Reducing packaging weight and increasing use of recycled content are key sustainability goals for major spirits companies, but can they also change established consumer perceptions that associate packaging weight with quality?

Increasing the overall use of recycled material in packaging is a critical element within the sustainable packaging strategies of major spirits companies, and central to this is increasing the use of recycled glass. As in other sectors, spirits companies are reliant on a sufficient supply of recycled material, and a shortage of recycled glass, or 'cullet', particularly in the US but also in other markets, remains a challenge.

"Regarding the shortage of cullet in the US, we have found that the quality of cullet is more of an issue than availability," says Andy Battjes, director, environmental health & safety at Brown-Forman. "For premium brands, clear glass is a sign of quality; and it is difficult to increase the amount of recycled material in a glass bottle without impacting the clarity of the glass."

The shortage of quality cullet in the US speaks to the challenge created by generally low household-recycling rates in the US and in many areas a relatively under-developed recycling infrastructure, highlighted in a report published earlier this year by US environmental campaign groups As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council, entitled 'Waste and Opportunity 2015'.

Increasing recycled content

Diageo has a target to increase average recycled content across all its packaging to 45% by 2020, and had set a target for 2015 of 42%. The company recently reported a 1.5% increase in recycled content for 2015, bringing the current overall average to 39%, though this is short of the 42% target for 2015. However, Diageo global sustainable development director David Croft says the 2015 target "has catalysed significant improvements in increasing our packaging recycle content globally and we are pleased with the progress in the past year". Croft adds that the supply of cullet "remains a challenge in the US market but nonetheless, recycled content in our packaging increased year-on-year and we aim to build on this".

The question of whether companies, policymakers or consumers bear ultimate responsibility for packaging waste has been much debated. However, it is clear that there are both practical and reputational benefits in companies engaging proactively to boost recycling rates and improve recycling infrastructures. To this end, in May Diageo brought together representatives from glass manufacturing, waste management, material recovery facilities, cullet processors and consumer goods companies to identify opportunities for collaboration and shared best practice examples from other sectors. The group is now discussing the potential to scale up best practice approaches identified.

Croft points out that there are challenges in obtaining high-quality glass cullet in many other markets, but Diageo is "focusing on the US right now as this is such a large market for us, and recycling rates are comparatively low".

US-based Brown-Forman also recognises the benefit of inter-stakeholder collaboration on the issue, singling out the Walmart-led Closed Loop Fund as a "promising initiative". "We do realise that recycling rates in many municipalities have reached a plateau and are in need of greater infrastructure and consumer participation," says director of environmental health and safety Andrew Battjes. "While we have yet to participate directly in this aspect, there are very promising initiatives underway such as The Closed Loop Fund."

While Bacardi has ongoing targets to reduce packaging weight by 10% by 2017 and by 15% by 2022 against a 2008 baseline, it intends to commit to further packaging targets. "We are already in the process of calculating the percentage of recycled material used, and also the amount of recyclable material in our packaging," Julio Torruella, global environment director, operations at Bacardi, tells just-drinks. "Once we complete this step, will be in the process of establishing long-term targets."

Challenges in reducing packaging weight

While spirits companies are setting targets for packaging weight reduction, there are some significant inherent challenges to achieving these goals, relating both to functionality of the packaging and consumer perceptions linking quality and weight of bottle.

Bacardi estimates that around 50% of its CO2 emissions come from packaging which is why, Torruella explains, reducing packaging weight is "a main pillar" of its global sustainability strategy. The critical role packaging design has on driving down environmental impacts is clear. "We are closely working with our suppliers to come up with more eco-friendly packaging solutions with regard to product designs and production processes," Torruella adds. With regard to glass, the company is using computer modelling and simulation, "as part of the design process to ensure right weight".

Diageo also prefers to look at the challenge as one of "right-weighting", says Croft. "Our brands are valuable. Some have taken over a decade to produce. So, while lightweighting may be the smart choice for some brands, we prefer to consider 'right weighting'. This way we don't, for example, increase the number of breakages in transport."

Ensuring packaging is sufficiently resilient extends beyond a bottle's time in transit and on-shelf. As Battjes points out, premium spirits will generally be in the home for longer and handled over a longer period than other beverages. "We have to consider the differences between packaging for spirits, which can sometimes have a long life with consumers versus wine or beer which are much shorter, sometimes single occasion packaging," he says.

As Croft concludes: "The primary challenge we face is designing packaging with the lowest possible environmental footprint while ensuring the required functionality to protect, deliver and present our products and brands. This point is key as we believe sustainability will not succeed if it equates to a compromise on quality or performance."

Earlier this month, Diageo reported that it reduced average packaging weight in its 2015 fiscal-year by 7%, against a 2009 baseline, short of its 2015 target of 10%. The company has committed to reduce average packaging weight by 15% by 2020. Croft cites the redesign of the J&B whisky bottle as "a good example" of success in delivering against packaging weight targets. The redesign took an average of 15% weight out, saving around 3,750 tonnes of glass and 4,500 tonnes of carbon. "The key factor in this succeeding was that all this was achieved without the consumer being able to see any notable difference in the bottle with quality and safety standards being maintained."

Brown-Forman, meanwhile, reports "some progress" on lightweighting in its ready-to-drink (RTD) containers "in various markets". However, Battjes points to the greater challenges that are faced with premium spirits brands. "For RTDs, package weight does not impact the consumer perception of the drink itself like it does with more premium spirits. We are always willing to investigate new options for packaging, however, we have to be certain that the new packaging materials do not negatively impact product taste/quality and that the materials are generally recyclable."

Changing consumer perceptions

In making spirits bottles lighter, companies are inevitably challenging consumer perceptions that have traditionally associated weight of bottle with quality. While he believes some of these perceptions are changing, Pernod Ricard group director of sustainable performance Jean-François Roucou stresses the importance of gradual, incremental change. "Packaging weight has been perceived as a sign of quality and premiumness, but the perception is changing. The difficulty is to do this change step by step, in order to make sure the consumers recognise their brand."

In addition to the "substantial weight reduction" in the recent years in Pernod's Indian whiskies, Roucou cites the new Absolut bottle as an example of a re-design that boosts premium values while also reducing its weight by almost 13%. "The new bottle elevates the quality of the brand but is lighter than the previous one. This is a great example that we can increase quality and premium perception of an iconic bottle while improving the environmental performance. "

Battjes says there is "an ongoing challenge in terms of the consumer perception of what constitutes premium and the design cues to which consumers respond, versus the desire for greater sustainability of packaging". While companies recognise the need to work both creatively and technically, in collaboration with their packaging suppliers, to drive down packaging weight, as with so many sustainability challenges, there is an onus on consumers to change their perceptions and adapt buying habits, as David Croft concludes: "Our vision is to have packaging that is both premium and sustainable, a challenge not just for us but for our sector in general, especially with the perception among some consumers that lighter means less valuable. The journey to create packaging that is sustainable and premium will require tenacity, innovation and awareness not just for us but also for our consumers."