How Consumer Spending Drives the Packaging Revolution

When we talk about consumer spending, we are discussing a selection of different factors relating to the ways and reasons that people buy goods and services. In traditional economics, consumer spending is simple, it is the relationship between the power of individuals to buy things versus their cost and availability. 

We don’t want to talk about economics, we want to talk about psychology and advanced reasoning, we want to dig deep into the world of purchasing decisions to see how conscious consumerism has brought about huge evolutions to an ageing industry. 

Let’s get going.

An ageing industry did we say?

Packaging has been around for millennia in the form of vases, wicker baskets, and woven bags, but we aren’t here to talk about that, nor are we here to discuss the tinning and canning era of food preservation. Nope, we are here to talk about plastic and cardboard, the two most prevalent materials in today’s packaging.

The cardboard box was patented back in 1890 and plastic packaging engineering first came to the forefront in the 1950s. Since then, we’ve seen packaging go from one extreme to another, from plastic-wrapped bananas and huge delivery parcels with tiny items inside to oceans filled with plastic and entire habitats at threat from packaging pollution. 

Just this morning we sat in horror as we watched someone take a disposable cup, cut open a coffee capsule packet, then rip open a sugar sachet and a sachet of creamer, but it gets worse because even the plastic stirrers were in individual paper sachets. 

Right now, people are angry. They’re angry about the oceans. They’re angry about straws. They’re angry about unnecessary waste. We are frustrated too. The packaging industry is showing its age, it simply hasn’t evolved and become as conscious and angry as the customers who buy its products. Change is required.

Collective consumerism

Did you know that a study performed by the University of Cardiff in 2018 founding that 89% of British consumers would like all packaging to be recyclable? Beyond that, 75% of people want the government to make changes that ensure that companies make repairable and recyclable products. Of all the people surveyed, just 0.4% said that there is no need for resource efficiency. 

It’s just like Green Alliance resources senior policy adviser Libby Peake said, “People are frustrated by unnecessary, unrecyclable packaging and shoddy products that don’t last.” You’re right they are!

In France, consumers put pressure on policymakers to increase taxes on products that are not recyclable and use those taxes to subsidise recyclable equivalents. It has proved very popular and a massive incentive for manufacturers to make changes.

So, if the people hold the power, what can they do?

Earlier in 2018, Walkers, the crisp manufacturer, was at the centre of a storm because despite producing hundreds of millions of crisp packets every year (7,000 per minute), their packaging was not at all recyclable. 

People were mad. People came together to build a campaign. People began posting the unrecyclable packets back to Walkers. Walkers got so much bad PR and so many packets through their letterbox, that they had to make a change. Just read the first two lines of The Guardian’s coverage of this story:

Walkers has agreed to offer a free national recycling scheme to stop millions of empty crisp packets ending up in landfill in the UK every year after consumers heaped pressure on it to change its plastic packaging.

A social media campaign asking crisp manufacturers to make their packaging recyclable led to Royal Mail issuing a plea to members of the public last week to put empty crisp packets in an envelope before posting them back to the company.

The keywords here are ‘consumers heaped pressure’ and ‘social media campaign’. From the start of this campaign up to Walkers announcing changes was just nine months. Nine months to save hundreds of millions of pieces of packaging from the landfill. It all started with one consumer who saw a problem, who was concerned enough to use consumer purchasing behaviour against Walkers and to force innovation. Their petition impressively gained hundreds of thousands of signatures. 

Are Walkers alone?

Walkers aren’t even the only crisp producer who have got consumers on their back, they’re probably just the biggest or most well-known. Across all types of manufacturing, people are asking questions. 

Consumers have evolved from ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we can package items to make them last longer and be protected during transit?’ to ‘Why are we using the wrong materials and acting unsustainably in our attempts to packaging items and make them last longer?’.

One final question

If 89% of people want everything to be recyclable and more than half would happily pay an extra £4 per week on average through their shopping purchases to guarantee it, then why isn’t the government making policy change?

Until the government targets the producers and manufacturers of non-recyclable packaging waste, consumer spending campaigns that address the companies directly will continue. It seems completely counter-productive to let people expend vast amounts of time, money, and energy campaigning against businesses when in one swift move, the government could solve it all. Perhaps people need to turn their attention.