The share of consumers who want to make responsible daily choices has dropped to a level seen a decade ago, says doctoral researcher Virpi Korhonen.
’The need to economise forces consumers to change their accustomed behaviour, also as regards packagings. One in every five has had to reconsider what food or pharmaceuticals to buy. Many are now buying cheaper products, with perhaps a less sustainable packaging,’ says Virpi Korhonen, who is doing her doctoral research on consumer attitudes to packaging.
Korhonen’s research studies the attitudes of Finnish consumers to fibre-based packagings. She defines these as packagings made of wood-based materials, that is, paperboard, corrugated paperboard, paper and other packaging made of wood. They share the advantages that the raw material is renewable and the items are easy to recycle.
Korhonen studies the interest shown by Finnish consumers to what are known as Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS).
Just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as many as 45 percent of Finnish consumes could be categorised as LOHAS Heavy or Medium consumers, who go for the responsible choice regularly or fairly regularly. In the spring of 2023, only one third of Finnish consumers fell into these categories. The previous time that the figure was this low was in the early 2010s.
Positive image of fibre-based packaging
Korhonen has surveyed the attitude of LOHAS consumers to packaging for the past decade. She says that LOHAS studies can predict the demand for products and services that promote responsibility and well-being.
Korhonen finds that the key is to pay attention to consumer needs and preferences.
’To attract interest you have to know what consumers want. Not only is a sustainable packaging a selling point, but it also preserves the product and so prevents wastage,’ Korhonen says.
To attract interest you have to know what consumers want. Not only is a sustainable packaging a selling point, but it also preserves the product and so prevents wastage.
From the perspective of the forest industry it is interesting to note that compared to glass and fossil plastics, fibre-based packaging materials are associated with many positive images.
’Fibre-based materials are a good basis for packaging. It is easy to link other characteristics to them, such as intuitive usability, an image of high quality and interesting design,’ Korhonen says.
LOHAS values attract women
Korhonen has found that women have a clearly more positive attitude to LOHAS than men do. Likewise, higher educational and income levels indicate a more favourable attitude, and vice versa.
In terms of sustainable consumption it is a positive finding that rather than decreasing, the number of consumers interested in the topic of responsibility has increased. One in every four Finns is interested in responsible choices, even though this is not reflected in their consumption habits. In earlier studies, the number of Finns in this, the so-called LOHAS Light category, was about one in every six.
’I’m happy to say that interest in responsible choices has not waned, even if its impact on actual behaviour has grown less,’ Korhonen says.
’I believe we will reach the figures we saw just before the pandemic, as soon as inflation abates and the consumers’ purchasing power improves.’
Korhonen’s research has been financed by the Finnish Forest Foundation, the Finnish Packaging Association and a number of businesses. The number of respondents in the survey was one thousand, and the data is representative of the population of mainland Finland aged 18 to 75 years.
Markings on packages not well known
These days, the number of recyclable materials is considerable: paper, paperboard, plastics, biowaste, metals… According to Korhonen, the sorting and recycling of waste may be hampered by the increasing number of small households. This is leading to an increase in the number of small flats with small kitchens and very little storage space. In the EU, every third household consists of only one person.
The EU is taking a careful look at packaging. Late last year, the EU Commission published a proposal for a new regulation on packagings and packaging waste. According to the proposal, one fifth of all containers used for serving beverages should be re-usable by 2030.
By 2040, this figure would rise as high as four fifths. As for food packagings, the corresponding figures in the proposal are 10 and 40 percent. For consumers, this will mean more types of packagings to clean, store and recycle.
The strongest or weakest link in circular economy is the consumer. When fossil plastics are replaced by new fibre-based packagings, consumers don’t necessarily know any more which of them should be sorted as fibre, which as plastics. This must be indicated as clearly as possible.
Achieving the targets set for recycling is hampered by the fact that the markings assisting a responsible choice are not sufficiently well known.
’The strongest or weakest link in circular economy is the consumer. When fossil plastics are replaced by new fibre-based packagings, consumers don’t necessarily know any more which of them should be sorted as fibre, which as plastics. This must be indicated as clearly as possible,’ Korhonen says.
In Korhonen’s survey, almost all respondents recognised the Nordic Ecolabel, or the Nordic swan, an indication of the eco-friendliness of the product, but the label indicating the carbon footprint was only recognised by one half of them.
According to Korhonen, assessing the level of responsibility of a packaging is too complicated for consumers to make sustainable choices. Wholesalers, retailers, the packaging industry and the materials manufacturers should collaborate to arrive at sustainable solutions.
’The optimising of packaging solutions requires so much information that an ordinary person simply cannot manage all of it,’ Korhonen says.
Poorest recyclers are the young
Recycling reduces the environmental load from packagings. Korhonen’s survey shows that young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are the least likely to recycle, while the most diligent group are the over-65s.
’People born after WW2 have experienced austerity. Recycling and re-use are familiar to them since childhood,’ Korhonen notes.
A startling finding is that the share of Anti-LOHAS consumers, or those who view responsible consumption negatively, makes up almost one third (29 percent) in the age group of 25 to 34.
’Most of them are men with a low educational level. I do find this opposition to values so generally accepted remarkable. It is true that this same group do not vote in elections, whereas those interested in responsible choices are the ones most likely to vote, and to vote for the political left more often than the other groups,’ Korhonen says.
Sales are boosted by good packagings
Virpi Korhonen has almost 30 years of experience as a researcher, and she has also established and is leading a research company that focuses on packaging.
’The designing of packagings requires a great amount of information on a great number of fields. You must take into account dozens of angles to make a packaging that works,’ Korhonen says.
The main thing is to succeed with the essential aspects. Korhonen says that consumers value hygiene, the preservation of the product during transport, a sufficient shelf life and an appropriate packaging size to minimise waste. If these fail, the packaging will not do what is expected of it.
If the packaging is like a cold, sweaty and flaccid handshake, it does not give a good impression of the product. A good packaging is sturdy and easy to open, and will look tidy while in use.
In addition to responsibility factors, the packaging must also be attractive to the consumer and provide the appropriate information on the product. A functional packaging of high quality will reduce environmental load and boost sales.
’You have only the one chance to make a first impression. If the packaging is like a cold, sweaty and flaccid handshake, it does not give a good impression of the product. A good packaging is sturdy and easy to open, and will look tidy while in use. That is what the consumer will choose. If the product is poorly packaged, it may lead to wastage,’ Korhonen points out.
In addition to surveys, Korhonen uses eye tracking in researching packagings.
’Eye tracking is an absolutely reliable method. It tells you which packaging gets noticed before the others, which are looked at the longest and which products are noticed on the shelf. If a product is not noticed, it can’t be bought. As many as 85 percent of consumers buy the product that they have first picked up,’ Korhonen says.