Packaging sustainability for a more engaged audience – The Seaspiracy Effect

02 Jun 2021

For brands and the packaging printers they rely on, conversations around sustainability have never been more important.


The environmental impact of packaging is rising on the consumer agenda, which directly connects the packaging supply chain with commercial performance. We tend to think of packaging sustainability in terms of substrate and end of life disposal, but the full packaging supply chain has a role to play.


From our position as a leading packaging and label reprographics house, we are given a unique insight into how brands, and the printers they collaborate with, are responding to the unique sustainability challenges of today.


How has consumer awareness changed?

Consumers are getting much more hands-on with what sustainability actually means, and what it looks like in practice. Effectively, the term ‘sustainability’ has become too vague and has lost its meaning, limiting its value as a competitive edge.


What has become clear is that consumers are proactively learning and becoming much more comfortable with more of the technical terms, including substrate categories such as PCR, rPET or PET and HDPE. Typically, brands would reserve these terms for the small print, but as shoppers become more engaged with packaging, there is opportunity to connect more deeply.


The result for brands is clear – research from Boston Consulting Group found that 74% of consumers are willing to pay more for packaging that is sustainably designed and produced. This indicates a stronger value proposition at the point of purchase, meaning sustainable packaging can command a higher price point, and when pitted against similarly priced alternatives, the sustainability of packaging can be a real differentiator. Naturally, when eco-credentials play a role in purchase decisions, it takes on new importance for the brand owner.


An element that all-too often falls off the radar for brands is the importance of sustainability further upstream in the supply chain. We tend to think only in terms of material innovation, such as renewable substrates and inks, monopolymers and lightweight recycle-ready packaging. However, truly sustainably designed packs need responsible production processes to support the narrative. This, of course, includes the pre-press and origination phases, setting the stage for responsible printing.


The Seaspiracy Effect

We often talk about heightened consumer awareness and the vilification of plastic in mainstream media, and Seaspiracy is a great example of how conversations around packaging are moving forward.


Since launching in April, the Netflix documentary has proved an overnight hit, with millions tuning in to see independent British filmmaker, Ali Tabrazi, and his team uncover the extent of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, beginning with the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, a large gyre comprising marine debris.


Within the first half hour, the documentary challenges many of the preconceived ideas of plastic packaging waste in the oceans; Tabrazi and his team discovers that plastics, in this case straws, are actually a much smaller part of oceanic littering than would be expected. After uncovering that fishing lines and equipment make up the vast majority, the documentary then focuses on what the team see as the much bigger and more immediate threat of over-fishing.


The documentary strengthens the idea that not all plastics are created equal and challenges the media’s disproportionate attacks on plastic use. The message is clear – packaging, in and of itself, is not the central problem – a fractured and ineffective waste infrastructure is.


Where Seaspiracy has its biggest impact is in moving public discourse around sustainability forwards. Consumers are getting more hands-on with eco-friendly packaging and are learning that sustainability doesn’t only come from the latest materials. The discussion around ‘greener’ packaging is building strong momentum, and it’s likely that consumer interest in sustainable consumerism will only accelerate.


How can printers capitalise on this momentum?

As shoppers put the packaging supply chain under the microscope, this naturally involves the packaging and label printing process.


Shoppers are learning that packaging, in and of itself, is not the key issue in waste but they struggle to comprehend the sheer complexity of packaging and label production today.


Importantly, brands do understand and herein lies the opportunity for printers to drive the sustainability dialogue, reducing their carbon footprint with smarter pre-press processes to propel sustainability strategies forwards.


At Creation, we believe that reprographics and pre-press should never just be ‘bolt-on’ additions to the print process. It has real value to offer. Our focus has always been on providing customers with higher quality and accuracy, but crucially, allowing pre-press to play a part in responsible print and supply.


Cutting solvents out of the pre-press equation is, we believe, the next big gear-change for packaging and label production. The momentum from Seaspiracy can be accelerated with a sound production process to back up substrate innovation.


To this end, we champion water-washable flexo plate technology, particularly Asahi’s successful AWP™ line which delivers premium plate quality and production efficiency second to none.


Historically, we in the industry have seen sustainability as a concession. After all, if a particular technology, material or consumable is designed to be eco-friendly first, it can’t be as effective as how we’ve previously been working, can it? This way of thinking is shown to be outdated when we look at the benefits of AWP plates, supplied by Creation.


As well as eliminating harmful solvent and VOC washout from the prepress process, the plates actually improve quality, accuracy and registration over the long runs that today’s printers need to remain competitive.


Rather than choosing between ‘green’ credentials and performance, Asahi AWP flexo technology boosts ink transfer for superior coverage, offers precise registration and job-to-job consistency, while reducing plate production time by around 33%, compared to its solvent-reliant counterparts. What’s more, the plates require low temperatures, making the plates incredibly stable.


As well as boosting the performance of flexographic print lines, the plates are an ideal choice for converters looking to move away from gravure and offset printing without losing any of their premium quality advantages.


Brand owners and packaging printers can – and should – be using the new conversations propelled by Seaspiracy to highlight just how far packaging has come in terms of sustainability, which often isn’t covered in mainstream consumer media with the passion conveyed when vilifying the packaging industry.


With a print supply chain that backs up the strong sustainability credentials of today’s plastic packaging, brand owners, printers and converters can take advantage of this momentum to create more honest, open dialogue about plastic waste. By moving the sustainability conversation forwards, we are better prepared for the challenges of the future.

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