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Excessive packaging delusions: Consumer biases lead to needless material use, find researchers

April 29, 2023

Despite consumers wanting to make environmentally friendly product choices, researchers at Tilburg University, Germany, have found that consumer perceptions of product packaging often deviate from the objective reality. According to the findings, this is often due to anti-plastics sentiments and regularly leads to excessive and needless material use.

Published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the research includes eight studies showing that objectively, less environmentally friendly plastic and paper packaging is systematically perceived as more environmentally friendly than plastic-only packaging. The researchers are calling for a “minimal packaging” certification scheme to curb consumer perceptions.

“We refer to this effect as the perceived environmental friendliness (PEF) bias in packaging evaluations,” say the study authors.

The studies provide evidence of the PEF bias and show that its impact manifests in lab and online settings when plastic is visible upfront or revealed later. One of the studies shows the PEF bias effect is stronger when the paper used in product packaging increases and that the effect is stronger among people with stronger “paper good, plastic bad” beliefs.

Further studies in the series establish the downstream consequences of the PEF bias for consumer willingness to pay and choose. One study introduces a managerially relevant intervention, wherein adding a “minimal packaging” sticker to plastic packaging increases the environmental friendliness perceptions of plastic-only packaging, making people more likely to choose plastic-packaged products over their plastic-plus-paper over packaged counterparts.

Research implications
The researchers say their work adds to the emerging literature on consumer behavior and sustainability and has important practical implications. They also highlight that a few companies, such as premium skincare brands Kiehl’s, Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, are eliminating unnecessary packaging and reducing packaging waste.

“However, our findings across multiple product categories suggest that when companies eliminate paper packaging in plastic-packaged products, they may be penalized by consumers who will perceive plastic-only packaging as less, and not more, environmentally friendly,” the researchers stress.

“Critically, we find that explicitly stating that a given product uses minimal packaging via, for example, on-package stickers, decreases the perceived environmental friendliness bias in packaging evaluations and choice.”

As such, the scientists’ work underscores the importance of combining companies’ packaging waste reduction initiatives with marketing communications that draw consumer attention to the amount of packaging used in minimally packaged products.

A “minimal packaging” certification
Finally, the researchers highlight the implications of their work for policymakers and NGOs. Eliminating superfluous packaging will reduce GHG emissions from production and disposal of product packaging. One proposed way to reduce environmental waste is through a pre-cycling strategy, where consumers consciously reduce waste by not buying overpackaged products.

“Our work suggests that shifting responsibility toward consumers may not be a very successful strategy of packaging waste reduction since consumers’ perception of the environmental friendliness of packaging may not align with its objective environmental friendliness.”

Asking managers to eliminate excessive packaging may not work either, explain the researchers, as managers may be disincentivized to eliminate unnecessary paper packaging because adding paper packaging can boost their customers’ environmental friendliness evaluations.

“Our intervention study, however, suggests that a ‘minimal packaging’ sticker can correct consumer perceptions of the environmental friendliness of product packaging and boost demand.”

“Therefore, governments and NGOs may consider introducing minimal packaging certifications and on-package labels that would motivate consumers to buy and, consequently, incentivize companies to offer minimally packaged products,” conclude the researchers.

Edited by Natalie Schwertheim


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