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Packaged preferences – A future of fragmented consumer interests and tastes

Food is much more than simply what’s on the plate. For many, it is also a significant way of self-expression – not just fuel for the engine, but something that describes and defines who we are. We recently investigated how we will purchase, package, and consume food in ten years’ time. According to one of the four future scenarios that were identified, “You are what you eat” could be the mantra that most consumers will live by.

It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. To be prepared for what it might hold, it is worthwhile envisioning and exploring the possible outcomes of the developments that are visible already today. As chemistry is an important part of the value chain for fiber-based packaging solutions, we wanted to investigate what food and its packaging could look like in ten years’ time.

To create the future scenarios, an international panel of experts was interviewed. The panelists included experts from across the food and packaging value chain: paper and board manufacturers, packaging converters, food brand owners, and regulatory experts, as well as researchers from related fields. Based on their insights, four plausible alternatives for the future of food and its packaging were created.



Future of food packaging: Four scenarios for 2030

How will food consumption and food packaging look like in 2030? Our future scenario survey provides four plausible alternatives for the future and paints pictures of consumer attitudes and behavior, packaging trends, recycling, and regulation in ten years’ time.

Individualism to the max

In one of the scenarios, titled “Individualism to the max”, consumers make their decisions in front of the grocery store shelves driven by their personal values and beliefs. The food – and packaging – we choose is a way of expressing who we are, and food consumption is an important part of our identity building.

The defining features of this future scenario could be summarized as:

  • Fragmentation of the marketplace
  • Identity building through consumption habits
  • Niche offerings to every taste
  • Food packaging as a means of brand expression

The food – and packaging – we choose is a way of expressing who we are, and food consumption is an important part of our identity building.

Creating experiences and strong bonds with packaging

In this scenario, the food industry fragments to serve a vast variety of consumer tastes and interests. There will be niche extremes – focusing on e.g. fitness, vegan or luxury lifestyles or even patriotism through food choices, as some of the expert interviews suggest. Consumers driven by environmental values and focused on fighting climate change are a group among others, but they are not the majority.

Food brands and retail need to cater for the strong emotions that consumers have toward food. It’ll be a hard race to capture the consumers’ imagination and brands rely on unique and innovative packaging materials that help their food products stand out from on the shelf.

Food brands and retail need to cater for the strong emotions that consumers have toward food. It’ll be a hard race to capture the consumers’ imagination.

As in this scenario consumers are driven by the need to have a strong bond with the brand, brands will differentiate themselves through storytelling and powerful, perhaps often excessive experiences. Packaging materials will be used in high volumes and varying mixes, and brand owners are even willing to make material choices that would be considered “bad” in today’s sustainability focused market.

What would this development mean for the packaging industry in general and the food service paper and board producers in particular? “The most important feature of food packaging, still, is to protect the packaged product and also the consumer – from hot liquids, grease and similar. I doubt this will ever change,” says Antti Matula, who is leading the global product lines and business development for the Pulp and Paper segment at Kemira.

“Currently, the fiber-based materials have great momentum with the strong anti-plastic movement, but as this scenario suggests, other packaging materials might also be used abundantly. Another aspect in this scenario is the increased focus on brand and the essential role packaging plays. If consumers want to convey a strong message with their purchasing choices, the packaging needs to deliver both the experience and the information to support purchasing decisions. This translates into increased requirements for printability and brand expression on packaging, and creates the need for new digital solutions,” Matula continues.

Where does regulation fit in?

The versatile packaging mix would mean challenges for recycling, and in addition, the consumers described in this future scenario can’t be bothered to put in the effort to recycle food packaging. A curiosity in this scenario is that regulation would not have a significant role in shaping the market. Lately however, we have witnessed quite the contrary with increased regulatory guidance over food and its packaging.

“The operating environment described in this future scenario would be a complex one. Experience-seeking consumers are creating the demand, but the brand owners are the ones who are driving the market. Personally, I do believe that there would still need to be a counterforce to the heterogenous consumer market, and regulation and policymakers would continue to play a role in setting the overall direction for the food packaging industry,” Matula says.

For example, the current figures on the amount of plastic packaging ending up in waste or the share of food that is wasted every year compel action. According to Matula, in this future, fiber-based materials can be used for a broader set of applications than today, but plastic will also still have its place, either through improved recyclability or waste reuse.

Overall, there are more opportunities than challenges in this scenario for the fiber-based packaging value chain. It requires collaboration and innovation to take advantage of those.