Consumer Packaging Preferences: Over vs. Underpacking

Finding the tipping point

IN spoke to Jane Bickerstaffe, the director of the Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), to find out whether an industry tipping point for packaging exists.

Over the years, INCPEN–a research organization working with British and international manufacturers and retailers to promote responsible packaging for resource efficient supply chains–has done extensive consumer research to gauge consumers perception of packaging, with interesting results. “Generally, consumers are pretty neutral on the topic of packaging. However, ask them directly whether there is too much packaging being used and the answer is a resounding yes,” stated Bickerstaffe.

Consumers are generally unaware of the stresses and strains the product has had to go through in order to reach its final destination, leading to the general consensus that products are “over-packaged”. Continued Bickerstaffe, “Consumers don’t usually consider how fast a product has gone down the filling line, how high it will be stacked in a warehouse or how it will be stored in the back of a truck. Unless you know the conditions of the product journey, it is impossible to judge whether a product is over or under-packaged.”

Over-packaging can have big cost implications for brand owners, so finding a balance helps save money (through less material), has less of an impact on the environment and enhances the brand’s reputation. Conversely, under-packaging can be far more damaging than over-packaging as typically 10 times more resources are invested in the making of products than in packaging. “If you let one product go to waste as a consequence of under-packaging, you have essentially wasted 10 times more materials and resources than if you had used more packaging,” said Bickerstaffe.

Choice and design of packaging

  1. What kind of packaging is needed (e.g. sales or transport packaging)?
  2. Does the whole system (primary, secondary and transport packaging) use the minimum adequate amount of material to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packaged product and for the consumer?
  3. What factor or factors limit further reduction in material use? Is it possible to omit or reduce components?
  4. Are specifications and information available for all the materials making up the packaging?
  5. Is the packaging produced in-house?
  6. Re-use and recovery of materials & energy

  7. If part, or all of the packaging system is intended to be re-used, is it physically capable of being re-used and is there a system in place for re-use?
  8. After use, will the packaging be capable of being recovered either as a material or as energy or compost?
  9. Transport

  10. Is the packaging delivered by the most suitable route in terms of noise, urban congestion, etc.?
  11. Can the average weight of deliveries be improved?
  12. If the packaging is returnable, can it be made collapsible or minimized in some other way to reduce transport volume during the return journey?

“typically 10 times more resources are invested in the making of products than in packaging”

A challenge for manufacturers in today’s globalized world is determining the transport and storage conditions for each product. Bickerstaffe explains, “When a manufacturer makes a product, he doesn’t know what distribution line the product is going to go down. Will it go to the supermarket on a truck or will the product be delivered by courier to the consumer’s home? Without this knowledge it is impossible to design packaging optimized for each route.”

An increased understanding of a product’s lifecycle and supply chain can help brand owners and packaging designers optimize packaging for distribution. Global brand owners are leading the way by adopting a holistic approach to packaging and making genuine efforts to understand where the raw materials for their packaging come from, how they are processed and what will happen to the packaging of their products after use. Added Bickerstaffe, “Smaller companies don’t have the resources to conduct extensive research but they can learn from the big guys by working closer across the value chain.”

The efforts are paying off. Compared to the 1990s, plastic washing-up liquid bottles and drink cans are on average 24 percent lighter while yogurt containers are 10 percent lighter and beer bottles use 45 percent less packaging material.1 The amount of packaging per product will continue to decline as manufacturers and packaging designers look to lower the cost of packaging while still providing maximum protection for the contents.

“We should be very pleased about the developments in the industry and consumers need to trust that the value chain is working together to ensure the most sustainable approach while taking into account the journey that the product needs to go through to get to the consumer,” concluded Bickerstaffe.

To read the full checklist and find out more about INCPEN’s research, campaigns and educational programs go to


Jane Bickerstaffe
Director of INCPEN

Jane Bickerstaffe is the Director of INCPEN, The UK Industry Council for research on Packaging & the Environment, which tackles the world of packaging from a variety of perspectives: research, campaigns, packaging policy and education. In the article “Over vs. Underpackaging” Bickerstaffe challenges the widespread assumption that all consumer products are over-packaged, and sheds a light on the difficulty of striking a balance between too much and too little packaging.