What is really going on in the wonderful world of packaging?

I’ve been reflecting on my visit to Packaging Innovations in Birmingham in the light of news that the government is considering new legislation to fine firms guilty of greenwashing.

So, found myself asking what is really going on in the wonderful world of packaging commujnications?

Well, there are still too many unsubstantiated green claims (let’s not kid ourselves, no industrial process is ‘eco-friendly’). A look at the stands (step forward Lariplast) and some of the catalogue entries illustrated companies who had not got the message that claims have to be meaningful and substantiated.

What do you make of this exhibitor’s entry? “100% eco-friendly and recyclable packaging solutions.” This from a stretch-film applicator. I’m not denying the film might technically be recyclable, but I have no idea what 100% eco-friendly is supposed to mean. The company’s website makes no such grandiose claims – you read about faster production, more efficient operations, all of which are perfectly respectable reasons to specify the product.

My gut feeling is that, when exhibitions are concerned, marketers panic. “Oh gosh, we need to show our products are sustainable – all our competitors will.” Verbal diarrhoea results.

Innovation to the fore

However, there was a big upside to this event.

I saw far more substance to the claims being made than in previous years. Packaging manufacturers (both established and start-ups) were genuinely innovating. Here are a few examples which caught my eye:

Label Makers – What’s new about label substrates? Label Makers demonstrated papers made with a percentage of seed and agricultural waste rather than virgin pulp. (By the way, I’m not overly impressed by some of the language on their webpage, but that’s a different story.)

Project 7 – If used to replace rigid plastic packaging, these pouches use 85% less plastic. The issue used to be that pouches were unrecyclable. The firm highlighted monolayer, recyclable pouches which can go into the same plastic collection as PET bottles. The importance of monolayer materials (like glass) was made strongly in the presentation by Steve Honour of Diageo on designing out waste.

Lyte Packaging – a range of wood-free and plastic-free premium packaging materials. Both Lyte and Project 57 are owned by nemesis Limited, an entrepreneurial distribution company. I shall keep my eyes on these innovators.

Pallite – I’ve turned eight redundant pallets into log stores, but there’s a limit to how many garden structures I need. Seeing a foldable, storable, corrugated pallet was a revelation. These hold up to 750kg and can be recycled with normal cardboard. Someday, all heavy deliveries will be made this way.

The Navigator Company – I’m ambivalent about this and would love to find out more. It’s gKRAFT product uses eucalyptus not pine for paper and board. They make interesting claims but I have not seen the data. And I know many African countries have been encouraged to plant eucalyptus trees which has made their soil and erosion problems worse than before. So, questions as I say, but an example of taking a well-known product – paper – and saying “Can we do this better?”

Packaging communications tips

So, what is my packaging communications advice based on these experiences?

  • Under promise and over deliver – oldest and still the best marketing advice,
  • Your audience is more sophisticated that you think – especially in a B2B context,
  • Show how your product or service helps customers reduce their environmental impact,
  • Show your workings – be open source on your data (or as far as you can be),
  • Make it clear you are on a journey – you haven’t got the perfect solution for every environmental problem,
  • Think about the value of each word and picture you use – avoid banal generalisations.

And, for all my concern about rigour, we must take care not to quash enthusiasm for trying something new. I read one visitor criticising a stand for showing a product that was not available in the UK. Well, hello, I think you’ll find packaging is a global business nowadays. And a great idea that proves itself in one country may soon become the industry standard in all, including the UK.

Someone has to be first. Let packaging innovators shine and we’ll all benefit.