Think Inside the Box: The Role of Sustainable Packaging in Environmentally Conscientious Shopping




Tottman, Walker

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Based on public opinion, addressing plastic pollution is as imperative as solving climate change and biodiversity loss. One emerging market trend to solve plastic pollution is the shift towards plastic-free ‘sustainable packaging.’ However, pro-environmental solutions are not without risk of negative consequences. Previous research highlights how waste-reduction mechanisms – which sustainable packaging ostensibly represents – can alter consumer behaviours, reduce guilt, and increase overall consumption. Similarly, research suggests that sustainable packaging erroneously influences perceptions of a product’s and brand’s attributes favourably. While these data allude to a risk of compromising consumers' conscientiousness, the relation between sustainable packaging and environmentally conscientious shopping remains unknown. In this research, we ask: What is the relation between sustainable packaging and purchase intent, package and product evaluations, and pro-environmental behaviours? And second: What are the implications of sustainable packaging on the environmental conscientiousness of consumer habits? Using a mixed-method qualitative and quantitative survey from a sample of 156 Canadians, the results suggest: 1. A package's perceived level of sustainability positively influenced perceptions of the product's sustainability; 2. The footprint of a sustainable package was viewed disproportionately more favourable when it is on a conventional product; 3. Products with sustainable packaging received a higher purchase intent, regardless of whether the product itself is sustainable; 4. Sustainable packaging elicited more emotionally-positive, plastic-specific comments, without a concomitant increase in non-plastic-based environmental or negative comments; and 5. Consumers preferred pro-environmental behaviours that focus on plastic and packaging rather than product-focused pro-environmental behaviours. By influencing consumers’ perceptions and capitalizing on consumers’ focus on plastic packaging, we argue that sustainable packaging represents a new stage of greenwashing that corporations may co-opt as a market strategy.



Sustainable Packaging, Greenwashing, Plastic Pollution, Consumerism, Negative Spillover