The Packaging Conundrum

Navigating the complex maze of sustainability, producers strive to meet ever-evolving consumer demands.

by Dawn Gray

Ask a producer — whether a grower, packer or shipper — about their packaging challenges, and you’ll often hear the same sentiment: “It’s impossible to get it right.” Everyone in the supply chain, including consumers, has a perspective on the ideal approach. While many aim for environmentally friendly solutions, the rules and regulations at municipal, regional and national levels sometimes don’t align with practical realities.

As we hope to shift our focus from the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers focus less on hygiene. Still, hygiene, food safety and shelf life remain the top concerns for consumers, followed closely by environmental impact.

Consumers don’t unanimously favor a single type of packaging. Whether it’s plastic, paper, glass or metal, no material stands out as the preferred choice.

In the paper vs. plastic debate, the corrugated packaging industry deserves credit for its unified messaging. Single-use plastic is now viewed negatively, while paper is seen as a more sustainable option. However, the costs associated with this shift often fall on growers and producers. It’s difficult to pass these costs to consumers, especially when market dynamics are primarily driven by supply and demand. Although consumers express a willingness to pay for sustainable packaging, this sentiment doesn’t always manifest during checkout.

For some producers, transitioning to paper has increased costs and slowed their production lines, which were initially designed for poly bags. Adapting these lines is possible, but it comes with financial implications.

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Retailers seek packaging that aligns with their sustainability objectives. For instance, some French retailers insist on bags with compostable Kwik Lock closures. These locks come at a premium, and that additional cost often falls on the producer.

When comparing private labels to traditional branding, the growing prominence of private labels in store centers is evident, even in produce sections. Producers used to design eye-catching graphics to attract consumers, effectively serving as silent salespeople. The objective was to encourage impulse buying. But with nearly 50% of fresh produce now under private labels, these branding opportunities are changing. How can producers justify a marketing budget when their brand might not even appear on the shelf? Their product may be present, but not their branding.

Introducing new varieties poses challenges, especially if retailers prefer generic or private-label packaging. Take premium table grapes as an example. The global market now offers numerous exciting table grape varieties, bringing much-needed dynamism to the category. But if consumers can’t recognize a favorite variety, will they be willing to pay more in hopes of buying it again? They might, unless they’re left disappointed.

Many consumers want less packaging. In typical retail, offering bulk options is feasible. They can choose pre-packaged items or from bulk displays. Yet, hygiene, food safety, and shelf life are crucial. Some consumers love the vibrant bulk displays and the experience of choosing produce, while others prefer minimal handling of their purchases.

The definition of sustainability is evolving. Beyond recycling, composting and using less plastic, some consumers now consider various responsible practices when defining sustainability. This broader view encompasses fair wages, ethical sourcing, diversity inclusion and community involvement, among other factors. We must always be attuned to today’s empowered consumer. They are quick to detect and condemn greenwashing. I often assert that our growers and producers are truly stewards of the earth. Their very livelihood hinges on it.

• Dawn Gray has over 36 years of international fresh produce experience working with growers, distributors, marketers and retailers in over 25 countries.