As food companies and makers of consumer goods, in general, attempt to gain market share by marketing the sustainability of their products, research indicates a growing number of consumers are concerned with their perceived commitment to living a “green” lifestyle. This trend applies to the products themselves as well as their packaging. Furthermore, a growing number of consumers are less committed to sustainable products and packaging based on the health of the economy. According to Chicago-based research firm Mintel, the amount of “green-based” advertising and products reached their peak in 2007, but have diminished, in large part, due to economic challenges and the recession in the US.

In its March 2013 report, “Marketing to the Consumer,” Mintel grouped green respondents in four categories:

Super Greens – Respondents who “almost always” buy green products.

True Greens – Respondents who say they buy green products “regularly.”

Light Greens – Respondents who say they “sometimes” buy green products.

Never Greens – Respondents who say they “never” buy green products.

During a presentation titled “It’s Not Easy Being Green – Consumer Perception of Sustainable Packaging” held at this past month’s PACK EXPO, Mintel’s director of innovation and insight, Lynn Dornblaser, said the number of products between 2009 and 2012 making an environmental claim related to the packaging on the label peaked, but those claims have largely leveled off. Of the categories making such claims (including verbiage such as: ‘made from recycled material’) food and beverage products were the most likely to include the claims.

When it comes to the environmental friendliness of packaging, Dornblaser says recent research indicates 72 percent of consumers believe the “recyclable” label claims relating to the packaging material. Somewhat surprisingly, approximately 47 percent of consumers surveyed by Mintel said it is important that others see that they are using and consuming products that are packaged in recyclable material. “It’s OK to be obvious about it,” Dornblaser said. “Consumers want to be seen that they are being environmentally responsible.”

Another packaging trend common to most food-company sustainability campaigns is source reduction. “Lightweighting,” as Dornblaser called it, has become especially common among makers of some bottled water, which can result in a flimsy, hard-to-open package. Whether bottled water or a meat tray or film, food companies “need to balance lightweighting and functionality,” she said, while recognizing that offering convenience in an environmentally friendly package is a challenge.

Other promising packaging solutions that have yet to receive widespread acceptance among food companies include biodegradable materials. Dornblaser said many consumers don’t understand what biodegradable really means. What it doesn’t mean is that the material simply degrades and disappears in landfills. “It’s a much more complicated process,” she said, and most people don’t know how to dispose of them.

While today’s consumers’ commitment to sustainable packaging waivers somewhat, tomorrow’s consumers are a source of influence that food companies should note, according to Dornblaser. “Kids push their parents to buy recycled products,” she said, encouraging attendees to get the next generation even more engaged in sustainable packaging. “These kids will continue to focus on this.”

Dornblaser concluded by pointing out that despite the sustainability or recyclability of any packaging, the trump card for consumers of food products is the quality of what is inside the package. “The most important thing is taste,” she said, and if the food is high-quality, the fact that it is packaged in an environmentally friendly container is icing on the cake.