It was the kind of story Daily Mail journalists dream of: a heady mix of the disgruntled consumer, a beef joint and some legislation that no-one really understands. Lincolnshire Trading Standards was taking Sainsbury to court for alleged excessive packaging or breach of the 2003 Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations on its Taste the Difference Slow Matured Ultimate Beef Roasting Joint following a shopper's complaint.
Peter Heafield, head of trading standards at Lincolnshire County Council, was confident the case needed to be heard. Until he discovered the beef packaging had since been cut by 53% and plans were afoot to reduce it by a further 10%. The case was dropped one day before the trial because "it was no longer in the public's interest".
Packaging is, however, always of interest to the public. Countless surveys have shown they see it as the top environmental problem in relation to the products they buy (ergo they think recycling is the best way to cut their environmental footprint). Of course, it isn't. But they're confused. Coca-Cola recently assessed the idea of personal carbon footprints and found that participants demonstrated "little understanding" of the 'embodied emissions' relating to products and "this was particularly evident in relation to food and drink, where they tend to think only of the packaging and transportation impacts".
Food companies and retailers haven't helped by marketing their packaging stories hard. In the past few years there has been a flurry of activity from big companies using lighter bottles, boxes with higher recycled contents and, latterly, biodegradable packaging and packaging made from plants. Messaging has been complicated and the terminology baffling.
The over-arching theme has been 'sustainable packaging'. But there is an argument that such a thing doesn't exist. And that the very concept has done little more than confuse, rather than inspire, consumers. So is it time for a re-think on packaging and for firms to go 'back to basics'?
Jenni Donato, an eco-design expert at global sustainability consultancy AEA, thinks so. "In the beginning it was all about light-weighting. That was bled to death, so firms moved on to degradable. They thought this would be more interesting for consumers and meant they could put a green plant on the pack. But a lot of reports suggest it's not any better than traditional packaging. You have to think about things like where the packaging will end up."
Donato believes companies have moved on too quickly, failed to get the basics right and confused consumers with a range of different terms. Packaging Federation chief executive Dick Searle agrees, suggesting that all this has simply "compounded the felony of convincing the consumer that packaging is one the biggest environmental problems". Searle believes some of the big food firms have "forgotten they are in the business of selling products, not packaging". Another expert is more damning. "If the likes of Kenco are advertising their products based on packaging then it must be pretty crap coffee."
While consumers may make a big fuss about packaging, it rarely affects their purchasing decisions, as PwC packaging expert Maya Bankovich explains. "If you ask people doing their weekly shop about their purchasing decisions then packaging comes way down the list. It's all about efficiency of the products, value for money and the product doing what it says on the tin. Those are things driving behaviour. Turn that on its head and ask them what they think about packaging, and you get a very different answer."
Bankovich has just completed a report, launched last month [June], which concluded that sustainable packaging was a myth. The work was the third in a series of surveys (following those in 2008 and 2010) carried out among a controlled group of non-governmental organisations, fast-moving consumer goods companies, packaging producers and retailers. She says there are a couple of key trends emerging that are changing the way food supply chains are working.
Efficiency is the key
"The educated stakeholders we spoke to understand the place packaging has in the supply chain and many are beginning to relent on their insistence for 'greener' packaging. The level of collaboration across the supply chain is very encouraging and, critically, there is a common language emerging people are working towards efficient products, efficient packaging, efficient transport and efficient end-of-life solutions."
That the food industry is pulling in the same direction will be music to the ears of those in packaging. The idea that food waste is a top priority will also have sustainability experts nodding their heads and muttering 'we told you so'. Speak to packaging manufacturers and there has long been a frustration at being labelled the scapegoat for all the ills of consumption, even though packaging accounts for just 10% of a product's overall environmental footprint.
Others are also witnessing the shift in focus described in PwC's report. Mark Shayler is owner of environmental consultancy Tickety Boo: "The largest resource in the vast majority of packaged products is the product itself. This is the priority. So our challenge is to produce better packaging, not just less packaging."
The benefits of getting it right are massive. There are savings to be had. But there's also reduced environmental impact. And improved packaging speed. And a potential impact on sales (Kraft Foods says sales of Kenco increased by 9% in 2010 after the packaging overhaul albeit alongside a move to more sustainable sourcing. What's more, 40% of consumers now view it as an 'ethical brand').
Indeed, to be better it has to be accepted by consumers and that isn't always easy. The compostable package for Sunchips was too noisy for consumers, while Innocent reverted from 100% recycled plastic bottles to 35% because the colour of the plastic had deteriorated and "our smoothies [were] starting to look a very funny colour". Meanwhile, the Jugit milk bag proved to be the 'Marmite' of packaging: Sainsbury's customers loved it, yet in Waitrose milk turned sour as the supermarket's traditionally eco-conscious shoppers turned their noses up at the idea of buying milk in a pouch.
These examples highlight the complexities in today's world of packaging a world where the very best environmentally optimised solution is converted into the worst if it stays on shelf, is wasted and then withdrawn. Packaging's primary role is to protect food and, in turn, help cut wastage in the supply chain. Huge strides have been made, but there is a lot more to do.
In fact, some new product development is now focusing on the 44% of food waste that sits with the consumer (Smithers Pira data). Linpac, for instance, has designed a split pack which contains four chicken fillets two of which can be used leaving the other two still completely sealed. Tetra Pak, meanwhile, is reportedly working on milk cartons that change colour when left out of the fridge for too long. The company spends big on research and development, but designing new products is a tough business, as the environment director for North Europe, Erik Lindroth, explains.
"Creating new product innovations is a balancing act. If we come up with a great design for a new product, which improves the visual differentiation of the carton, but there is a risk of food waste somewhere else in the supply chain, the idea will be scrapped."
Given these hurdles, bringing any new packaging to market can be risky and costly. So much so that many "want to be first to be second", according to Bapco Closures' chief executive Stephen Dawson. "Any new packaging needs to tick all the boxes: sustainability, safety, cost. And if you don't tick all those boxes someone else will."
Getting to that point takes time. Nampak's Infini milk bottle, which offers an average 15% weight saving, took two-and-a-half years to bring to market. Business development director James Crick admits that some might argue it has taken too long. But, as he points out, changing such an iconic piece of packaging is a complicated challenge. "All the research suggested people are relatively happy with plastic milk bottles. So it had to be an evolutionary package designed around constraints. This is a bit of packaging that is used by almost everyone, every day. You can't just flash it around and say it's great."
The bottle was also designed from "a blank canvas", an idea that AEA's Donato says more packaging and food companies should consider. "Rather than take baby steps, look at the design from scratch," she says. "A lot of improvements can be made without the consumer noticing even for a brand with picky customers."
Such invisible improvements, however, leave little room for marketing 'green' stories. PwC's Bankovich doesn't see that as a problem. She says mega-brands are stepping away from explaining themselves to consumers and, as such, could move away from basing their green credentials around packaging. The concept of sustainable packaging could also disappear.
"Sustainable packaging is a myth," she says. "The thinking has moved on and firms are working together to ensure the supply chain, rather than just the packaging, is sustainable. The end point is when consumers don't even realise the packaging is there." And that's when the Daily Mail has to look elsewhere for stories.