5 Factors Driving The Increasing Demand For Responsive Packaging

A new trend is growing across the food and drink packaging industry, promising to take the guess work out of expiry dates and save hundreds of tonnes of food waste every year. But whilst this is clever stuff, it isn’t strictly R&D driven. Rather, it’s in response to the changing functional and emotional needs of how we consume (and dispose of) perishable products.

So what are the changes in consumer attitudes and behaviours driving this demand shift?


1. Fresh produce goes au natural

As the demand for fresh produce and organic food has grown, a new challenge faces consumers and food brands – how to keep that fresh food fresh and how to know when it’s fresh no longer. Due to the demand for foods with less preservatives, the implication is that produce now has a considerably reduced shelf life, and consumers need guidance on this. 

someones hand is near a packet of meat, the packet of meat has a white triangle in the corner which says 'fresh expired' Bump Mark was a Brunel University student’s final project which won them the James Dyson Foundation Scholarship. It is a simple sticker consisting of a layer of gelatine, over a layer of ridged plastic, sandwiched between two layers of film. As the gelatine breaks down – at the same rate as protein-based foodstuffs – the bumps can be felt by touch. The aim was to create a mark that people with visual impairments could ‘read’ to check if their food was still fresh, but the invention has much broader appeal – perfect for checking if meat is still fresh, rather than relying on a use-by date.


2. A cornucopia of choice

The digital age we are in means information is more widely shared, and the global society we live in has given rise to some very big influences on food – especially in the arenas of health and wellbeing and indulgence/ hedonism. As a result of this, fridges and cupboards are now stocked with a vast array of exotic foods – compare my mother’s kitchen cupboard which now boasts five types of cooking oil to when I was growing up and it was rare and exotic to have olive oil in the house. More choice means it’s harder to keep track of what goes off when.

jars half full of jam with a strip down the side indicating by colour the freshness of the productUWI labels were born from necessity when a father wasn’t sure if his mayonnaise was still OK to use in his son’s sandwich. The labels can be set to specific expiry times, so there’s potential for much wider application…jams, chutneys, baby food…

These labels could in fact have potential beyond the food industry. Within cosmetics and skincare, especially sun cream, which is well known to lose its efficacy over time, increased transparency on expiration would be a welcome development for consumers.


3. Waste warriors

Ecological awareness is on the rise and waste is a key issue, even consumers with large disposable incomes are keen to minimise waste, including both packaging and food. People are spending more and more time (and therefore money) cooking food at home, but with less and less time to spare. Being able to see at a glance if your milk is about to go sour or your steak night needs to be Thursday rather than Saturday is critical to avoiding waste.

graph chart showing household food and drink waste indicates which is unavoidable, possibly avoidable and avoidable 2007 8.3 tonnes, 2010 7 tonnes, 2012 7 tonnes, 2014 7.3 tonnes 2015 7.3 tonnesSource: Household Food Waste in the UK, 2015

two pork chops in a shopping basket, a label with a section that changes colour dependent on how fresh the meat isOnVu labels react to ambient temperature, the symbol starts dark and fades increasingly quickly when exposed to warmth, thereby keeping a track of the cold chain. The idea being that use-by dates are all but useless unless products such as meat and dairy are kept sufficiently chilled. Maintaining the cold chain is central to keeping fish and frozen products fresh too, which means OnVu could benefit a wide range of products and retailers.

scientific diagram of a milk bottle top showing milk going in and then through a test which uses electrodes to test the freshness of the milk The drinks category could be shaken up too. With this smart cap from researchers at Berkley – which uses electrodes to detect liquid freshness – tentatively sniffing sour milk could be a thing of the past.


4. Higher disposable income driven by more childless households

Across the UK, more households than not are childless. This amounts to more money available to spend on food. It also means means cooking for two. The challenge is how to cook great food and shop economically, without spending over the odds and creating huge amounts of wasted food.

graph to show waste produced in the following households 'married or civil partner couple family with dependent children' married or civil partner couple family without dependent children' 'cohabiting couple family with dependent children' 'cohabiting couple family without dependent children' 'lone parent family with dependent children' lone parent family with non dependent children onlySource: Families and Households in the UK: 2016

This trend isn’t all about high-tech innovation. The driving concerns over freshness and waste can be addressed with some simple re-positioning. Brands are starting to re-package existing products into smaller portions ‘for one’ or ‘express’. The Lloyd Grossman ‘Express’ range, which started out life as ‘For One’ gives consumers a familiar product, but without the waste, the effort of storing more than they need, and without the worry of food going off after opening. Scratch meal kits give consumers fresh ingredients in the exact quantities needed for a meal for two, eliminating any possibility of wasted food, while also ticking the fresh, home-cooked food box.


5. A ripe issue

Though the households may be childless, there is no shortage of fussy eaters. Consumers are more and more particular about how they like to enjoy their fresh produce. From those who won’t touch a banana unless it’s green all over, to those who enjoy nothing more than a squishy ripe specimen. And we all know the pain of trying to guess when your avocado is ready!

Ripesense reacts to the aroma of ripening fruit and changes colour accordingly. This allows consumers to know exactly how ripe a piece of fruit is – crisp, firm or juicy in the case of these pears – and eliminates the need for guesswork, or the prodding and squeezing that often accompanies fruit purchases.


Opportunities to add consumer value through responsive packaging:

  • If your product needs to be discarded a specific period of time after opening, why not help the consumer record when they opened it?
  • If your product stays fresh until the day it’s opened, help consumers countdown until it is no longer fit for consumption.
  • If your product is best served at a certain temperature, find a way to indicate when the product has reached that optimum condition.
  • If you have a successful product in your portfolio that appeals to families, why not re-engineer the packaging and positioning to appeal to single people or couples without dependents?
  • Provide total peace of mind that professional products or those for high risk consumers have not been tampered with.

There is lots of opportunity to improve the consumption experience, give peace of mind, offer convenience and support the eco agenda. Figuring out which card to play first will be the tricky bit, so getting under the skin of how your consumers live their lives around your products will be the first place to look for clues.