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What Packaging Might Look Like After Covid-19

The packaging industry is worth approximately $900 billion per year, and it’s fair to say that, as with so much of life, it has been transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor

The packaging industry is worth approximately $900 billion per year, and it’s fair to say that, as with so much of life, it has been transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic.  It’s difficult to say at this stage quite how life will look when we emerge from the pandemic, but a number of major trends have been affected, or exacerbated at least, which are likely to have a profound impact on the packaging industry over the next few years.

These trends are likely to force the industry to move beyond purely thinking about cost, performance, and convenience, and to ensure that packaging is hygienic, sustainable, and supportive of e-commerce deliveries.  These megatrends have, like so much in life in 2020, been exacerbated by the pandemic, and can largely be encapsulated by:

  • Sustainability remains a key focus – It’s perhaps fair to say that sustainability concerns have taken a bit of a back seat during the pandemic, but this is unlikely to continue, and the demand for greener packaging that was emerging before the pandemic will continue.  Achieving the sustainability goals set by the packaging industry will be increasingly challenging given the hygiene requirements of consumers in the face of Covid-19.
  • E-commerce continues to grow – Whilst sustainability may have taken a back seat during the pandemic, e-commerce certainly didn’t, as stay-at-home orders across the world prompted a boom in e-commerce, even in perennially tricky areas such as grocery retailing.  It’s led to forecasts of 10% market penetration in 2020, which is almost 5x as high as it was last year.  This will have a significant impact on packaging requirements from both consumer and retailer alike.
  • Changing customer requirements – The economic disruption caused by the pandemic will have inevitable consequences for consumers in terms of their price sensitivity.  This is likely to continue the demand for online commerce, but also underpin a shift in demand for products related to health and hygiene.
  • Market instability – Before the pandemic, retailers and FMCG producers were facing up to intense cost pressures that were squeezing margins.  This was already impacting packaging design with changes implemented to try and optimize volume and efficiency with smaller packaging that was ready made for shelves.  The almost inevitable post-covid recession will exacerbate these cost pressures.
  • Digital transformation – The value chain had already been heavily disrupted by digital transformation, but the pandemic is likely to see this accelerated and deepened, not least in the use of AI and automation, which could make value chains more efficient and resilient via real-time tracking.  It’s likely to warrant greater integration of tracking technology into the packaging itself.

Packaging in the new normal

Packaging already plays a number of key roles, including underpinning the buying decision with the look and feel of the packaging; ensuring that the product is easy and cost effective to deliver; and providing consumers with much sought after convenience.  With the aforementioned trends in mind, packaging design will undoubtedly need to have a strong sustainability narrative built into its core.  This is likely to include the elimination of any unnecessary packaging, whilst also working to ensure that as much recycled content is used as possible.  We’re also more likely to see companies take into account the circular economy and take ownership of their packaging from cradle to grave.

The hygiene and safety demands of consumers have been driven by ongoing concerns among customers that they may be able to catch Covid-19 from packaging, and especially from food packaging.  Indeed, so pronounced was this fear that a large percentage of household disinfectant purchases were made to clear products they had recently bought.  During the pandemic, this has precipitated a rise in single-use packaging, but given the ongoing sustainability concerns, this is unlikely to endure, so the packaging industry needs to find ways to be hygienic and sustainable.  There have already been numerous studies into the kind of surfaces most conducive to harboring the virus, while the demand for disposable packaging will require a rethink around how such a model can be made sustainable.

Last, but not least, the rise in e-commerce will require a rethink in the packaging used for products, especially if they have historically been made for bricks and mortar channels.  Packaging specifically designed for e-commerce has a number of advantages, including its durability, ease of packing throughout the logistics process, and the improvement it brings to the customer experience.  

As with so many of the trends we’re seeing over the past few months, these are not so much new trends, as trends that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, such that they are now taking on even greater importance.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
Strategic Media Partner