed suite, responding to this growing consumer trend by opting for sustainable packaging materials, thus enabling them to gain competitive advantage over other market players.

How to Address the Social Impact

One of the social issues concerning packaging is that inequities in access to goods and services can be perpetuated through packaging choices. For example, products with excessive or non-recyclable packaging may be more expensive, limiting access for lower-income consumers. Of course, ethical concerns can arise when packaging practices exacerbate socioeconomic disparities or discriminate against marginalised communities.

Companies should try to evaluate the cost implications of sustainable packaging options and seek ways to minimise expenses without compromising sustainability goals. This might involve exploring alternative materials, optimising packaging designs for cost-effectiveness, and leveraging economies of scale through bulk purchasing or collaboration with other businesses.

You could also explore options for subsidising sustainable products or providing vouchers to low-income consumers specifically for purchasing environmentally friendly products, including those with sustainable packaging. This approach can help bridge the affordability gap and promote sustainable consumption habits.

Another concern is that the production of packaging materials often involves labour-intensive processes that may be subject to poor working conditions, low wages, or exploitation of workers’ rights. Ethical concerns arise when packaging companies prioritise cost-cutting measures at the expense of labour rights or fail to ensure fair and safe working conditions throughout the supply chain.

Businesses should develop a comprehensive supplier code of conduct that outlines the company’s expectations regarding labour practices, including fair wages, safe working conditions, non-discrimination, and freedom of association. Require all your suppliers to adhere to these standards and conduct regular audits to ensure compliance.

It goes without saying that workers should be paid fair wages that meet or exceed legal minimums and industry standards. Responsible organisations should provide benefits like healthcare, paid leave, and retirement savings plans to support workers’ well-being and financial security.

Prioritising workplace safety is a must, by implementing measures to prevent accidents, injuries, and occupational hazards. Conduct regular risk assessments, provide personal protective equipment (PPE), and invest in training programmes to promote a culture of safety.

Implement age verification procedures, conduct regular audits, and collaborate with suppliers to ensure compliance with labour laws and international standards. Companies should be doing everything they can to prohibit child labour and forced labour in all aspects of their business operations and supply chain.

You’ll need to promote transparency and traceability within the supply chain to identify and address labour-related risks. Maintain visibility into subcontractors, intermediaries, and raw material suppliers, and collaborate with stakeholders to address issues like informal labour, subcontracting abuse, and exploitation.

Consumers have a right to know the environmental and social impacts associated with the products they purchase, including the packaging. Ethical concerns arise when companies lack transparency about their packaging practices, greenwash their environmental credentials, or fail to take responsibility for the full lifecycle impacts of their packaging materials.

An example of a company increasing its social efforts and communicating these to customers is UK supermarket chain Waitrose. The business announced that 46 of its private label tea products would be Fair-trade certified. Waitrose now stocks over 250 Fair Trade- certified products, which significantly impacted Fair Trade retail sales, as they grew 2.5 percent in volume.  

Addressing the Governance Aspect

The “Governance” aspect of ESG principles brings a critical layer of accountability, transparency, and responsible decision-making to the world of packaging. Strong corporate governance ensures that companies have clear decision-making processes and mechanisms for accountability.

Addressing this involves implementing policies, procedures, and standards to ensure that packaging materials are responsibly sourced, designed, used, and disposed of.

Businesses need to stay informed about local, national, and international regulations regarding packaging materials, labelling, recycling, and disposal. Ensuring compliance with these regulations is essential to avoid fines and penalties.

Developed guidelines for sourcing packaging materials from sustainable and ethical suppliers is also key. Consider factors like material renewability, recyclability, biodegradability, and the use of recycled content.

You’ll also need to conduct lifecycle assessments (LCAs) to evaluate the environmental impact of your packaging materials from extraction to disposal. Using this information will help to inform you about the best packaging options and enable you to identify opportunities for improvement.

Establish design standards that prioritise minimalism, material efficiency, and recyclability. Encourage the use of eco-friendly materials and designs that minimise waste throughout the product lifecycle.

As mentioned earlier, organisations can achieve this by optimising packaging sizes, using refillable or reusable packaging, and eliminating unnecessary packaging components.

Collaborating with packaging suppliers is vital to improving your sustainability practices and transparency throughout the supply chain. Engage with industry associations, research institutions, and other stakeholders to share knowledge, collaborate on sustainability initiatives, and advocate for policies that support responsible packaging practices.

You’ll also need to maintain transparency about your packaging practices and performance through regular reporting and communication with relevant stakeholders. Make sure you regularly disclose information about packaging materials, recycling rates, and progress toward sustainability goals.

I talked about the importance of informing customers about improved sustainability practices. But you can also educate consumers about proper packaging disposal practices too, including the best recycling options, and the environmental impact of different packaging materials.

By implementing these governance measures, businesses can promote responsible packaging practices, minimise environmental impact, and contribute to a more sustainable future.

Through the lens of governance, we gain insight into how companies operationalise ESG principles within their packaging strategies. Transparent reporting, adherence to regulations, and stakeholder engagement are essential components of responsible packaging practices.

Measuring and Reporting your ESG Impact in Packaging

While the integration of ESG principles into packaging strategies is crucial, quantifying and communicating the impact of your efforts is also important.

ESG efforts are measured, tracked, and shared, in several ways, which contributes to a more informed and engaged audience that recognises the value of sustainable and responsible packaging practices.

Firstly, specific ESG goals and targets related to packaging, should be carefully defined like reducing carbon emissions, minimising waste and promoting responsible sourcing. Make sure you align these objectives with your broader corporate sustainability strategies and stakeholder expectations too.

To effectively track and manage progress, companies must establish meaningful KPIs that measure the environmental, social, and governance aspects of their packaging initiatives. For example, including metrics related to waste reduction, carbon emissions, supply chain ethics, and stakeholder engagement.

You’ll need to establish robust systems for collecting, aggregating, and managing data related to your ESG performance in packaging. This means ensuring data integrity, accuracy, and consistency by implementing standardised measurement methodologies and data collection procedures across the organisation and supply chain.

Various organisations and initiatives offer sustainability reporting frameworks that guide companies in reporting their ESG performance. Prominent frameworks include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). These frameworks help standardise reporting, ensuring that companies provide transparent and comparable information to stakeholders..

Establish a process for monitoring, reviewing, and continuously improving ESG performance in packaging. Set up regular performance reviews, conduct audits and assessments, track progress against targets, and identify opportunities for innovation and optimisation, where you can.

Businesses should also demonstrate transparency and accountability in ESG reporting by disclosing both successes and challenges, as well as the methodologies and assumptions underlying performance metrics. You can invite external verification or assurance of ESG data to enhance credibility and trustworthiness for your stakeholders and consumers.

By following these steps, businesses can effectively measure and report their ESG impact in packaging, demonstrating their commitment to sustainability and responsible business practices.

About the Author

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For over a decade, Charles has led U.S. Packaging & Wrapping from a customer-driven approach ensuring employees and management understand how to identify needs before and after a purchase.

With a wealth of experience in the industry, Charles consistently delivers high-quality packaging implementation to align with clients’ goals and market demands, which effectively increase efficiencies while lowering costs.