• 27th April 2021

Packaging: "We must build back better"

The pandemic has only intensified the spirits industry’s drive to create sustainable packaging. Joe Bates reports on the latest developments.

As political and corporate decision makers seek the best way to resurrect the global economy from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a growing international consensus that a return to business as usual must be avoided if environmental climate change and biodiversity loss are to be avoided. Instead, the refrain is ‘build back better’— a sustainability-driven message which is finally impacting the spirits packaging sector.

Sustainability has been at the front of most brand owners’ minds for a considerable amount of time. However, it has recently become a critical focus in the luxury sector,” says Toby Wilson, director of luxury at GPA Luxury. “Every element of a piece of packaging (cradle to grave) is being considered — from the responsible sourcing of the ingredients for the liquid, all the way to the recyclability of the final packaging when the consumer has finished with the product.”
However, creating sustainable packaging for premium spirits that is functional and looks good remains a challenge, as Kevin Shaw, founding member of leading drinks designer Stranger & Stranger acknowledges. “Sustainability is a challenge for a designer, as our task is usually to make something look more expensive and better value for money. The issue is that if you make packaging lighter and thinner, and we’ve done plenty of those kinds of projects for financial as well as sustainable reasons, it tends to look smaller and cheaper. Luxury brands are often minimal, but need sensual weight. Chanel comes with a small one-colour label but also a heavy glass stopper. It’s a balance. There are some great tricks though, like using those moulded pulp boxes in secondary packs. They can look great, but they can also go on your compost heap.”

Sustainability ‘only option’

For many recently launched spirits brands, sustainability is an integral part of their DNA. A good example of the trend is Lost Years Rum, a range of blended Caribbean rums launched last year by founder Lee Smith to aid sea turtle conservation. Lee says sustainable packaging was the only option for the brand. “It would be fundamentally wrong for us to use plastic in our packaging, for instance, when plastic pollution is one of the reasons sea turtles are now under threat,” he argues, noting that there is now a growing number of sustainable options when it comes to designing spirits packaging, from eco- friendly bottles and labels to plastic-free closures and biodegradable packaging. “It does take time and effort to uncover some of these options though and they are rarely, if ever, the cheapest or simplest option,” he admits. “A good example is the tamper seal we use on our bottles, which is made from plant- based cellulose and is fully compostable. There is one manufacturer in the world that makes these, and they are supplied ‘wet’ in cans, which means they have to be applied by hand and allowed to dry overnight. They cost more than the plastic alternative and they complicate and slow down the bottling process, but for us this was still the right thing to do.”

Paper bottles here to stay

The era of paper-based spirits bottles has begun. In January, Pernod Ricard launched a prototype Absolut Paper bottle in the UK and Sweden. The new bottle is made from 57% paper and 43% recycled plastic. Diageo is going one step further and releasing a 100% plastic-free paper Johnnie Walker bottle this year. The bottle is made by a firm called Pulpex, co-created by Diageo, which will also produce packaging for the likes of Unilver and PepsiCo.
Other brands are following suit. UK craft distiller Silent Pool Gin will also launch a paper bottle this year, while Bacardi is developing a biodegradable plastic bottle made from plant-based oils, which can biodegrade in 18 months. When it becomes available in 2023, the new bottle will replace 80m plastic bottles used across Bacardi’s brand portfolio, eliminating 2,500 tons of plastic.
For GlobalData beverages analyst Holly Inglis the Absolut Paper bottle has challenged the status quo. “It is unlike anything ever seen before in the UK’s alcoholic drinks market, and is likely to be successful as it is a clear attempt to align with green trends and will evoke a behavioural change among both producers and consumers,” she says.
Tom Hearn, business director at international drinks design agency Nude Brand Creation, believes paper bottles have potential challenges to overcome. “It is still very niche and would appear to be more for small-scale rather than high-volume production,” he says. “Questions still remain about durability and practicality, not just in transportation and display, but also consumer use after purchase.
“That said, it’s not anything new — wine has been sold as a bag-in-box for many, many years. In some countries, it is very popular, but less successful in others due to quality perception — a potential challenge for the paper bottle to overcome.

Glass industry tackles its carbon footprint

Glass bottle manufacturers stress that they have also been making considerable efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. A spokesperson for major spirits bottle producer Ardagh Group says: “Through lightweighting and increasing the quantity of recycled glass in our bottles, we have significantly reduced CO2 emissions from production and logistics throughout the supply chain. We are also making returnable and refillable bottles for some of our customers, keeping the glass in circulation longer before it returns to the furnace to be recycled.”
Ardagh’s glass furnaces can produce green spirits bottles with 85% to 95% recycled content. The spokesperson also highlights a new ‘Close the Glass Loop’ campaign, launched last year across Europe, which aims to increase the current continent-wide recycled glass collection rate from 76% to 90% by 2030.
Lastly, Ardagh leads a group of 19 glass- producing companies to fund a pilot a hybrid glass furnace in Obernkirchen, Germany, to evaluate the required technical and market criteria for large- scale electric melting of glass packaging. The use of renewable electricity in glass container production rather than natural gas could, in theory, vastly reduce the CO2 emissions from the combustion in the furnace.

Tackling e-commerce waste

One of the most notable beverage trends to have emerged from the pandemic is the rise of e-commerce alcohol sales. According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the value of e-commerce alcohol grew 42% in 2020 across 10 key markets to total $24bn. However, an unfortunate by-product of this trend is the amount of secondary packaging needed to ensure purchases arrive undamaged.
Leading players are aware of the problem — over the Christmas period, for instance, Bacardi redesigned its gift packs for Grey Goose and Martini Non- Alcoholic Aperitivo (both exclusively available from Amazon) to use 25% less packaging. Both packs were made entirely from Forest Stewardship Council- certified cardboard and could be shipped to online shoppers in the UK, France, Germany and Italy without any need for additional packaging.
In the UK, cocktail delivery company Cocktails By Mail uses biodegradable pouches alongside 100% recyclable outer cardboard packaging. Launched in November 2020, the start-up has enjoyed month-on-month sales growth of 70% to 75%, according to company founder Steph DiCamillo.
I recently ordered from one of the larger ready-to-drink cocktail companies,” she recalls. “They are a carbon-neutral company, which is on their website and packaging, but when the drinks arrived they were encased in foam. That just doesn’t make sense to me. Yes, you’ve paid off your carbon with offset credits, but you are still releasing all this foam into the environment that isn’t going to break down. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Don’t can the can

The humble can is also not to be written off in the quest for more sustainable packaging. Indeed, it has seen a new lease of life with the rise of RTDs during the pandemic, according to Simon Gresty, chairman of industry body Can Makers. “Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen an array of new entrants into this category; East London Liquor Company and Scotch brand Haig Club are among those who have adopted the beverage can for their RTD ranges,” he says.

For many brands, including spirits as well as wine and RTDs, adopting the can as a packaging format could present a significant opportunity to further improve environmental credentials. Aluminium beverage cans are the most recycled drinks pack in the world, with an average recycling rate of 69%. In Europe, the figure is 74.5%. As metal can be endlessly recycled with no loss of quality, the beverage can is already well positioned to help spirits brands play their part in the drive to achieve a circular economy.”
The drinks industry is clearly united about the need to develop more sustainable packaging, but definitions of sustainability vary considerably.

GPA Luxury’s Wilson says: “I think the term ‘sustainability’ will only be truly understood by the consumer when businesses define the meaning. We have seen that the definition and resulting initiatives and goals vary considerably. A single definition of the term is essential, at which point individual packaging sectors can evolve their plans. “The opportunity to have key people from the industry, from the producers of the product all the way through — primary packaging, design, secondary packaging, fulfilment and logistics and everything in between, would provide the opportunity for a collaborative rather than a siloed approach to this challenge that is, after all, everyone’s responsibility”.

Source: Global Drinks Intel Magazine