sustainability continuesis becoming an increasingly important issue for the packaging value chain. At the same time, consumer awareness is also growing. As societies recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, consumer sentiment is evolving away from an excessive focus on hygiene. To better understand this, we conducted research across 11 countries to understand consumer attitudes towards sustainable packaging. This builds on our work in 2020 focusing on consumer sentiment around the world,1"Sustainability in Packaging: In the Minds of Consumers Around the World", McKinsey, December 16, 2020.and our work in 2023 related to US consumer sentiment.2David Feber, Abhinav Goel, Daniel Nordigården e Suku Ponkshe, "Sustainability in Packaging: U.S. Survey Insights", McKinsey, 26 de abril de 2023.
This article is a collaboration between the companyDavid Feber,Abhinav Goel,Daniela Nordigårdena, Suku Ponkshe and Mukund Prasad, representing the views of the McKinsey Materials Practice.
Our 2023 survey includes a statistically significant sample of 66% of global GDP and 50% of the global population, as well as demographic data in each of the 11 countries. Responses from more than 11,500 consumers reveal three main conclusions. First, in all countries, hygiene and shelf life are at the top of the list of important factors in consumers' purchasing decisions. Second, with regard to the environmental impact of product packaging, consumer concerns about ocean litter are most pronounced in Europe, Japan and the United States. However, consumers in other Asian countries and Latin America seem to be more concerned about other forms of pollution. Finally, consumers around the world have different opinions about what type of packaging is most sustainable. However, there is consensus on the less sustainable options.
As this study shows, it is clear that packaging companies will have to adapt their approach to respond to a diverse and evolving consumer landscape. In this article, we suggest five key questions they will need to answer when building their future strategies.
Post-Covid-19 trends in packaging sustainability
In the early stages of the pandemic, hygiene concerns delayed efforts to phase out single-use packaging in several regions.3For details, see article by David Feber, Oskar Lingqvist and Daniel Nordigården, "Shaping the next normal of Packaging Beyond COVID-19", McKinsey, May 26, 2020.However, we are now seeing a change from that. Most consumers are less concerned about hygiene and food safety than during the pandemic, although their level of concern is still higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic (Figure 1).
However, even with Covid-19 concerns significantly reduced, consumers continue to prioritize hygiene, food safety and shelf life as the two most important aspects of product packaging (Figure 2).
As in 2020,4To learn more about the results of the 2020 study, see “Sustainability in Packaging: In the Minds of Global Consumers,” McKinsey, December 16, 2020.price and quality are still the most important for the consumer when deciding to buy a product. Compared to 2020, overall price as a decision-making criterion became even more important and increased by 11 percent. In developed countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States, price as a decision criterion increased by double digits. In comparison, price is still significant in developing countries like Brazil, China, India and Mexico, but its importance has increased since 2020 to low to mid single digits.
The future of sustainability in packaging
As time has passed since the Covid-19 outbreak, the pressure for sustainability has grown again. FMCG manufacturers and retailers continue to innovate new packaging formats to improve recycling, focusing particularly on recycled content such as post-consumer resin. These innovations come at a time when players are trying to meet their own sustainability commitments and meet consumer expectations, NGO voices and new packaging regulations.
Now, new regulations governing the sustainability aspects of packaging are expanding on many fronts, such as recycling ratios or recycled content, and are no longer limited to selected countries or regions. As a result, these regulations have become a more global phenomenon, although their level varies. However, consumer concerns about environmental impact vary by region (Figure 3).
Consumers in developing economies, especially in China, Brazil and India, are most concerned about air and water pollution, while most consumers in Europe, Japan and the United States are concerned about ocean waste .
Across all countries surveyed and across all end-use areas, the majority of respondents say they are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, although the willingness to pay more for packaging is much higher in developing countries. Willingness to pay is highest in the categories of fruit or fresh produce and fresh meat and poultry. In most countries, higher income groups are more willing to pay for sustainable packaging offers compared to unsustainable packaging for the same product.
In Europe, better product labeling and discount or incentive systems could encourage consumers to buy more products in sustainable packaging; in some other countries, greater availability of sustainable products and better prices could encourage consumers to buy more sustainable packaging. As a result, companies can continue to adopt a differentiated approach, while maintaining the flexibility of the sustainability levers implemented in each country.
Packaging substrates: What do consumers around the world prefer?
Our recent research on packaging and sustainability shows that no single type of packaging (plastic, glass, metal or paper) is an absolute leader in all attributes of packaging sustainability. All types have positive and negative characteristics that vary by sustainability, application and region. Despite this, it is often questioned which packaging substrate is perceived by consumers as the most sustainable. Our research shows that consumers around the world do not fully agree on what the most sustainable packaging materials might be (Figure 4):
- Compostable and plant-based packaging (e.g., sugar cane and cornstarch) tend to rank higher in many countries other than Japan. In Japan, consumers believe that plastics made from Recycled or fully recyclable materials are just as sustainable as compostable packaging.
- Around the world, plastic films made from renewable or compostable materials also rank high.
- The article has moderately high scores, with particularly high scores in countries such as India and the United Kingdom.
Five key questions to consider
We suggest that packaging suppliers and consumer companies take a strategic view of their portfolio by carefully evaluating it in the context of five key questions:
- What are the unique generational trends that could affect products over the next five to seven years?
- Which products are most at risk given anticipated regulatory changes and consumer perceptions?
- What innovations and disruptions are competitors and innovators looking for in key product areas?
- What are the potential growth opportunities where the company would be uniquely positioned to deliver winning sustainability and circularity solutions?
- What demographic nuances can help you better tailor your products to end-market segments?
As the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, consumer sentiment is changing and in some cases still varies by country, region and demographic. In this rapidly changing landscape, companies can develop differentiated strategies to help create opportunities for growth and emerge winners.
David Feberis a senior partner in McKinsey's Detroit office,Abhinav Goelis a partner in the Pittsburgh office,Daniela Nordigårdenais a partner in the Toronto office,Ponkshe Typeis an associate partner in the Atlanta office andMukund Prasadis a partner in the Toronto office.
The authors would like to thank Audrey Gotko, Felix Gruenewald, Lucas Menanix, Emily Roeper, Matthew Seidner, Lizzie Shilko, and Binghong Xie for their contributions to this article.
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