When it comes to packaging, comparisons to the catwalk may seem a little extreme, but it is in fact the "clothing of a brand", says Kevin Curran of Tri-Star.

His company supplies packaging for food-to-go bakery chains, sandwich bars, supermarkets and coffee shops. Customers include Coughlans Bakery, Caffè Nero, Greggs and the major supermarkets.

But unlike the catwalk, there are all sorts of things to avoid, such as moisture migration and, of course, there are two sets of people to keep happy the food-to-go vendor and the consumer.

Curran says both parties usually want ethical packaging that shows the product off to its best advantage, with room for branding and usually a promotional message. It must also be completely recyclable!

But then reality kicks in and for the company that involves cost and margins. And while consumers may have an ethical heart, what are their real priorities and how much do they actually know?

Do you know the difference between recyclable, biodegradable and sustainable? Have you any idea which of them benefits the environment more, or what difference it makes to cost? And do you know the answers to those questions also depend on your local authority and what facilities they have?

What consumers want

Food-to-go packaging is a minefield, as Linpac and Huhtamaki, both Tri-star suppliers, confirm. But research shows consumers now prefer a grease-resistant packaging for snacks forget the paper bag that left a mess all over your skirt or trousers.

As for cakes, consumers eat with their eyes so the cardboard container now needs see-through film tempting the purchaser and making them feel good about what they are buying. And if they buy more than one, they often want a see-through pack.

If they buy a sandwich, they want to see it, but also read, about that tempting filling. It’s not just ham and cheese, it needs to be oak-smoked ham with a delicious, matured cheddar, so there must be room on the packaging.

Four cookies usually come with a window and if consumers want eight or 10, they still like to see them. It’s not just the food-to-go supplier, but also the consumer, who has unwittingly put the plain recyclable closed cardboard container with possible moisture migration on the ’reject shelf’.

Greggs: environmental awareness

At a recent Roundtable to discuss packaging, attended among others by prominent food-to-go retailers Caffè Nero’s Paul Ettinger and Greggs’ David Bradford, some interesting points were raised.

Ettinger has not been afraid to experiment: "We went from having everything packaged to experimenting with having unwrapped muffins in one attractive large container for consumers to select their favourite. But sales showed they preferred the packaged version."

Meanwhile, Bradford commented: "Many of our products are unwrapped and served from behind our counters. Where we do package products, we aim for sustainability rather than specifically biodegradability or compostability. They are two buzzwords, but we believe sustainability is better for the environment. It has a lower carbon footprint and water footprint and uses less water."

Bradford continues: "Sustainability appears to be less harmful long-term. What does that mean? Reducing the amount of packaging and water and making it from sustainable and recyclable materials, so it comes back again in years to come. That way it does not take six months to degrade.

"Our cardboard sandwich pack is from managed rainforests and the clear film we use is changing to degradable. We generally leave muffins unwrapped and put them in a paper bag. And we serve hot beverages in paperboard coffee cups from managed forests, so again, it is sustainable."

The moral of the story is: take time to choose your packaging supplier, your ethics and your costings.