Is Printing on Food a Sustainable Packaging Solution?
Recently, Design Week spoke with Karen Welman, founding creative partner and chief creative officer of the U.K.-based branding agency, Pearlfisher, about what trends can be expected from packaging design in 2018. Welman pointed out that sustainable packaging will be a driving factor behind packaging design in 2018, which isn't too surprising. What is surprising however, is what Welman cited as her favorite "packaging" design from 2017.
The packaging Welman cited is not quite packaging at all, but rather the process of printing directly on food products. She specifically cites a company that etched labels and barcodes onto avocados as being a "genius way of removing wasteful, non-recyclable packaging material." From the Design Week article, she continued:
As consumers become ever more conscious of their environmental footprint, they now expect brands to help them lead a more sustainable life. By doing away with the unnecessary label and utilising the existing natural packaging of the product, Marks & Spencer has introduced an innovative and effective design solution to display relevant information for shoppers. I’m really excited to see if other supermarkets and retailers embrace the same approach this year.
Laserfood — the Spanish company behind the technology used to etch the fruit — claims to be the "new generation of labelling" by eliminating unnecessary packaging for fruit and vegetables that can withstand laser etching. Laserfood says on its website that its goal is to be the solution for "problems caused by the use of paper in the labelling industry," as well as a way to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and to eliminate "the nuisance caused by stickers to the final consumer."
The process could also cost less. According to Design Week, Laserfood says that if a company were to produce stickers for 1,000 melons it would cost €30 ($36), but with the laser etching system it would cost €0.90 ($1.08).
Is It the Sustainable Packaging Solution?
Welman isn't alone in saying that sustainability will be a driving factor behind packaging decisions made in 2018. Recently, David Luttenberger, Mintel's global packaging director, spoke with packagePRINTING's Editor-in-Chief Cory Francer about the five Global Packaging Trends Mintel has pinpointed for 2018, which include the importance of sustainability to consumers. However, sustainability isn't just about reducing or eliminating packaging. The role packaging can play in preventing food waste by extending the shelf life of an item has a significant impact as well.
"The right package can really help extend the shelf life of food and impact our sustainability as a planet," Luttenberger says.
For example, if shrink wrap is used to protect a fruit or vegetable in addition to the skin that naturally protects it, it could actually keep the food on the shelf for a longer period of time. However, Luttenberger says it's important to communicate these benefits to consumers.
Otherwise, consumers may see the packaging as unnecessary and excessive, such as what happened with Genuine Coconut, when it received backlash in the U.K. for its coconut water that is sold still in the coconut shell, which is wrapped in plastic. Consumers expressed their anger on Twitter stating that the packaging was not necessary because of a coconut's natural hard shell.
An article from the Evening Standard, which covered the controversy, quotes Ben Feltwell, the Director of About Organics, who explained that there could be a valid reason behind the packaging. From the Evening Standard:
From a recent trip to Guaruja, Brazil (where coconuts are abundant) the locals were adamant that they wouldn't drink coconut water in the UK as they believe that the green flesh is required to keep the water fresh. Without it, the water quickly becomes milk and if coconuts are stored as the brown cores (that we know and expect) without the green flesh, they apparently don't last as long.
If there's any real science behind the use of a plastic wrap around the coconut cores, it may be to replicate the effect of the flesh in keeping the coconut water fresh, though this is just guesswork based on their local customs.
It doesn't seem that Genuine Coconut clearly stated its intentions to consumers (i.e. that the plastic keeps the coconut fresh for longer, extending its shelf life, thereby reducing waste).
Gaining Consumer Trust
Part of the problem may be that situations — like the mandarin orange snafu at Whole Foods — that actually do make use of excessive packaging may cause consumers to lose trust in packaging as a whole. Could Whole Foods have encouraged consumers to peel their own oranges and avoided the problem? Yes. If a brand or grocery store is going to use packaging in this manner, it needs to be justifiable and communicated to the consumer clearly.
Marks & Spencer (M&S), the company behind the avocado etching, had their own packaging controversy recently when it released cauliflower "steaks" wrapped in plastic, which included an "herb drizzle" and cost "almost four times the cost of a whole one," according to the Times of Malta.
Although the examples of the orange and cauliflower may be excessive uses of packaging, there are legitimate reasons to use packaging to prevent food waste. If information is included on a product about how its packaging could actually be considered more environmentally responsible, it may alleviate some of the backlash against packaging by the environmentally conscious.