Why packaging innovation is key to meeting consumer traceability expectations

Posted on 11 Feb 2022 by The Manufacturer

As the old adage goes, the only constant is change - and this includes the way we package food and beverage products. But it’s not only how we package products that is changing. How and what we communicate on food and beverage packaging has transformed remarkably over the past decade as well.

These changes have been driven by developments on a global scale, which affect consumer attitudes and behaviours. In recent years, primary concerns for consumers across the world have swung between affordability, food quality, food safety and healthiness – and these concerns are not uniform across different countries. For instance, if we fast forward to the present day, the economy is the top priority for Spanish consumers. Meanwhile in the UK, consumer concern for climate change has trumped COVID-19.

These changing consumer concerns have forced changes in how and what we communicate on food and beverage packaging. Right now, we’re seeing an increased demand for businesses to be more transparent about their products’ sustainability impact and production credentials. Displaying this information on product packaging is one of the best ways of communicating to consumers, but that’s only one part of the triangle.

Today, only the perfect balance of food content, branding, and more sustainable packaging can help brands in the food and beverage industry to meet consumer expectations on sustainability and traceability.

Achieving this is no easy feat – but there is a way forward. Packaging innovation is already helping the food and beverage industry to achieve transparency and traceability across its value chain. This traceability is vital for communicating brand commitments to net zero carbon emissions. But before we dive into how that works, we must first understand this: what exactly do today’s consumers care about when it comes to food and beverage brands?

Increasing calls for transparency

In recent years consumers have increasingly focused on what they are purchasing, as well as the impact on themselves and the world around them. Food safety, for example, remains a top priority – according to the Tetra Pak Index 2021 – driven largely by the spotlight the pandemic has shone on health and securing supply chains. The economic fallout of the pandemic has also made consumers far more conscious of the affordability of goods, which is why we’ve seen a shift in purchasing volume back towards basic categories, such as dairy products, fruit and vegetables.

Where products have come from has also shot up the consumer priority list. For instance, a product’s provenance is no longer just a storytelling device for brands; it’s now a major decision-driver for consumers. Over a third (35%) of consumers are choosing products based on local provenance and traceability more than they did before the pandemic, equal to the amount now basing decisions on sustainability credentials. This is partly driven by an increased consumer desire to support local communities. Because of this, brands that use locally or responsibly sourced ingredients – and communicate that on their packaging – will win more loyalty in the long run.

Packaging brands are at the vanguard of implementing changes to address these transparency demands. Issues like food safety and environmental impact can all be communicated on packaging. And it’s not just what’s printed on the package that counts: consumers expect packaging brands to innovate too, using recycled content and renewable materials with a low environmental impact wherever possible. Most of all, today’s consumers want to know they are making informed, responsible choices as part of their shopping process.

Greater transparency and access to information, facilitated by packaging innovation, is no longer optional.

Demonstrating transparency through traceability

On top of this increased product transparency, consumers understandably want to have full visibility of the entire value chain – and this is where traceability enters the picture.

Fortunately, next generation technology and innovation is enabling full traceability from a production and manufacturing point of view. For example, manufacturing execution systems like the Tetra Pak PlantMaster have been designed to specifically digitalise and automate food and beverage production operations. By simplifying complex processes and reducing manual work, automation can provide full transparency and traceability within factories and the entire supply chain – from raw materials to packaged and palletised products, through to consumption. Implementation of this technology also enables more efficiency by minimising waste throughout the process.

Brands that combine these solutions with renewable and recyclable packaging options stand out from the crowd. For instance, Yew Tree Dairy, which is one of the UK’s largest family-owned milk processing companies, uses the Tetra Rex Plant-based, the world’s first fully renewable beverage carton. Yew Tree Dairy made the decision to add cartons to its portfolio because we were able to provide end-to-end traceability of all packaging materials used in the cartons, including the plant-based plastics. We were also able to provide detailed operational data on the Tetra Pak TR/27 and Tetra Pak TR/28 filling machines, which are specifically engineered to reduce waste, cut costs and be resource efficient.

When it comes to traceability, there’s space for innovation from a consumer perspective too. For instance, digitalisation of food and beverage packaging is both education and entertainment. QR scanner codes are now a key mode of communication between brands, packaging suppliers and consumers.

By scanning them with a smart phone, consumers can be transported to a webpage highlighting a package’s renewability and recyclability credentials, whilst being taken on a journey across the value chain. By the same token, they can also enter into “scan and win” competitions. Tetra Pak, for example, is spearheading ‘connected packaging’ by offering codes to not only educate customers, but to engage them with the brand too.

This dual aspect has opened up a variety of engagement opportunities for packaging businesses – and will play an increasingly important role as the technology further improves and new consumer demands are established and consolidated.

Communicating commitments to change

No matter how much consumer trends change, key areas such as food safety, sustainability and transparency remain fairly consistent. However, as the demand for traceability increases, it is more obvious than ever that there is a persistent visibility issue amongst consumers.

Many consumers fail to trust that companies are making the changes they say they are in areas such as sustainability and transparency. As consumers become increasingly savvy, they require external validation to prove that brands are engaging with the issues they care about. A good example of this is sustainably sourcing raw materials.

Partnerships with external certification programmes are one way to support companies’ sustainability claims in this area. They enable better measurement, deliver transparency and provide accountable targets for companies to meet. They’re also very easy to communicate on a package, using official and well-recognised logos. At Tetra Pak, our participation in The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) and Bonsucro schemes ensures our resourcing meets all the criteria for protecting biodiversity and natural environments in a traceable, transparent way.

However, calls for traceable products have now extended far beyond where raw materials are sourced. Consumers also want to know how the product they want has been made. For instance, they want to know more about labour conditions across the entirety of the supply chain and have demonstrable proof that the brands they’re buying from are enacting positive change at every step.

In this sense, carbon costs are also a consumer concern. This is why in the packaging industry, building consumer trust can’t be done by just focusing on the materials used – it’s also about other links in the value chain, like transport, retail and waste disposal. All of these actions carry carbon costs.

Companies can reduce them by engaging with innovations in clean and efficient energy, such as adopting electric vehicles in transport fleets, and sourcing 100% renewable energy across operations. However, brands that fail to communicate these commitments – or even worse, muddy the water around the true energy impact of their product – risk creating an environment that fosters consumer mistrust and confusion.

External commitments, like net zero global greenhouse gas emission (GHG) targets for operations and value chains, can help to relieve this concern. At Tetra Pak, we’ve committed to achieving net zero (GHG) emissions across our own operations by 2030 and the entire value chain by 2050. Displaying these commitments on product packaging is a good, easy way of showing consumers that companies are being held to account when it comes to the value chain commitments they’ve made.

Connecting consumers directly to the value chain in this way and making sure it’s easy for them to find out more about the product and packaging they use, can help to build consumer trust and meet expectations around the environment, resourcing and labour.

Final thoughts

The pandemic has brought long-standing consumer trends around sustainability, food safety and transparency to the fore. Traceability underpins all of these issues, and it has presented a new opportunity to explore how packaging can meet these consumer demands.

Not only does packaging innovation help companies to better communicate commitments that address consumer concerns, such as climate change, food safety and transparency, but it also helps to create products that have a lower impact on our planet. Packaging will continue to be integral for connecting consumers to how their products have been made as the world emerges from the pandemic, and beyond.

About the author

Berit-HoffmannBerit Hoffmann is Tetra Pak’s Marketing Director for North Europe, with 19 years’ experience in the FMCG industry. She’s tasked with bringing the Tetra Pak brand and promise to life for customers and consumers. She works closely with food and drink producers and retailers to help them choose more sustainable packaging solutions for their products.