Packaging evolution should not involve cutting corners, or ditching the skills and foundations the industry is proudly build upon, writes Mike Swain
The environmental imperative is upon us and change is inevitable. There is, however, a concern within the packaging community that is becoming more evident. This particular concern is the diligence with which change is initiated and eventually deployed across the products we make and sell. The packaging professional community is under pressure because the right skills and capabilities to make change, with diligence, is in demand and in short supply. Many organisations have adopted, in recent times, an approach that reduces the reliance on incumbent packaging capability, pushing the focus of this capability further up the supply chain to suppliers and service providers. The consequence of which is to erode the specific packaging understanding and experience within the organisation that would be needed to facilitate the diligence required for a successful systemic change to new, more environmentally conscious, packaging materials and formats.
Ill-advised and hasty change can cause more problems than it was intended to resolve
I have observed in recent weeks a number of products reaching the shelves, with bright and brash graphics, in materials and formats very different from what they were before and highlighting their environmental credentials. The original packaging had inevitably been that way for many years, iteratively changed for cost, manufacturability and marketing needs. Yet the knowledge and diligence imparted to develop the packaging in the first place has moved on, so how can you be confident the formats you have changed to will still offer the same benefits as the previous packaging?
Take, for example, shelf life. A sensitive product, one containing components that will degrade, change or simply disappear with time will have been packaged in a ‘high barrier’ format.
If you understand enough about your product to define what will drive your shelf life, which drivers are the priority and how much of each driver the product can tolerate before unacceptable change has happened, then you are in the minority. Most can quote what their main driver is but what else drives and especially how much of these drivers can facilitate that change is most often very difficult to express. Packaging materials and formats can be engineered to hold these drivers at bay, and even promote certain conditions that aid shelf life that would appear counter intuitive. This specific packaging understanding and experience that had existed within organisations has migrated out, increasing the risk associated with decision making for packaging change. Add to that the moral imperative for environmentally conscious packaging change in the minimal time frame, the potential for quality and possibly safety issues is increasing.
On offer are ‘high barrier’ alternatives to current packaging formats, made from new, exotic and innovative materials that have great environmental credentials. There are some compromises needed, commonly around manufacturability, commercial and aesthetic elements, but they can be worked around. There is, however, a compromise as I have observed on shelf life. These new materials offer a different mix of capability to hold the shelf life drivers at bay compared to previous formats. How can you be sure you are holding the right drivers at bay, at the right level or promoting the right conditions? With shelf life, only time will tell. Ill-advised and hasty change can cause more problems than it was intended to resolve. Look to the expertise that can provide answers based on experience and understanding, and take the emotive pressure to change as guidance not the imperative. Your customers and stakeholders expect change for the better, with diligence, for the protection of our environment.
I would anticipate they will resist perpetual cycles of change to remedy the shortcomings of hasty changes, as will the consumers who will vote with their hearts, and pockets.