High-tech breakthroughs such as nanotechnology are now paving the way for future innovations as companies look to optimise material performance in terms of product preservation and environmental impact.

According to a report released this week from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), consumers are far less willing to pay a premium for greener products than they were before the economic downturn, forcing retailers and manufacturers to get smarter with material use when it comes to packaging considerations.

Paper manufacturer and recycler UPM has already exploited nanotechnology to develop fibril cellulose, a strengthening element derived from wood that has the potential to make products tougher, lighter and thinner. This began pre-commercial production last year with R&D work ongoing to refine the process.

Printed functionality, or intelligence, is also another cutting-edge invention. This is moving traditional printing techniques beyond graphics by introducing functionality into print on paper or plastics.

Applications for this could range from codes containing links to additional information, to more sophisticated visual effects and images, electronics, optics and sensors. As well as product tagging, it opens up new opportunities for product traceability and security.

But with manufacturers and major consumer goods companies now investing heavily in product development, this is leading to growing tensions between key stakeholder groups within the packaging supply chain.

According to the PwC study, suppliers face increasing pressure from retailers who are demanding more robust data around carbon impacts and ethical sourcing. In the case of one consumer goods firm, this is adding “significant overheads and compromise” to their operations.

That said, most agree on one crucial point – that collaboration and ditching the ‘good packaging versus bad packaging’ sustainability debate in favour of a more holistic lifecycle approach is the way forward.

According to Proctor & Gamble’s head of global sustainability Dr Peter White, the consensus around what represents sustainable packaging has moved on significantly in recent years.

“Debates around lightweighting, recycled content or recyclability as the ultimate measures of how sustainable a package is have been replaced by a more holistic debate around the product, the package and their use from inception to post-consumer use,” he maintains.

This view is echoed by Nestle’s head of packaging & design Anne Roulin, who says that “sweet spots” are the new “hot spots”.

“It is even more important than ever before to find the so-called innovation sweet spot where consumer needs, environmental impact, technical and business capabilities converge,” she argues.

As part of this convergence, engagement is beginning to take centre stage. The PwC study reports that manufacturers are entering into more informed dialogue with their customers, which is sparking materials innovation.

An example of this can be found in the corrugated packaging industry where the move to substitute virgin materials with recycled ones is gathering pace. Financial benefits arising from this type of development tend to be significant and are often shared among the collaborators.

These new materials, coupled with ‘smart design’ products and improved efficiency processes are not only reducing the impact of packaging across the supply chain, but enabling key players to find competitive advantage against a backdrop of falling consumer spending.

Expect the next few years to be shaped not so much by the sustainability agenda, which perhaps has too broad a remit now to be of value, but by the cost of materials, resource security, technology breakthrough – and ultimately, consumer demand for convenience.

Maxine Perella

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