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The role of cartonboard in communicating sustainable values - By the General Manager of Pro Carton

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Packaging is often the first thing any consumer is bound to see when approaching a product for the first time. It is the most important touchpoint between a brand and its target consumers – the place where all conversations about sustainable values may start and end.

There is an argument to be made that cartonboard is the most effective material when it comes to communicating sustainable values. Consumers will instantly understand the ethos of a brand from one simple look, and possibly be intrigued to explore further.

But we are no experts of cartonboard and packaging ourselves, so we reached out to someone who could discuss the topic with much more ease and expertise. Below is a piece by Tony Hitchin, General Manager of Pro Carton, the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard Manufacturers, on why cartonboard packaging has a crucial role in communicating sustainability values to consumers.

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The role of cartonboard packaging in communicating sustainability values

Packaging is an essential, if sometimes undervalued, marketing tool, playing a pivotal role in the purchasing process by promoting brand identity and communicating key overt and subliminal messages.  Nowadays, conveying the brand message and achieving shelf stand out through creative graphics and structural design are just part of packaging’s role, as the importance of the packaging material itself plays a key part in the consumer’s perception of the environmental credentials of the brand.

Of course, there are many different material options available to designers. However, with vast texture, colour and constructional possibilities, cartonboard is the ideal material for any creative particularly when you consider that it’s a truly sustainable material.  Cartons are widely used on all types of everyday FMCG products, from frozen foods to fine fragrances, but innovation and technological advancements in barrier coatings mean that cartons are now being used on an even more diverse range of products such as fast foods, fresh products and beer multipacks.

Single malt whiskies and beauty products are two of the most recognisable examples of high-end products that use cartons in creative ways to demonstrate luxury. Indeed, a recent, stand-out example of a brand using cartonboard innovatively is Roku Gin’s beautiful gift pack – created by Van Genechten Packaging using Stora Enso cartonboardIt won Carton of Year at the 2020 European Carton Excellence Awards because it perfectly conveyed the product’s story through clever structural design, delicate embossing, foiling and Japanese floral print.

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The circular beauty of cartonboard

However, the benefits of cartonboard aren’t limited to aesthetics. Being easy to recycle, biodegradable and renewable make it the greenest of packaging materials.  Cartons are produced from trees, and European forests are actually increasing in size, and paper and cardboard packaging is recycled more than any other material.  

From a brand perspective, sustainability sells. According to IBM research, eight in 10 consumers say it is important to them and this growing trend for environmental concern has had a huge impact on all aspects of consumer goods from the very start of the supply chain, through to packaging materials and delivery methods. So now, more than ever, brands are looking for new ways to operate and identifying how they effectively communicate their eco-conscious brand values to customers. 

As a tangible and direct touchpoint for the consumer, product packaging is the perfect way to communicate sustainability credentials. Brands can’t just talk the talk though - choosing a sustainable packaging material, such as cartonboard, clearly demonstrates to customers that sustainability and the future protection of our planet is at the core of a company’s values. 

And this consumer preference for sustainable packaging is backed up by new data. Pro Carton recently carried out a study of over 7,000 European consumers to better understand attitudes towards packaging, climate change and how purchasing habits have changed over time. It reinforced the importance of environmentally-friendly packaging and revealed that four in five would choose cartonboard or cardboard packaging over plastic, with less than one in 10 preferring a plastic pack.

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The wave of brand switches

In line with this increased consumer demand for sustainable, environmentally-friendly packaging, many major brands are changing packaging materials to win customers and guarantee their loyalty. In recent months, the trend to paper based packaging such as cartonboard has been gathering pace as brand owners announce packaging modifications as part of their wider sustainability pledges.

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Coca Cola for example has rolled out KeelClip™ for its multi-pack cans, eliminating 250 tonnes of shrink wrap plastic, andpledged to remove all shrink wrap from its multi-pack cans across the EU by the end of this year. This development by Graphic Packaging International is a perfect example of transformative cartonboard design, not only providing a secure environmentally-friendly way of packing multiple cans but also allowing for the cans to be aligned so that the brand name is always clearly visible.  KeelClip™ was another winner at the 2020 European Carton Excellence Awards. For a quarter of a century this competition has recognised and celebrated outstanding creativity and technical excellence in cartonboard design and all the winners can be viewed on the Pro Carton website where you can also enter for the 2021 competition.  

It’s not only brand owners that are making big changes, large retailers and supermarkets are too. Aldi, for example, recently introduced cartonboard packaging across its beef steak range and committed to removing plastic from its entire egg range – including chocolate Easter eggs! Marks & Spencer also announced a switch from plastic to cartonboard for its range of Big Selection chocolates whilst Morrisons has removed a total of 620 tonnes of plastic from its fruit and veg packs and moved to cartonboard or paper pulp trays for items that easily bruised.  Similarly, in France, Carrefour have also removed unnecessary packaging from fruits and vegetables and switched from plastic packaging to paper-based packaging for a number of its products. 

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Why we need to go further

Whilst these changes should be highly commended, there is still a long way to go. A recent report by Material Economics found that 25% of plastics currently used in packaging could be replaced by cartons and paper-based packaging without compromising functionality. This is a change that could be made today and if they were, the CO₂ produced would drop by an astonishing 85%. So it’s very clear the actions we need to take as both professionals and consumers. 

Unfortunately, our latest research also shows that consumers still feel that change isn’t happening fast enough. The study found that one in three Europeans think retailers and brands are still not doing enough to introduce more environmentally friendly forms of packaging, and nearly all consumers believe that brands and companies should be doing a bit or a lot more to help the environment. 

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The importance of recyclability

When it comes to sustainable packaging, recyclability is often top of the agenda. In fact, seven in 10 Europeans we surveyed thought that being easy to recycle was the most important feature of a product’s pack, even more important than protecting the product itself! Cartonboard fibres can be recycled 25 times or more which makes it the premier choice for sustainable packaging. Plus, a recent study undertaken by a German consultancy PTS confirmed that all types of folding cartons are recyclable, even when they are part of the wastepaper stream collected from private households.  

Furthermore, our Europe-wide survey indicated that one in five consumers have switched brands or products in the last two years because the packaging was non-recyclable – demonstrating just how important sustainability and using fibre-based packaging materials is to the success of a business. 

This is particularly prevalent amongst the younger generations.  Around three in 10 of those aged 22-34 said they had changed brands, compared to just over one in 10 of those aged 55 and above.

And price is not the barrier that many think it is.  Our study revealed that consumers are more concerned about the cost to the planet than the cost to their pocket. Three in four consumers in Europe would pay more for products if the packaging had less impact on the environment. Plus, reflecting the above, we found that nine out of 10 younger adults aged 22-28 were willing to spend more for the sake of the planet, making them the most positively disposed age group.

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Packaging for a brighter future

The argument for choosing cartonboard is clearly compelling. The material is renewable, recyclable and biodegradable which means it is the ultimate example of the circular economy in action. It is also one of the most versatile materials which makes it perfect for creative designers.  

What is clear now, more than ever, is the need for packaging that neither depletes the Earth’s natural resources nor harms the planet at the end of life.  By using sustainable materials, such as cartonboard, we will be protecting the environment for future generations.  Naturally, cartonboard also provides beautiful branding opportunities, so it’s a win-win situation for business, the consumer and, of course, the planet.

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