Consumer sustainability demands and their effect on the global packaging industry

Originally published in the October 2021 issue of

Pandemics, packaging and the pulp and paper sector

The future of packaging has never looked so multi-faceted as environmentally conscious consumers continue to inspire a creative shift in our traditionally, conservative sector. But before we look at what’s to come, let’s first acknowledge the seismic changes and lasting impact that the pandemic has already had on our industry.

Multiple, global lockdowns forced a change in consumer behavior and shopping habits, leading to a 46 percent rise in e-commerce (Office of National Statistics). 

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This boom in online shopping during the pandemic saw more parcels than ever being delivered, all with a newfound urgency to keep up with demand. As parcels were hastily tossed from depot to van to doorstep, packaging strength came under the spotlight more than ever as demand grew for boxes strong enough to hold your goods securely through all delivery conditions.

But the pandemic alone wasn’t the only catalyst. With brick-and-mortar retail on the decline, e-commerce had already been growing, and coupled with that growth is consumer conscience around the volume of parcel deliveries. Sustainability – and using more recycled materials – has therefore become equally important, with most of today’s boxes made from around 50 percent of recycled corrugated material. Every ton of corrugated material that’s reused can help save up to seventeen trees1 from being cut down.
William Dannelly, Global Product Line Manager for Pulp and Paper, ABB

Balance between strength and sustainability

The downside to recycled fibers is that they get shorter with each reuse, potentially weakening the end-product.  Typically, after 5-to-7 times through the recycle process, the fiber is no longer useful. From the practical side, this means that recycled corrugated containers lose structural integrity depending on the quality of the incoming material. There are ways to overcome this, but in the end it’s a balance between strength and sustainability, not to mention cost; a difficult one to strike.

As strength can only be measured after the paper is made, process optimization opportunities to achieve the right mixture of raw, virgin and recycled materials to meet specifications are limited. It’s not surprising, therefore, that ABB saw a surge in demand for our Strength Virtual Measurement, released last year. It creates an online calculation that enables paper and packaging manufacturers to better manage strength properties within their target limits - creating more on-spec paper at lower cost – while reducing raw material usage. ABB is also expanding the use of online fiber measurement to better optimize the fiber mix.

What other factors are driving this change?

COVID-19 will continue to have a long-lasting effect on e-commerce and the future of packaging. According to McKinsey & Company**, the demand for packaging is growing all over the world, with sales surpassing the $1 trillion mark in 20212.

Over the last 18 months, we have seen the demand for corrugated boxes spike with each lockdown, brightening the fortunes of the $350bn paper-based packaging industry at the heart of the e-commerce economy. The volume of cardboard used to deliver goods from retailers to households last year surged almost 40 percent, according to consultancy Smithers. And, by the end of 2020, Fisher International confirmed US containerboard consumption was at a 40-year high, with operational capacity increasing at a rate not seen for 10+ years, driven by the growth in corrugated. 

Sustainability is one of the biggest contributors to the positive changes taking place in our industry as we see a definite switch towards packaging that uses fewer materials and is more natural. Companies now have a responsibility, and vested interest, in serving the needs of the new emerging consumer who is interested in a greener future. The abnormally high levels of e-commerce, coupled with the younger generations’ desire to support companies that align to their beliefs, have made people re-evaluate the issue of waste and move away from retailers with excessive or unsustainable packaging.
Fisher International confirmed U.S. containerboard consumption was at a 40-year high, with operational capacity increasing at a rate not seen for 10+ years.

For example, recently, I ordered a book and for the first time it didn’t arrive in the full cardboard box complete with corrugated middle layer; instead, it came in a far simpler, envelope-like package.

The evolution of packaging will also be largely driven by demographic shifts and consumer trends, such as the growing rate of urbanization and its related phenomena, namely the take-out culture and demand for convenience. We are seeing changes in everything from our on-the-go food containers to paper straws, which restaurants and consumers more often choose despite being less durable than plastic. This proves the change in desire for reduced waste and businesses need to find ways to optimize use of packaging materials and be as cost efficient as possible.

This sentiment change has been largely encouraged and reinforced by government regulatory changes, most notably the European Commission’s directive on Single Use Plastics (SUP) which came into force in 2019 in the ongoing evolution towards paper. This has sparked the gradual ban on plastic shopping bags, forcing us to either buy reusable or paper alternatives. 

The evolution of packaging will also be largely driven by demographic shifts and consumer trends, such as the take-out culture and demand for convenience.

Tips for ecommerce companies navigating the changing world of packaging

Manufacturers will need to balance sustainability with consumer preferences, while ensuring the packaging does the job it needs to. The strength of packaging needs to be aligned with the type of product to provide a robust, quality offering. Key to this is knowing the source of the pulp/material mixture that goes into the box.

The biggest challenge will be for companies to stay relevant in a market that is fast-changing and continually evolving. Leading-edge change is coming from new entrepreneurs, new lifestyles, new places, new industries and the rise of e-commerce has highlighted trends and topics such as improved product safety, the “un-boxing” experience, counterfeiting measures and optimization for last-mile delivery.

In summary, manufacturers must innovate to stay competitive and be brave enough to do more than simply evolve their approach to packaging. We need to prepare for a circular economy and transform our mindset so that packaging can play an important role in building a positive future.

We need to transform our mindset so that packaging can play an important role in building a positive future.

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