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Packaging Trends for 2021: What to Consider After 2020


2020 brought its fair share of challenges for every industry, and packaging was no exception. As the year kicked off, brands were continuing the conversation on sustainability and how to achieve their goals in the midst of consumer perceptions on plastic. We also saw an increased focus on packaging design and flexographic printing, utilization of smart packaging features, and adding value to packaging with stand-up and closure features (read more in our 2020 packaging trends article).

But, as 2020 went on and the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally, we saw a shift in priorities as brands rushed to innovate for packaging safety and to combat the potential spread of the virus.

Now that the dust has somewhat settled as we understand more about how COVID-19 is transmitted, brands are returning to examining their long-term goals and examining the trends that began in 2020 but are here to stay. If you’re having conversations about what to prioritize in 2021 when it comes to packaging, here’s what to expect based on the trends the Fresh-Lock team is seeing.

1. A renewed interest in sustainability (and sustainable packaging)

packaging sustainability trend headlines

In 2019 and earlier, sustainability was a major talking point for brands and consumers, and single-use plastics were at the center of the conversation. In Mintel’s Global Predictions for 2019, for example, it advised brands to “act now, either to ensure a place in emerging plastic-free zones by switching to acceptable pack materials, or by engaging with the debate, clearly explaining the benefits of plastic packaging … and addressing plastic pollution concerns with appropriate end of life pack solutions.”

In 2020, sustainability became less of a talking point and more of an action item as companies pledged to reduce their use of plastics and their carbon footprint. In the packaging realm, we saw a number of packaging innovations for source reduction, recyclability, and compostability. However, as 2020 marched on, safety concerns, stocking up on groceries, and the need for PPE shifted consumer perceptions about plastic packaging. In many cases, single-use plastics have become the only acceptable option, which means consumers are starting to recognize that plastics are necessary—and even beneficial, in some contexts.

Partially as a result of the heightened reliance on plastic, the pandemic only strengthened consumer concerns around sustainability, resulting in what experts call “post-COVID environmentalists.” Post-COVID environmentalists believe that at least one of the following is even more important as a result of COVID-19: reducing usage of single-use plastics, reducing their carbon footprint, or companies behaving more sustainably. And, this group isn’t just a niche group of individuals; some 60% of people who report being less sustainable during COVID-19 say they don’t like it, and globally, 3 out of 4 people say it will be more important that companies use more sustainable practices following COVID-19.

It’s clear, then, that commitment to sustainability—and sustainable brands and products—isn’t going anywhere, and sustainable practices should remain a top priority for brands as they shift their focus back to the long-term. Learn more about our predictions and what you can do to get ahead in our presentation, Sustainability Considerations in the Evolving Normal.

2. Packaging innovations for e-commerce

E-commerce was another trend going strong even prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic brought a surge of online shopping—and one we can expect to stick around as consumers more fully realize its benefits and convenience (not to mention the fact that they are now used to relying on it). Online grocery shopping in particular saw a major jump, with U.S. adults spending more than double on online groceries than they did last year since March of 2020.

grocery ecommerce trends rise in online grocery

Packaging Strategies predicts these trends will continue and that CPGs’s “good run will continue into 2021.”

What does it mean for packaging? For one, brands who continue to innovate within packaging design and add value to their products with the packaging experience will be the most successful in making their brand stand out. Consumers have long experienced frustration with “packaging fails” like spills, product damage, or wasteful packaging. Now, consumers are increasingly ordering products they might have otherwise bought in stores, such as frozen meats and pharmaceuticals, which pose their own unique challenges in e-commerce.

Boxed frozen meats, for example, could be damaged as a result of the rigorous supply chain, or include extra packaging to keep the products cool. Pharmaceuticals packaged in boxes face similar chances of becoming damaged, and typical rigid plastic containers not only take up space, but also use more plastic (and take more energy to transport) than other packaging formats, such as flexible.

Whether you’re in the food and beverage industry, produce other CPGs, or are in pharmaceuticals, moving to a flexible packaging format, adding quality closures, or reducing packaging materials are all ways to improve the consumer experience in e-commerce in the upcoming year.

3. Continued innovations in digital packaging

Finally, although the discussion of digital packaging technologies fell somewhat off the radar in 2020, we can expect it to make a comeback. Whether to promote customer feedback, improve supply chain visibility, or better engage with customers, digital printing and other innovations have created opportunities to enhance packaging graphics and customization. Additionally, leading publications, including Packaging Europe and Packaging World, cite emerging technology such as augmented and virtual reality as top trends to watch in 2021. That means that in addition to thinking about your packaging format and functionality, you should start to consider what technological or digital packaging looks like for your brand—now or down the road.

A Bright Future for Packaging Ahead

With the challenges 2020 brought to the packaging industry also came opportunities. We now have a clearer view of what really matters to consumers and how we can meet their needs.

 Want to talk more about how your packaging can enhance the consumer experience amidst the changes we’ve seen? Contact the Fresh-Lock team today and follow us on the blog for more insights.

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