No matter how sustainable your business is, your customers will judge how ‘green’ you are on your takeaway packaging
One of the hurdles many restaurateurs face when trying to run a sustainable business is many of the steps they’ll take to do so are invisible. Consumers tell researchers over and over that their purchasing decisions are affected by how green your business is—but are you going to show them a power bill or a compost bin to prove you are?
Ironically, according to a study released in the middle of this year, you can put all the sustainable, fair trade branding you want on your takeaway cups and packaging, and it won’t impress customers that you’re running a sustainable business. But they will be influenced by your green credentials if the packaging itself is environmentally-friendly.
According to Datamonitor’s ‘Offering Ethicality and Sustainability in Food and Drinks’ study, about 57 per cent of consumers thought that it is important to buy ethical or socially responsible products, but only 42 per cent reported altering their habits to do so, revealing a significant disconnect between what consumers perceive as important to their purchasing habits and what they actually buy.
However, the study also suggests that exactly the same proportion of consumers said packaging was a key consideration in their purchase decisions, to those who changed their buying habits to include products with reduced packaging.
“The more tangible nature of packaging allows consumers to actually see and feel the difference they are making. Sustainable packaging is a claim that can be physically substantiated,” explained Katrina Diamonon, Datamonitor consumer markets analyst.
David Rosa of Sydney’s Bay Coffee—who both roast their own beans and sell wholsesale and direct to consumers—agrees that consumers can be influenced by packaging, but says that in his experience price often outweighs sustainability when it comes to purchasing decisions.
“It’ll influence people as long as they don’t have to pay significantly more,” he says. “That’s what I’ve found going down the track with all these things, including fair trade coffee and green power—people say they’re happy to pay more but in reality they’re not.”
Rosa is happy to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to sustainable business—he offers Direct Trade, Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certified coffees, switched to Green Power in 2007, and actively tries to reduce the business’s carbon footprint. However, when he started investigating using biodegradable or compostable cups for both his takeaway business and his wholesale business, he found the price was at that stage prohibitively high.
“In terms of my wholesale customers, some are really for using biodegradable cups, but there are only a handful that have asked when I’ll be switching to it,” he says.
“It was too expensive when I last looked at it—but I know the price was coming down as techniques improve, and soon it will be competitive. Really, I think the onus is on manufacturers to produce something that is competitive with traditional paper products and truly biodegradable.”
That was certainly what Detpak had in mind when the company developed its Rebbit™ range of compostable food packaging. “The development of the Rebbit™ range has been driven by both demand from customers and innovation within the company,” explains product manager Lisa Mezzini. “We wanted to provide customers with another alternative to plastic-lined products. We had been investigating materials and found something suitable to replace the traditional polymer lining in paper cups.”
The Rebbit™ products are 100 per cent compostable in commercial composting facilities due to the bio-film lining, and made with paper sourced from sustainable and ethical sources.
The company’s decision to develop compostable products is quite a practical approach to the environmental problems presented by disposable food packaging. Whilst the Rebbit™ range is a great illustration of how to solve customer demand for environmental products, Detpak has found—as did David Rosa—that there is sometimes a gulf between what people say they want and what they’re prepared to pay for.
“There is more of a demand for environmentally friendly products, although whether people actually take it up or not is another matter,” says Mezzini. “There is a price difference, but as with almost all emerging technologies,as there is greater uptake of the product, their price differential will continue to narrow.”
But while that price pressure remains at a wholesale or business-to-business level, perhaps pressure from consumers can tip the balance towards the environmentally friendlier products.