Economic hardship is failing to quell packaging and labelling innovation, as bakeries, cafés and food-to-go retailers increa-singly seek differentiation in the great high street bun fight.
While times are tough across the retail sector, the recession has both boosted and hindered independent operators, with many consumers trading down from restaurants, but others swapping take-out breakfasts and lunches for home-prepared food.
For those enjoying a lift in trade from the restaurant exodus, branding has become all-important to compete in a saturated sector ranging from small over-the-counter bakeries to chains such as Starbucks.
Manufacturers of packaging and labelling solutions have responded with new ranges of bags, bowls, cups and containers in materials offering greater scope for on-pack marketing, and responding to increasing demand for an upmarket and environmentally aware image.
Opinion is mixed as to the impact of the economic downturn on customers’ willingness to pay out the premium applying to ’eco’ packaging, with one trade source claiming the environmentally friendly option can triple costs. However, according to Planglow, trade in environmentally friendly lines is booming. "Packaging sales have soared over the last year or so," says Planglow marketing manager Rachael Sawtell. "Most of our products are environmentally friendly and we do tend to have a lot of bakers as clients."
Greatest sales growth has come from sandwich and baguette packs, says Sawtell, which are cardboard-based with windows manufactured from plant-based materials such as corn. Most of Planglow’s packaging, which also extends to wraps, salads and beverages, is from renewable resources and is 100% biodegradable or compostable.

The case for card
Opting for environmentally-friendly card packaging is worth the investment, according to Sawtell. "Compared to plastic, the extra cost is quite significant, but card is a completely different product with a more premium image, and clients can use it for marketing, adding their logos and information," she says. "And there is not a huge difference only 5%, over non-biodegradable card packs."
While eco-packaging may run at a premium, "the difference depends on the cost of the materials and how much value the retailer places on the benefits gained/other costs that can be offset," says supplier Dempson Crooke’s sales and marketing director Paul Laskey.
Eco-packaging "is still a very relevant subject to those retailers that are conscious of brand value the image of their business and consumer experience, so it depends on how a business wishes to position itself in its market/location, says Laskey.
"There are still a sizeable proportion of retailers who will pay for an eco-friendly packaging product if it reduces cost within their total cost chain or adds value to their business by generating more custom and/or margin."
Within eco-packaging options, Laskey reports a trend towards starch-based plastic alternatives "with some being better than others" and wood and wood derivatives, such as palm leaves in the cutlery and trays sector. "Our core material in our manufacturing plants is paper, where we believe that the benefits of sustainability, recycling and biodegradability are still not promoted or sufficiently recognised," he says. "We are now starting to use this in conjunction with repulpable/biodegradable barrier coatings and we are finding a growing interest from the retail and foodservice sectors for these to replace plastic-based products or products containing a layer of plastic or other material, which makes them hard to recycle."
Paper-based packaging has the added benefit of being more easily identifiable as recyclable by the consumer, says Laskey.
Educating customers on the different eco-options available is vital if customers are to pay more for packaging in the current trading environment, according to Charlotte Packaging director Tony Day. "The initial stages of the recession had a very negative effect on sales of biodegradable packaging due, of course, to the much higher costs involved," he says. "There is a choice between the biodegradable and recyclable path, and both have creditable reasons for their use.
"No single film will answer all the problems encountered when making this choice. Some products require permeability from the packaging and some require a moisture-proof solution. Many more specifics such as oxygen barrier and odour barriers need to be taken into consideration. Seal and film strength can also be an issue."
Plastic recycling also has a part to play, according to the Gloucestershire-based supplier of flexible paper and film packaging solutions. "If any improvement in preventing waste can be made, then we should embrace it, even if it is only replacing one web of a laminate with a recyclable substrate."
Paper is still viewed as an environmentally friendly material that can be supplied in many different guises, he adds, and opens up marketing possibilities. "Whichever path is chosen, it should be advised that, in a very competitive market, branding is extremely important. Letting the public know who is supplying the high street can only be more advantageous to the supplier than remaining a nameless face in the crowd."