Packaging of products is, undoubtedly, an extremely strong means of conveying the essence of the brand, its ethos and its personality.
Packaging is not only a vehicle to endorse the identity of a brand in a consumer’s mind, the growing need for sophisticated packaging also results from many lifestyle needs such as ease of transportation, storage, usage and disposability sought by convenience seeking and time pressed consumers.
But, increasingly, it also reflects the brand’s responsibility and sensitivity towards Nature and its resources.
If we, as consumers, were to reduce or optimize packaging from our daily lives, especially for food and beverages, there will be a redefinition of the processes involving our purchase and usage. It will also to a larger degree alter the systems and processes of organisations whose distribution and retail is integrally dependent on packaging.
Original Unverpackt, a concept grocery store in Berlin, Germany operates without food packaging that would later turn into garbage. The idea around which it is build is to bring one’s own containers and have it weighed. The supermarket will label your containers. After one shops and gets to the till, the weight of the containers is subtracted and one has to pay for the net weight of the groceries. The label is designed to survive a few washings so one may come back and skip the weighing process for a few more times. In this way, not only do the food products shed their familiar identifiers (brand colors, packaging structures, and bold logos) but the ways they move from shelf to home becomes radically different. While shoppers are encouraged to bring their own bags and containers with them, a range of re-usable jars and containers are also available for purchase onsite. As much as possible, produce is sourced locally.
At this point of time, it may seem difficult to adopt this framework in entirety. However we should remember that just a few short decades ago we followed similar practices such as engaging biodegradable, recyclable, reusable materials for packaging, making use of one’s own containers and bags and filling them in with quantities as per the requirements from the bulk containers.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) will be introducing mandatory requirements for companies to use sustainable resources in packaging and reduce packaging waste very soon. It is still being decided in what forms the regulations could be developed, but the preliminary ideas include requiring companies to submit annual reports on how much packaging they use, to develop waste reduction plans, or to meet recycling targets. Belgium on the other hand has been championing the cause of waste management by maximizing recycling and reusage.
The global trends are moving towards sustainable packaging given the ecological resource wastage it creates, the garbage the packaging material produces and the air and the ground water pollution the landfills create. Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year, is arriving progressively earlier and earlier, indicating that the humanity’s resource consumption for the year is exceeding the earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year.
Another very grim consequence that was witnessed is the frightening and highly visible impact on marine life – since the start of this year more than 30 sperm whales have been found beached around the North Sea in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Germany. After a necropsy of the whales in Germany, researchers found that four of the giant marine animals had large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. Although the marine litter may not have been the only cause of them being beached, it had a horrifying consequence on the health of these animals.
Given the serious consequences and the growing sensitivity towards these consequences, it is imperative for product manufacturers, raw material manufacturers and equipment and technology providers to design packaging with solemn intent to address sustainability.
The best time to reduce the use of packaging was 50 years ago. The next best time is now.
This article is based on a presentation at the 2nd International Summit of Processed Food, Agribusiness and Beverages, organised by the Associated Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCHAM) and supported by the Ministry of Food Processing, Government of India. The presentation was made to a mixed audience of retailers, manufacturers, farmers, government functionaries and service providers, and rather than provide answers, the objective was to raise questions that were not being discussed.
The old saying goes: where there are issues, there are opportunities. By that standard, the perishable commodities supply chain offers plenty of issues and, hence, opportunities.
Part of the problem, or opportunity, is that there are so many steps between the farmer and the consumer, so many hands through which the produce passes, especially in the case of India. With every step in this supply chain, there is the potential of waste and deterioration with time, and on the flip side, there is also an opportunity to add value and improve.
Misalignment on Motivation
One core issue, at the heart of most problems with the perishables supply chain, is widely different perspectives and the lack of alignment.
For instance, there is competition at the basic level between cities and villages. But there is even misalignment between the development needs of ever-growing cities that are taking over neighbouring agricultural lands, and the need to feed people living in those very cities. Similarly, the motivations for small sustenance-driven landholders are different from those of the wealthier farmers with large holdings. And, of course, within the supply chain, the tug of war is between consumer vs retailer, retailer vs brand, brand vs producer.
This is but natural in any economy, even more so in India whose rapid growth is widening the already existing gaps and intensifying the inherent disconnects.
Misalignment on Value
However, there is also another significant potential misalignment, of which we need to be keenly aware. This is in the very definition of value.
Given that we have been discussing “value-addition” as a driver for the food supply chain, I think we also need to understand that the word value has various connotations and implications, depending on who we are speaking about. Each throws up different challenges, and needs to be dealt with differently.
In my mind, the three aspects of value related to the food sector are:
The complication is that these three aspects address three very different audiences in society.
For a large part of India’s population, simply providing adequate calories is the main problem. For this chunk of people, not only do we need to have more productive land under use, we need to maximise the output from each piece of land, and ensure that the productive output reaches the population that needs it the most. Within that, there are several social, political, logistical and economic challenges to tackle: clarity of land-holding, availability of arable land to agriculture rather than non-agricultural uses, unit area productivity with efficient use of other resources, safety during transportation and storage, and distribution at prices that are affordable.
Nutritional value is the next step up: packing more nutrients into each gram of produce and delivering the right mix and balance is a critical issue for consumers who get enough calories, but can benefit hugely in physical and mental health through the quality of the nutrition they are taking in.
In pushing up both calorific and nutritional value, we also run into two entirely different debates.
One is whether genetic modification (GM) is desirable. The argument against GM foods is that we shouldn’t tamper with the most basic building blocks of biology, because we don’t understand the implications completely. The powerful argument for GM is that it is a must, to ensure that we have enough and ever-improving food available to a growing population.
The second debate is about organic produce. The organic camp believes strongly that organic is better, nutritionally superior. The other side argues that organic delivers no clear demonstrable increase in either calories or nutrition, and instead pushes production down and prices up: a recipe for complete disaster in a growing country.
But most interesting to me is the fact that in most industry platforms such as this, when we speak of “value-addition”, it is neither calorific nor nutritional value that is being targeted, but only economic value.
Obviously, companies are profit-driven by their very nature, and if calorific or nutritional value does not deliver economic value to them, they will not focus on those aspects. For that reason, most companies engaged in or being encouraged to participate in the food supply chain do so through food processing: the transformation of the basic produce into a manufactured packaged product with higher economic value per gram. A thinking consumer may be tempted to ask, am I getting proportionately better food (especially more nutrition) for the extra unit value that I am paying for orange juice (as compared to oranges), ketchup (as compared to tomatoes) or chips (when compared to potatoes)?
My concern is that such a deep misalignment in the definition of value can cause a huge amount of friction and potential politicisation, especially if only one aspect of “value-addition” is constantly in focus.
Misalignment on Losses
I’d also like to briefly comment on another aspect of value: losses.
We’ve all come across the much-quoted “fact” that in India 30-40% of the agricultural produce is wasted. That’s incredible! A country otherwise so frugal pushes a third of its valuable food into the gutters? Can that really be true?
I have not come across any authoritative study that clearly demonstrates that India actually wastes that much food.
Of course, there is wastage due to improper harvesting, lack of post-harvest processing and gaps in the storage and transportation infrastructure. But that figure, depending on what product and part of country you pick, varies hugely and the overall average is nowhere close to the 30-40% figure.
Overestimating the size of the problem leads to overestimation of the opportunity, and that misdirects investment. I think the correct way to look at the issue is not just in terms of value-lost, but in terms of opportunity lost. There is certainly an opportunity for farmers to grow their incomes by ensuring that better agricultural and post-harvest techniques are followed. If harvesting products at the right time, chilling the produce at the farm immediately, adequate sorting and grading, or even the simple act of washing can lead to higher prices for the farmer, I’m all for it.
The opportunities we are missing may be bigger than the waste that we imagine.
The Drivers of Value
Obviously, the technological, political and business mandate changes dramatically, depending on where we want to focus on building value. Is it to increase, improve, protect or change the produce? Are we going to focus on the seed, on growth, on harvest and post-harvest, on processing, on storage, on packaging or marketing.
Given the diversity of the questions, I think the discussion on value should also include – openly – a widely inclusive group. Obviously large corporate retailers, brands and producers, and the various arms of the government would be part of the discussion, but the table should also have room for farmers of every hue, technology innovators that address not just aggregated large land-holdings but also small farms, and platforms that encourage both ultra-modern and traditional knowledge, both from within India and outside.
By focussing on an over-simplified view of “value-addition”, we risk not addressing fundamental issues. In fact, we could be losing sight of humongous opportunities.
In the food supply chain, we are dealing with a product that is perishable; given our economy’s rapid transformation, the opportunities are perishable, too. We should get cracking.
(To download the PDF of the presentation, please click here.)