Diminishing global resources, exploding population growth, increasing consumption by middle classes and the rise of mobile commerce among other megatrends, will all challenge the packaging industry’s capacity to innovate like never before.
With one-third of food produced for human consumption lost or wasted globally, amounting to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year, there is an urgent need to reduce food waste. Fortunately, this is an area where packaging technology can play a strong role, and where the economic, human and environmental benefits are compelling.
Packaging plays a vital role in securing and protecting food and beverage products, however as technology advances and consumers become more discerning, the design of packaging has become as important as its function. To compete successfully, food companies need to look for unique ways to strengthen the emotional connection between consumers and their brands. Packaging is an often overlooked but powerful way of communicating to consumers, while protecting and growing a brand.
Legislation, whether enacted or anticipated, is also an important driver impacting package selection and inspiring advances in packaging materials and processes. For example, labelling is a key element in maintaining food quality and has become a legal requirement throughout most of Asia Pacific.
In Singapore, the legislation on food labelling for prepacked food has been established by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA). Every package of food, drink and pet food in Singapore must bear a label which is noticeable and holds important information about the product as required by the Food Regulations, challenging package designers to find ways to incorporate this additional information on labels and packaging to ensure compliance with the law.
As food companies rethink their packaging to create compelling designs with better quality materials, we look at these key trends and developments in more detail to see how they can help drive commercial and ecological benefits in 2016 and beyond.
Holistic Packaging, More Than Mere Design
While Asian consumers are generally most interested in the product inside the packaging, first impressions are important and packaging tells consumers why products and brands are different. It is important to make packaging stand out from the competition with the use of colour, materials and design.
As more people eat and drink on-the-go, they want packaging that is easy to open, hold, use and reseal. For example, beverages must have openings that deliver a smooth and even stream to allow drinking while walking, and closures that seal tightly to avoid spillage. In addition, visual appeal is becoming increasingly important as consumers want products that offer style as well as functionality, while they are on the move.
It is therefore important to combine brand image and the emotional and experiential side of packaging with its technical and operational side, and to date, innovation in packaging has been seen spurring across product categories.
For example, packaging manufacturer Crown Holdings considered function and universal design when it developed its orbit closure, one that is easy for consumers of all ages to open. The unique design also helps brands such as UK’s Duerr and Netherlands’ HAK stand out on retailers’ shelves.
With online shopping increasingly outpacing in-store sales, food companies also need to design packaging with digital shoppers in mind, as these shoppers do not have the luxury of touching and feeling a tangible product to help in their decision-making process. Food companies must consider how their products will display on screen and how they will be transported and delivered to customers.
Online shopping presents opportunities to customise packaging as well—uploading a picture of the consumer onto a soda can, for instance—and can help support brand awareness if consumers share their ‘creations’ via social media channels.
Retail-Ready Packaging Gaining Traction
To reduce costs and warehousing, retailers are pushing for more retail-ready packaging (RRP), which refers to packaging delivered to a retailer in a self-contained unit that is immediately ready for on-shelf product display without the need for assembling or unpacking.
RRP is gaining popularity and traction in Asia Pacific. For example, retailers in Australia such as Coles and Woolworths are moving further down the path towards requiring RRP from their external suppliers. Woolworths’ ‘Five Easys’ concept: easy to identify; easy to open; easy to shelf; easy to shop; and easy to dispose, is one such attempt to create a benchmark for RRP.
RRP can provide significant benefits to food companies striving to improve the identity of their brands in retail environments. Advancements in printing technologies such as flexographic post-printing which allows quick drying in a wide variety of ink types on different materials, enables packaging converters to create RRP units that reinforce product branding throughout the supply chain as well as on the shelf.
Sustainable Packaging Critical To Reduce Waste
While not a new stimulus, sustainability has certainly evolved as a key driver. A recent survey by Havi Global Solutions revealed that 41 percent of professionals see sustainability as a key area of opportunity for the future. The survey, entitled ‘Future of Packaging: 2023’ questioned over one hundred professionals, ranging from academics to brand owners, on the key factors which are expected to affect the industry in the decade to come. Among the many key findings, the survey revealed that 78 percent of respondents believe sustainability will become more important in the next 10 years.
Where food companies, packaging manufacturers and consumers were once focused on reusing materials, reducing waste and increasing use of product concentrates and refillables, today’s trends are focused on big systems. There is greater emphasis on achieving zero waste, composting—both at the consumer and the industrial level—leveraging bio-based materials and efficiently generating energy from waste.
Consumer and food manufacturer interest in sustainability and reducing food waste has driven recent innovations in food packaging such as re-seal functionality and individually wrapped portions. This reduces waste which, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, ‘emits the equivalent of about 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases’ each year.
Advances in science and technology spur trends in packaging—both functional and fun. New barrier materials that coat disposable cups and plates, for instance, are becoming as effective and more affordable than traditional plastic coatings, but significantly more sustainable and easier to recycle.
Intelligent packaging is another trend that was born from science and technology developments. Examples include modified atmosphere packaging to prolong the shelf life of meats and produce as well as colour-changing technology on packaging and labels to indicate the freshness of foods. Both help consumers avoid wasting food that is still fresh despite the date indicated on a ‘best when used by’ stamp and, conversely, avoid illness from ingestion of foods that have spoiled before their anticipated expiration dates.
Managing And Optimising The Supply Chain
The rise of e-commerce and rapid growth of online services such as click and collect, which allows consumers to select their goods online and collect them in-store themselves, presents new challenges for companies’ supply chains. For example, the returns cycle is more complex when food is being transported and must be kept at particular temperatures throughout the supply chain cycle.
Of equal importance is traceability. The 2013 meat adulteration scandal in Europe highlighted the importance of being able to trace the origin of goods and how they have got to where they are. Without this, companies run the risk of failing to win the trust of their customers, as well as the more pressing threat of a contaminated supply chain.
Food companies are not only expected to deliver more, high-quality products, faster and for less, but to provide all the information associated with the origins of ingredients and product materials including packaging, as well as the conditions under which they were produced and transported along the value chain.
The first step in a holistic approach to traceability is ensuring that all entities understand the existing regulations, comply with them, and have processes in place to respond to new rules. For example, in Australia and New Zealand, traceability of food packaging is currently assured by the Food Standards Code, which continues to provide improved outcomes for both consumers and the food service industry.
Establishing a clear view of all suppliers’ operations is an important step to ensure they have instituted their own traceability programmes. It also enables the entire supply chain to adapt to today’s changing business, environmental and government landscapes.
Depending on the complexity of the supply chain, the use of unique datasets—including an order date or time or a serialised sequence number, generally through the use of a barcode or radio-frequency identification (RFID) on packaging— can trace and report the status of a product through the entire production flow. Personnel will scan the product or raw materials at key points along the supply chain, and any number of factors can be determined. This not only links all sections of the operation; it enables system audits as needed, at any point.
Anticipating Packaging Trends
The future is not entirely unknown. By monitoring local and global developments in business, industry and the environment while tracking consumer attitudes and sentiment through social media, it is possible to anticipate emerging issues for packaging, if not get ahead of them.
The most prepared companies have a formal process in place for gathering and processing information and insights. Behind every packaging trend is an impetus that sparked it— whether an advancement in technology, a new law, a more holistic approach to design or a greater interest in preserving the environment.
The challenge for food companies and packaging manufacturers is not in adapting to trends once they are established, but in anticipating and inspiring their creation through observation and visionary thinking, enabling packaging to play an ever-important role in our modern lives.