The Great Debate about Packaging-Free Supermarkets

 Packaging free supermarkets 

The human race has come a long way since the prehistoric days of hunting and gathering for food. Thanks to modern day packaging, food can now be transported globally and remain fresh for an extended period of time.

There’s no denying that packaging is indispensable to solving modern day challenges created by growing populations, and specifically, ever expanding urban populations. Our increasingly hectic lives mean we no longer have time to shop at the local market on a daily basis. In fact, many of us don’t have access to a local fresh food market at all, meaning our shopping is increasingly confined to urban supermarkets.

On the flip side, a handful of packaging free supermarkets are springing up globally to provide a more “natural” shopping experience. The concept is simple: bring your own containers to the store and fill them with the desired quantity of chosen food. Packaging free supermarkets essentially offer the consumer everything they could want to buy, but without the choice of brand or specific packaging. So far, these shops have gained a small but loyal customer base, but how likely is it that this will become the future of food shopping?

The simple truth is that packaging is facilitating a shift in our modern, urbanized lifestyle – our society is on-the-go and looking for convenience. Fresh food categories like meat and chicken benefit tremendously from high performance packaging. In modified atmosphere packaging, meat can last up to 21 days, but in wrapping or paper it can only last one to two days. The world needs food that is safe and has a long shelf life, rather than food that expires within a few days.

Therefore, is a packaging free experience really what consumers want? In what instances is packaging a ‘must’? And, more importantly, is this a realistic scenario for the future?

Marie Delaperrière

Founder & Owner of KIEL-based packaging free shop Unverpackt-Lose, Nachhaltig, Gut (opened in 2014)

“The majority of our customers are seeking a sustainable experience, meaning both ‘packaging free’ and ‘locally sourced’ products. Typically our customer is also looking to live a healthy life and choose quality products.

“But do I see 100 percent packaging free as the future model? I don’t envision a 100 percent packaging free future, but I do see the possibility of exploring more than one way of packaging. There’s no escaping that packaging has an indispensable role to play with some products – for example we sell fluids in glass bottles for which customers pay a refundable deposit. It also has a functional role for some products in terms of hygiene, transport and conservation.

“Today, it is clear that packaging also plays a core role in marketing and branding but I have no doubt marketing experts have the creativity to reinvent product marketing for use in packaging free stores!

“So where does the future lie? In my opinion, tomorrow’s‘sustainable’ packaging designer should embrace an ethical andhonest approach when designing: meaning, choice of material, avoidance of unnecessary packaging and favoring ‘deposit and return’ packaging. In addition, we cannot neglect the importance of a sustainable value chain approach.”

Helén Williams

Environmental Scientist at the University of Karlstad in Sweden

“Packaging has an important role to play in today’s society for the protection, function and information it provides for the consumer. It is an effective solution to minimize food waste and provide cost effective food solutions (consumers in the West are buying 20 percent more food than needed, meaning they are paying substantially for food they don’t eat because of value chain waste).

“However, it is not down to the consumer alone. The entire value chain needs a deeper understanding of the end-user phase and how different packaging functions can be developed to ensure less food waste.

“Whatever your opinion in the packaging debate, we cannot escape the fact that secondary packaging is necessary during the transportation phase to provide adequate protection. As consumers, we tend to forget this stage.

“If we were to remove all primary packaging, additional secondary packaging would often have to be used on the products’ journey.

“Packaging is an invaluable tool for traceability. Without it, we place full responsibility in the hands of the shop owner to control in-store products. Without packaging there can be no labels, meaning no information on allergens for example, when consumers get the products home.

“So what is the solution? Packaging designers must start exploring ‘smarter packaging’ with a holistic view throughout the whole value chain. There needs to be a better understanding of the complexities of consumer habits, contexts for use, cultures, recycling schemes in place and point of sale. It is a very complex picture! Educating consumers on the benefit of packaging will also play a huge role.”