“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”


When asked, the vast majority of consumers state that they read the information on the food packaging they buy. Labels as well as the packaging itself are increasingly important means of communication. Clear labels and information from field to fork contribute to providing the required transparency. We asked two experts how they see the future of food packaging.

This is part 2 of 2 in an interview series on transparency & food packaging. This is a conversation with Roland ten Klooster*, professor in packaging design & management.

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

When did you first become interested in packaging?
I have an industrial design background and began specialising in packaging design quite early on. In particular functional packaging design, focused on the optimal mix of properties, materials, production techniques, marketing and costs. In that sense, designing good packaging is like a puzzle. What has fascinated me from the start is that packaging design decisions are often made in the wrong order; visual design comes first, only to find out later on that the desired packaging cannot be manufactured with the available machinery or that the design is way too expensive to produce.

What are the most important trends when it comes to food packaging?
I am noticing quite a few trends in the area of packaging design. For example, companies using their packaging to communicate craftsmanship and artisanship. They may do this by depicting black-and-white photos of craftsmen armed with tools and attributes while manufacturing their products. In addition, a yearning for authenticity is giving rise to a lot of matte, plain surfaces. These are ways of giving a product a more natural look. At the same time, you see a lot of graphical patterns consisting of triangles and sharp shapes.

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

When it comes to choice of material, the market is currently mainly driven by fear. Pressured by public opinion, companies want to eliminate plastic and switch to all kinds of coated paper and cardboard alternatives. They sell it as a circular solution, but in actual fact their carbon footprint is increased. Of course, they don’t want to hear it. The irony is that coated cardboard isn’t recyclable and inflates the carbon footprint by adding a huge amount of packaging weight.

In terms of material usage, I see a positive trend in the innovative application of cellulose. Cellulose is a plant fibre contained in all plants and trees. A well-known application is ‘virgin’ kraft paper made of cellulose fibre. Grinding the fibres even further and mixing them with a certain type of filling, causes the material to behave like plastic. Innovations with micro and nanocellulose are currently underway. For example, Carlsberg is developing a cellulose-based beer bottle.

The Taste Tomorrow study indicates that consumers want transparency. They want to know the contents of their food. The food industry is responding by aiming for cleaner labels. Do you recognise this trend and what are its consequences?  
Personally, I have yet to spot this increasing demand for cleaner labels in the Dutch consumer market, including among younger target groups. The way I see it, the development is primarily motivated by food companies fearing negative publicity. I think we are too quick to respond to media hungry food bloggers thereby allowing them to affect the consumer demand.

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

When it comes to transparency, another trend has been growing – especially among millennials – that is seemingly ignored or underestimated by many companies. Millennials prefer brands with a simple and authentic story. There are countless examples, such as Ben & Jerry’s. They can explain their origin with a single sentence: ‘We didn’t know where the ingredients for ice cream were being sourced, so we began making it ourselves.’ Or Innocent, a brand that says ‘We didn’t like the smoothies sold in stores so we began making our own.’ This story translates into the way in which they produce and market their products.

This is a fundamental change compared to the past few decades. Back then, you would make products and in order to sell them, you would create all kinds of refined stories around them. Millennials see through that immediately and will simply say ‘what nonsense. What is it that you’re making? Where is it made?’ These are the questions that brands are being confronted with nowadays, which is causing a major shift in marketing expressions. Even a brand like Heineken has created a new brand campaign about how they started out in the 1800s, showing consumers the origins of their beer. A cheese brand like Old Amsterdam has an origin story about the reclamation of the Zuiderzee, explaining how local fishermen lost their source of income and began making cheese in order to regain their livelihood. Companies that lack an authentic origin story, are going to face tremendous difficulties. 

Young people are making increasingly conscious choices when it comes to food. Food has become a lifestyle. Does that ring true to you?
I work with highly educated young adults all the time. I recognise the claim, but only partially. It is a part-time truth. I think the majority of it is personal branding. Millennials are highly capable of adopting multiple roles, which is confirmed by several studies. Trying to be as healthy as possibly during the week, with intense workouts and a vegan diet. Only to dance away while binging on alcohol over the weekend. Because they also want to enjoy themselves. This is a contradiction. They pick their roles based on convenience. That role may be different at the university cafeteria than it is at home with their parents or in their dormitory which may differ yet again from the role they adopt among friends over the weekend.

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

Some developments in packaging are contradictory. On the one hand, there is a demand for sustainability and transparency, but meanwhile there is a strong emphasis on assuring food safety…to what extent are such developments at odds with each other?
At the moment, there is a great deal of tension between these developments. Take food safety for instance. In Europe we are currently seeing huge amounts of coated cardboard coming in from Asia, because paper and cardboard are supposedly more sustainable alternatives to plastic. What many consumers and companies fail to understand is that cardboard contains all kinds of chemical components such as acrylates and acetates, that often remain unspecified. Europe has mandated food packaging plastics to be tested in accordance with Food Contact Legislation to make sure no threshold limits are exceeded. Paper and cardboard are regulated by Food Contact Legislation as well, but they do not require mandatory testing. As a result, filthy garbage is being imported into Europe. It makes me wonder: ‘what on earth are we doing?’

A lot of companies come to us with the request to help them get rid of plastic and increase sustainability. I always tell them: “Those are two different things”. Because sustainability – by which they usually mean circularity since that is the leading model – begins with rethinking. Followed by the steps of renewing and reducing before recycling comes into play as the fourth step of the process. But everyone is so focused on recycling that the other steps are being forgotten. Plus, recycling isn’t always done correctly. We are all extremely focused on eco-efficiency, but tend to lose sight of eco-effectiveness. This is a tragedy

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

Do consumers and companies even understand the consequences of their packaging choices? 
Take the single use plastics prohibition for instance, and all developments resulting from it. Suddenly, large companies are taking huge steps without understanding the consequences. Coca-Cola for instance, is replacing all their cling film around their cans with coated cardboard. Except, it isn’t clear whether or not this is an improvement in terms of LCA (life cycle assessment). But they go ahead and do it anyway. This involves millions of items. A lot of consumers think that paper and cardboard don’t do any harm when they end up in the environment, and that they simply decompose on their own. But with all the coatings being used, we are actually introducing a huge amount of microplastics into the environment within a very short period of time.

Another example, to illustrate the complexity, is the popularity of ready-to-cook meal packages in the supermarket or fresh box subscriptions where the consumer receives a weekly box with a measured amount of ingredients delivered to their home. Such a meal package may contain half a cauliflower, bell pepper cut into strips, a portion of rice and some freshly ground herbs. This perfectly meets the consumer’s demand for convenience, but meanwhile these packages create almost 50 grams worth of additional packaging material compared to just buying all these food items individually. This equates to four regular shopping bags, just for a single meal. In that sense, people aren’t thinking. The greatest challenge is to create awareness about what people are doing: causing a huge amount of additional plastics.

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

What are the greatest challenges in improving the sustainability of food packaging, for example that of bake-off bread? 
Bake-off bread is often gas-packed in plastic. Most baguette packaging is thermoformed: film is heated up and a cavity is blown into it to create room for the bread. This type of packaging contains nylon in order to guarantee a shelf life of at least six months. Unfortunately, nylon is such a rarely occurring material that it isn’t being recycled. The greatest challenge is essentially not to improve the sustainability of the packaging, but to make sure we start to question the six-month shelf life. If we could be comfortable with a shelf life of seven days or several weeks instead of six months, this would allow us to work with recyclable material. But this requires a great deal of consumer awareness and behavioural change.

Once we eliminate the idea that bake-off bread has to keep for six months, a lot of sustainable packaging alternatives emerge. If you think about it, it’s quite absurd. Who needs to buy a baguette today only to prepare it six months later? The industry has designed certain solutions and consumers have gotten used to the convenience. But a long shelf life like that isn’t always a necessity, especially as we are achieving shorter chains with fewer transportation kilometres. If we source our food more locally, there is no need to have our cheap bake-off baguettes carried halfway across the globe. 

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

Do consumers understand the importance of food packaging? 
When it comes to food packaging, one thing is crystal clear: food waste should always be prevented as much as possible, since it carries a much greater environmental footprint than the packaging itself. This is often a difficult point of discussion. Packaging is always considered a separate entity, as if it exists as an independent product. But packaging serves an important purpose: keeping our food safe and increasing its shelf life. Packaging is meaningless without a product to protect.

This is something I find myself emphasising more and more when talking to my students. A lot of millennials are clueless with regards to the degree of luxury and wealth that has been created by the food industry over the past forty to sixty years. Packaging plays a crucial part. Take the dramatic decrease in food waste for instance. We are still wasting way too much edible food, but nowhere near the amount we used to. Plus, packaging significantly contributed to the health benefits that resulted from improved food safety. This should not be ignored. And this is why it is important that we pay a lot of attention to how we package our food. 

Packaging in 2030 
Here at the University of Twente, a lot of progress is being made with Industry 4.0. We look at sensor technology and additive manufacturing where all kinds of 3D-printed elements can be added to the product last-minute. Fantastic developments are on the way in that respect. In the packaging industry however, costs are all but decisive when it comes to scaling innovations. Huge volumes and lead time speeds are required from the start. This means that not a lot will have changed by 2030. Think about it. In 1980, we were using the same packaging in our stores as we are today. Granted, the PET bottle was introduced and gas packaging technology was developed since that time. But that’s about it. Other than that, little has changed apart from all the autonomous developments that touch the packaging industry as well, such as thinner film, better printing quality, more efficient logistics, etc. But this spans a time frame of forty years

“Companies should provide an honest explanation of their packaging choices”

What is the food industry’s best chance of improving its sustainability? 
Companies will have to stand their ground when it comes to their decisions and go by the facts rather than the poorly informed public opinion. Arla is a great example of a best practice in this regard. They have opted for unbleached cardboard gabletops for the Dutch market. This brings down the CO2 emissions by 20% for each gabletop produced which is a substantial reduction. But when you ask other companies to follow their lead towards unbleached packaging, they refuse to get involved. Either they don’t want to ‘copy’ Arla, or it doesn’t fit the DNA of their brand. Nonsense, of course, but this is how businesses are dealing with sustainability. And consumers don’t really care. They are barely calling companies out on it. The knowledge of consumers as well as companies remains riddled with indifference and inconsistency.

What will become crucial for companies in the years to come is that they start taking the role of packaging seriously and provide consumers with honest explanations about their choices. They have to become fully transparent in that regard. Not by loosely stating ‘we choose paper or cardboard because it is environmentally friendly’. But by saying ‘we choose material x because we have researched it thoroughly and according to the independent lifecycle assessment, it has the lowest long-term carbon footprint.’ This is the only way to find truly sustainable packaging solutions.

* Roland ten Klooster has been a part-time professor at Twente University since 2006, with a focus on (functional) packaging design. In addition, he works for Plato Product Consultants, a consultancy that advises companies on packaging where he is contributing to the development of new packaging solutions. He (co)authored various books including “Packaging Design Decisions: A Technical Guide” published in 2018. 

The transparency trend is about clean labels and transparent sourcing. Discover 10 vegan concepts that focus on transparent sourcing, but also respond to the ethical lifestyle trend and the health trend that were revealed by the Taste Tomorrow survey.