Packaging wars - a fine art of deception and deceit

Date Posted:3 November 2019 

Moving towards a more sustainable future.




Packaging wars - a fine art of deception and deceit

A couple of months ago we wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about the "Packaging Shame Game" and how the rise in consumer activism demanded we make radical, immediate changes to the packaging of our portion control coffee products.

These demands for change were issued without adequately thinking through the consequences and it could have been considered or interpreted as a form of ultimatum, threat or "boycott".

Ironically, these activists were either not aware or conveniently elected to ignore the challenges for how a highly volatile product such as coffee would be impacted by a shift to alternative packaging - it's not the same as most other food ingredients as there are other factors to take into account.

We also confronted the delicate hypocrisy of owning a capsule or pod appliance as the cause of the "problem" in the first place, a fact often overlooked by the activists.

Quite a few people sent us some hilarious examples from other industries which we thought was amusing - thanks for the funny moments !.

But on a serious note, with all the noise about waste, the environment, etc. it's creating an opportunity for companies to take advantage of shifting consumer preferences by peddling false truths, or incomplete details in the hope of generating more sales through exaggerating the benefits of their packaging.

Claims made on some product packaging these days are just disgraceful and we are not just talking about the recycling or biodegradable features - you don't need to look far in order to find some examples - toothpaste, health supplements, energy drinks, breakfast foods, motion activated deodorant, the marketing of "claims or benefits" is seriously out of control.

But back to coffee - some Australian coffee companies marketing their $60/kg coffee are proudly claiming environmental features in their coffee bag packaging - they are also conveniently plastering these benefits all over websites and pumped through the social media tumbler to maximize a contrived point of difference.

In the state of California (USA), there are some strong laws about making claims on packaging and rightly so. In other words, they tell suppliers...... don't say it unless you can't back it up.

Fair enough, and you would hope this is what every jurisdiction around the world should be legislating - holding companies to account for making promises or claims, but most are not, including our benign Australian government !.

So a supplier of environmental packaging used by some Australian coffee companies has come out and stated in an obscure part of their website - "they should not print the words compostable, marine degradable, biodegradable, degradable, decomposable, or any form of those terms on their packaging" in California.

Why ?

Because it's unproven or it failed to meet the standards or it's lacking the science to back it up.

But of course that doesn't stop these Australian coffee companies from trying to exploit it as a "differentiator" in the market - justifying their high prices and garnering a vulnerable "feel good" moment.

They can do this because they operate one or two steps removed from these laws, meaning they can get away with it until held to account, then play the ignorance card by confessing they misunderstood the technical details from the bag supplier - a suitable and convenient alibi.

Problem is, nobody is holding anyone to account, especially in Australia where it's possible to bend it like Beckham for maximum benefit on just about anything - which is kind of ironic really because Aussie consumers are reportedly some of the toughest and most difficult to please of any in the world when it comes to bullshit and nonsense.

But again, it's our lame governments that are blinded by a myopic focus on the economic debate of real estate prices instead of practical policies that protect consumers and our environment from false claims and damaging consequences of invalid disposal practices.

Most of the innovative packaging materials are using ingredients like renewable plant sources such as sugar cane and cellulose from wood pulp mixed with advanced resins to achieve compostable, biodegradable or recyclable features. It's a kind of plastic in how it looks and feel, but can be industrially or commercially composted (and this is an important distinction as some of the eco-materials won't decompose properly in residential composts - a point conveniently overlooked by companies that have jumped on the bandwagon).

Where is gets really grey and cloudy is that some of the oxo-degrade components require 5 - 10 years to breakdown, making them unsuitable for even commercial or council composting - but that important piece of detail is missing from irresponsible companies cashing in on the trend.

The specific test for ASTM D6400 requires such materials to break down 100% within 12 weeks and the bags used by some coffee companies in Australia will not as the barrier laminates are only 60% compostable, so what happens with the other 40% ?

Some could argue that's it better than nothing.

Let's be clear here - we are not defending the status quo and change needs to happen.

It's dangerous and reckless to sell products with explicit features of recyclable or compostable if there has been a lack of scientific data to support claims, or it only partially achieves the standard - deceiving consumers or at best confusing well-intentioned folks.

In a tough retail market, some think the only way they can achieve an edge is by being crafty with features and promises and more than a bit loose with the real facts and truths.

We work closely with our packaging suppliers - they are based in Australia (Melbourne) and utilize the resources of worldwide production facilities in Europe, Taiwan and South Korea.

Unfortunately, it's a shame that production of coffee bag packaging shifted offshore long ago (yet another Australian manufacturing policy failure, not unlike many other Australian manufacturing disasters).

Sourcing bags from overseas is a pain for us and all the other coffee companies  - we wait up to 16 weeks for custom bags to be made, but it also gives us less faith that standards and certifications are being upheld in some manufacturing countries - except we have higher levels of trust in provinces like Taiwan and South Korea where pride and quality is always the first priority and consideration - a reason we pay a premium for these bags.

None of our bags are manufactured in China - that's not meant to imply or suggest that bags produced in China are less genuine or fit for purpose, it's just that quality means a lot to us and we simply can't afford for bag seals to bust in transit as it works out extremely expensive for us in replacement - it's that risk of a disaster we certainly won't take. Other companies can use the cheaper bags because they are not sending their coffee in the rough handling freight networks.

But it might surprise many that China has emerged as a large and dominant player in the eco-sensitive packaging market. Problem is though that some of these Chinese companies may not playing by the rules - certification and credentials produced on rough, blurry photocopied artefacts that appear on face value as questionable.

China is also buying up competitors in the eco-packaging space which could be interpreted as a play to try and control the eco-market by volume, enabling leverage to dictate terms around pricing of eco-packaging products.

Europe is moving rapidly towards banning plastic packaging by 2025.

This is forcing everyone to madly scramble in development of alternatives and in the rush it's causing an imbalance in the supply and demand for eco-resins.

We all know when demand dramatically outstrips supply, the price spikes and it's hard to imagine a doubling of costs in packaging in how that might translate into a competitive retail environment - but that's precisely what's taking place now.

Against the backdrop of a doubling in packaging costs, consumers are pressuring for price reductions - makes for an interesting pinch point.

Eco-packaging is currently around double the cost of traditional materials which places a single bag up around the $1.30 price range - that's a fair whack in the price of a kilo of coffee, especially for a material that's discarded and compared to many other food product packaging, it's literally 400+% more expensive.

Some might argue it's a small price to pay, but today the eco-products are not matching the technical performance of the traditional bags which means a retailer takes a risk with degradation of product quality and let's put this in context - roasted coffee is a fresh food, not a stale, bland, mediocre commodity, the difference between an ideal product and something that's degraded 20% is clearly noticeable.

In the search for alternatives there's been a "back to the future" moment as suppliers seek to adopt a greater amount of paper-based materials in their packaging. But hang on, where are all the forests and pulp sources to feed this incredible shift from plastics to paper?

In this retro-world of paper-based packaging, will it create a worsening impact as plantation timbers are forested at higher rates to feed the sharply increased inputs for greater proportions of paper-based product packaging.

More disturbingly, the alternatives for paper-based materials are often taken from corrupt countries in South East Asia where the destruction of protected forests is fine as long as the government officials are paid handsome bribes.

At mycuppa, we are not sitting on our hands and naively pondering the right moment to act - we started a while ago on this journey and whilst it's no revolution, our plan involves a series of small changes over time as the technology improves.

Our next batch of custom bags are going to be without the built-in zip-lock feature and before we hear the cry of "why", let me take a moment to explain.

Those zip locks do absolutely nothing to preserve freshness and they are ridiculously difficult and expensive to manufacture - they also create production challenges to fill and seal.

We've been through hell and back getting these in-built zip locks to perform at even just a basic manner so as to provide a simple feature to our customers.

We wrote articles 11 years ago dispelling the myths of zip-locks and coffee packaging. We did not want to use zip locks on packaging, but bowed to consumer demands.

Fact does not work, so let's please just get over it and focus on getting into the practice of decanting open coffee bags into more sustainable and durable containers like metal, ceramic or glass - that's the solution, not the crappy zip locks that fail to retain freshness.

The zip locks mean a lot of extra plastic and glue is being added to the manufacturing process - we are trying to reduce this component as it's completely un-necessary and not supporting our mission to reduce waste and plastics. We are also trying to reduce the size of the bag, but that means ground coffees are going to be "tight".

Beyond the removal of zip locks on the next generation of bags, we are currently evaluating and testing the impact of reducing from a 3-ply down to 2-ply bag. Currently, the 2-ply resins are not matching the effective barrier protection of fresh roasted coffee compared to traditional 3-ply design which probably comes as no surprise, but they are indeed improving.

Of course, you can design a 2-ply bag using thicker resins that are less prone to hydroscopic absorption, but fresh roasted coffee contains active, volatile compounds that are able to pass through many types of plastics and resins via a process called effusion.

There are additional considerations such as thermal properties related to the transit of the finished product from us to you - moving coffee in vehicles on the road is not the best solution for transportation, but it's the only viable choice in Australia's 3rd-world logistics capability.

We are working closely with our suppliers on eco-packaging - testing and verifying the limits of what is possible and practical - but it all takes can't simulate 12 months in 12 days or even 12 weeks.

If we did not care about our roasted product quality so much, we would move to full eco-packaging tomorrow, but it's not there yet......technically. It's certainly not because it's twice the cost as I'm sure the potential to leverage eco-credentials would create a greater appeal in attracting new customers over the longer term, likely to offset the added expense of the bag.

But......and that's a big but.......despite the fact the majority of products leave our facility inside of 24 hrs, we still want the product quality to remain stable for the duration of use so that our customer can maximize their enjoyment. Value is a multifaceted equation - price, quality, features and experience.

Some people in remote areas buy in bulk with an order having to last them a few months. We certainly don't want complaints about the product being "dead", particularly in warmer climates.

This entire topic is moving really fast - consumers are pushing retailers and retailers are pushing the material suppliers, but we are not going to play smoke and mirrors or look to score some short-term points by making claims about packaging without having adequate science and compliance to back it up.