An exploration of consumers’perceptions
of eco-designed packaging
Lise Magnier and Dominique Crié
Department of Marketing, University Lille 1 –IAE Lille, Lille, France
Purpose –The purpose of this paper is to examine the influence of eco-designed packaging on
consumers’responses. It defines the concept of eco-designed packaging, and proposes a consumer-led
taxonomy of its cues. Attitudinal and behavioral, positive and negative responses triggered by the
perception of these signals are analyzed.
Design/methodology/approach –Results were reached through qualitative methods.
A phenomenological approach consisting of eight in-depth interviews has been followed by a series
of ten Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) interviews. The synergy of these two methods
Findings –The complexity of packaging ecological cues perception is outlined by expressing the
differences in the nature of these cues. A taxonomy is then presented; ecological cues fall into three
categories: structural cues, graphical/iconic cues and informational cues. Finally, consumers’responses
to the perception of eco-designed packaging are presented and perceived benefits and perceived
sacrifices are revealed.
Practical implications –Packaging is of great importance in consumers’purchase decision process,
especially in situations of temporal pressure and hyperchoice environments. Since consumers take more
and more into account the ethicality of the brand in their consumption, the understanding of their attitudes
and behaviors toward eco-designed packaging may enable brands to build a competitive advantage.
Originality/value –The literature review reveals that there is no similar research available. The use of
two qualitative methods enables to understand consumers’deep-seated motivations, attitudes and
behaviors toward eco-designed packaging. The results of this study canalsobeusedbyadvertisers,for
social marketing campaigns, to encourage consumers to reduce the global ecological footprint of packaging.
Keywords In-depth interviews, Eco-design, Ecological cues, Packaging design, ZMET interviews
Paper type Research paper
With pollution levels increasing every year and consumers willing to make more sense
in their daily consumption, packaging sustainability represents an important issue for
industrials and retailers. Since 2007, Walmart is working on a project aiming at being
packaging neutral by 2,025. They launched the 4Rs campaign (reduce, reuse, recycle,
rethink) which purpose is to optimize packaging for sustainability and to focus on
packaging improvements that could reduce materials, increase recycled content, and
increase the amount of renewable materials involved in the packaging manufacturing.
Similarly, The Coca-Cola Company is working to support initiatives that enable
recovery and reuse of their packaging by developing PlantBottle® packaging, taking
initiatives to encourage recycling, and implementing projects to reduce the amount of
material used in their packaging.
These initiatives take place in a context where consumers often make their
first judgments about brands and products based solely on their packages
(Orth and Malkewitz, 2008). Indeed, in situations of information overload and
International Journal of Retail &
Vol. 43 No. 4/5, 2015
Received 14 April 2014
Revised 19 April 2014
24 July 2014
31 October 2014
13 January 2015
Accepted 9 February 2015
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
hyperchoice environments, this initial evaluation often influences both attitude
toward the brand and selection of this brand. Also, brands that take into consideration
environmental and ethical principles are usually better valued by consumers. Therefore,
manufacturers are increasingly designing more sustainable goods (i.e. goods having a less
negative environmental impact) in order to build a competitive advantage.
Literature has extensively shown that individuals evaluate quality through extrinsic
attributes, especially when intrinsic cues are not directly provided (Olson and Jacoby,
1972). Thus, this paper addresses the question of sustainable product design
management and examines an eco-designed extrinsic cue of the brand –packaging.
It considers packaging as a communicating object per se and intends to answer the
subsequent research questions: Via which cues, is package design susceptible to infer
packaging eco-friendliness? What kinds of responses are triggered by the perception of
eco-designed packages? To reach these purposes, we supplement in-depth interviews
with interviews following the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) method
and demonstrate that the hybridization of methods enables to enrich information.
The remainder of the paper is organized as follows: we first present the theoretical
background of this research which draws on literature on packaging eco-friendliness
and on consumers’responses to packaging and eco-friendly packaging. The qualitative
study that aims at answering the research questions is then presented. It consists of 18
interviews with consumers: eight in-depth interviews and ten interviews following the
ZMET (Coulter and Zaltman, 1994). The results enable to identify and sort packaging
ecological cues through a consumer-led taxonomy, to define the concept of eco-designed
packaging and to obtain an understanding of its influence on consumers’responses. Then,
further discussion is provided on findings and their implications. Finally, limitations and
directions for future research are outlined.
Packaging eco-friendliness has never been subject to a clear conceptualization in consumer
behavior literature. Instead, researchershaveuseddifferenttermswhenstudying
eco-friendly packaging: green packaging design, sustainable design, ecodesign, design for
the environment and environmentally conscious design (Boks and Stevels, 2007).
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition® (2011) has defined sustainable packaging
according to eight criteria. Sustainable packaging is then: beneficial, safe and healthy for
individuals and communities throughout its life cycle; meets market criteria for performance
and costs; is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy;
optimizes the use of recycled source material; is manufactured using clean production
technologies and best practices; is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle; is
physically designed to optimize materials and energy; and is effectively recovered and
utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles. Yet, the above criteria outline a
framework for specific actions that are to betakenbycompaniestomanufacturemore
environmentally friendly packaging, but provide no information about how consumers
perceive and value this packaging. Considering that consumers’selection of these
eco-friendly packaging truly ensures that global packaging pollution decreases, it
seems rather important to conceptualize eco-designed packaging in the eye of the consumer.
Boks and Stevels (2007) have actually stated that there are several kinds of
eco-friendliness falling into three different categories: governmental, scientific and
consumer. Packaging eco-friendliness can therefore be analyzed within that framework.
Governmental eco-friendliness is related to legal requirements such as how to recycle or
discard hazardous materials. Scientific green usually takes a life-cycle assessment
point of view and determines the environmental impact of products throughout the
whole product life cycle. This category is usually considered as the most accurate and
objective to measure the real environmental impact of a product. Finally, the consumer
category deals with consumers’perceptions of eco-friendliness. The present research is
incorporated within this framework and aims at contributing to the stream of research
that considers packaging from the consumers’point of view.
Consumers’responses to packaging
Literature on packaging is usually divided into two main streams; the first approach
called holistic or gestaltist considers the influence of packaging as a whole, whereas
the second approach, called analytical, examines specifically the influence of verbal,
graphical or structural elements on consumer responses. The subsequent paragraphs
highlight the main features of both approaches and position this research within that
corpus of literature.
The holistic approach considers packaging in its totality and does not consider
its characteristics independently. In this area of research, some studies have used
qualitative approaches to tackle consumers’perceptions of packaging (Underwood and
Ozanne, 1998; Nancarrow et al., 1998; Kniazeva and Belk, 2007; Wells et al., 2007;
Rundh, 2005, 2009). Most studies in this field are following a semiotics approach, and
researchers examine the meaning made by consumers when confronted to package
design. Dano (1998) argues that packaging is a meaningful object and that its success
depends on the adaptation of its discourse to consumers’expectations and personal
values. In a similar approach, Orth and Malkewitz (2008) have created a guide aiming to
help marketers to develop packaging that would directly tie together packaging design
and brand personality. Hence, robust brands should have a massive and contrasted
packaging design, whereas competent brands should exhibit a delicate design. Wang
(2013) states that attitudes toward visual packaging directly influence perceived
quality of food products and brand inferences. In short, this first approach considers
the gestalt of several elements to study the packaging as a global entity.
On the other hand, the analytical approach regards packaging characteristics
independently, and the elements usually studied in the literature are either structural
or graphical/iconic or verbal/informational. Thus, it appears that color influences
perceptions and judgments of taste (Dichter, 1964), product evaluation and purchase
intention (Gordon et al., 1994), or beliefs and consumers’attitudes (Roullet and Droulers,
2005). Likewise, packaging shape has an effect on product preferences (Raghubir and
Greenleaf, 2006), volume perceptions and product use (Folkes and Matta, 2004) as well
as on brand personality (Pantin-Sohier, 2009). Size influences product purchase and the
quantity used during product consumption (Wansink, 1996). The presence of imagery
also triggers purchase. Only a few studies tackle the influence of environmental cues
(Bech-Larsen, 1996; Polonsky et al., 1998; Rokka and Uusitalo, 2008). Among them
Rokka and Uusitalo (2008) have tested if green packaging would have an influence on
product choice. The results of their conjoint analysis show that product packaging is an
important product attribute in consumer choice, contributing to 34 percent of the
overall utility of attributes. The respondents clearly preferred the environment-friendly
package alternative (recyclable-labeled carton package), whereas both non recyclable
plastic packages produced negative utility estimates for the respondents.
This study is situated at the intersection of the two research bodies defined
previously. First, we separately study packaging ecological cues, adopting an analytical
approach. However, the second goal is to assess the general effect of the gestalt of these
combined cues on consumers’perceived value, and a holistic approach is then adopted.
The studies presented above attest of the determining influence that packaging
exerts on consumers’attitudes and behaviors toward a product. Nevertheless, strong
theoretical contribution on ecological cues displayed on packaging is still missing.
Moreover, the use of a qualitative methodology appears to be particularly relevant
and may highlight new results since most studies have been carried out through
quantitative positivist approaches and analyze the antecedents of consumers’purchase
of ecologically packaged goods (Schwepker and Cornwell, 1991; Bech-Larsen, 1996; van
Birgelen et al., 2009; Koenig-Lewis et al., 2014).
Consumers’responses to eco-friendly packaging
Among individual antecedents that are susceptible to have a positive influence on
responses to ecological cues, numerous studies have been undertaken on the concept of
ecological concern. Its influence on pro-environmental behaviors always proved to be
positive, even though the relationship was very often weak (Giannelloni, 1998). Antecedents
of individual ecological concern are various; their nature can be socio-demographic or
psycho-sociological. Among socio-demographic variables, results are sometimes
contradicting, but globally, the literature outlines that gender (F, +)andincome(+)
might affect the ecological concern of an individual (Giannelloni, 1998). Among
psycho-sociological variables, it has been shown that perceived consumer effectiveness
(Ellen et al.,1991)(+), expertise (+), values such as tradition (−), self-direction (+),
benevolence (+) and universalism (+) (Grunert and Kristensen, 1992), alienation
(Webster, 1975) (+), and locus of control (internal, +) (Pettus and Giles, 1987), might
exert an influence on the presence of this pattern. Environmental concern and its
antecedents may influence to a great extent consumers’judgments and evaluations of
packages displaying ecological cues.
In the more specific field of eco-friendly packaging, Schwepker and Cornwell (1991)
have studied the determinants of consumers’intention to purchase ecologically packaged
products. The authors suggest that consumers are more and more willing to operate
changes in their packaging consumption and an important amount of elements have
been examined to appreciate the determinants of ecologically packaged goods. Only a
limited number of these determinants proved to be significant. Results confirm that
psycho-sociological variables are much more important than socio-demographic variables
to understand the environmentally concerned consumer. Among the discriminating
variables, authors attest that internal locus of control, the perception of pollution as a
problem, attitude toward litter and attitude toward ecologically conscious living were
significant. Van Birgelen et al. (2009) showed that eco-friendly purchase and disposal
decisions for beverages are related to the environmental awareness of consumers and
their eco-friendly attitude. The results of their study revealed that consumers are willing to
trade off almost all products attributes in favor of environmentally friendly packaging of
beverages, except for taste and price. Koenig-Lewis et al. (2014) have also investigated
consumers’emotional and rational evaluations of pro-environmental packaging and
showed that purchase intention was significantly influenced by general environmental
concern, but not by rational evaluations of benefits. These cognitive benefits had
dissimilar effects on positive and negative emotions and both positive and negative
emotions had significant direct effects on behavioral intention.
Studies also show that in order to be efficient, eco-friendly communications should
be credible and therefore satisfy certain criteria. In general, it appears that credibility is
enhanced when the labels are issued by independent regulatory agencies (Parguel et al.,
2011). The proliferation of ecological claims provokes confusion in consumers’mind
who consider many of them as misleading (Polonsky et al., 1998) and participating in
Finally, concerning the reflective influence of the perception of ecological cues, it
appears that it has several effects on consumers’attitudes and behaviors toward a
product or a brand. Among them, it has been proved that perception of ecological cues
has a positive effect on trust, brand evaluation, product evaluation, purchase intention,
long-term brand loyalty and promoting behaviors (Giannelloni, 1998). By enabling
to capture the complexity of consumers’motivations, attitudes and behaviors
(Khoo-Lattimore et al., 2009), a qualitative approach to determine consumers’perception
of packaging ecological cues and their responses to eco-designed packaging appears
The aim of the study is first to determine through a consumer-led taxonomy via which
cues package design is likely to infer packaging eco-friendliness, to define the concept
of eco-designed packaging with these elements, and to apprehend consumers’
responses triggered by the perception of packaging ecological cues. In the following
paragraphs, chosen methods will be justified; samples and data analysis process will be
In order to reach these purposes, a phenomenological approach has first been chosen
and in-depth interviews have been carried out. The description by the individual of his
own experience, here his perception of ecological cues and the attitudes and behaviors
inherent to their processing, enables us to gather fruitful data (Thompson et al., 1990).
Then, to complement this approach, ZMET interviews have been realized. These
methods seem suitable in this context because they have been designed to surface
relevant constructs in consumer decision making (Khoo-Lattimore et al., 2009). Moreover,
the ZMET approach can be helpful in situations of consumption that are subject to moral
or social norms, such as environmental consumption (Thøgersen, 1999; Félonneau and
Becker, 2008). The interpretative epistemological positioning of the research aims at
suggesting a conceptual basis for the concept of eco-designed packaging, its antecedents,
that is to say the range of signals it displays and consumers’responses to these signals.
In the first stage of data collection, in-depth interviews have been realized on a limited
convenience sample composed of eight consumers. Two-third of the sample consisted of
women and the mean age was 35.4 years. The overrepresentation of women in the sample
can be explained by the fact that individuals were recruited on the criterion “being in
charge of grocery shopping in the household.”Each interview lasted between 45 and one
hour and 15 minutes. The interview guide used in order to foster respondents’expression
tackled a few topics such as packaging evocations and consumers’attitudes toward
packaging across different categories of fast moving consumer goods. Respondents’
environmental concern was also taken into consideration. Evaluation criteria of an
ecological packaging were then evoked. Finally, motivations, perceived benefits and
sacrifices for the purchase of an eco-designed product –e.g., emotions, social influence
and inferences on product quality –were tackled.
After completion of these eight interviews, respondents discourse approached
saturation in accordance with Griffin and Hauser (1993) who suggested that eight to ten
interviews enable to gather between 65 and 80 percent of the information. Therefore, it
appeared relevant to slightly vary the method in order to go more in-depth into
consumers’perceptions. For the second phase of the study, a series of ten ZMET
interviews have been carried out. Participants were asked to bring between eight and
12 images that represented ecological packaging in their eyes. In the first place, they
were asked to express their opinion on the main research topic, and then were invited to
go through the steps of the ZMET procedure (Khoo-Lattimore et al., 2009). This method
presents several interests and complements the in-depth interview approach in an
interesting way: it enables participants to think about the research topic beforehand
and to come to the interview with already a few elements to discuss. Furthermore, the
variety of tasks –which entails a storytelling, a description of the missed images,
the sorting of the pictures brought, a structured interview (construct elicitation), the
choice of the most representative picture, a description of what would be the opposite
images, a description of the research topic in terms of sensory images, the creation of a
mental map –enables consumers to express the deep-seated motives shaping their
attitudes and consumption behaviors. Considering that most of the sense is shared in a
non-verbal way, the use of images also enables to reveal new constructs, underlying
motivations or thoughts and feelings that would not have appeared a priori (Lee et al.,
2003; Khoo-Lattimore et al., 2009). For this phase of the study, the sample was
composed of ten individuals, 70 percent of them were women and the mean age was 37
years. As in the in-depth interviews, the overrepresentation of women is explained by
recruitment criteria. All ZMET interviews have been carried out in the laboratory.
Their length varies from 50 minutes to one hour and 15 minutes.
Both in-depth and ZMET interviews have been realized in French language,
recorded and transcribed. The quotations that will be presented across this paper have
been translated to English by a third person and translated back to French in order to
make sure that the meaning had not been modified.
The simultaneous use of these two techniques enriches and strengthens the validity of
the results. They complement each other, one providing an overview of the perceptions,
attitudes and behaviors of consumers toward eco-designed packaging and the other
bringing more details on their perception of ecological cues through the use of images.
Materials were therefore lumped together for the analysis and results will be provided
indistinctively. Respondents also brought images and drew cognitive maps at the end of
the ZMET interviews. These materials have been coded and integrated among textual
data. In order to summarize each interview, data were initially organized into memos
(Miles and Huberman, 1994); otherwise the general process of open coding analysis
follows Spiggle’s (1994) method. This method provides a classification and description of
the analysis of seven basic operations: categorization, abstraction, comparison,
dimensionalization, integration, iteration and refutation. These operations are not steps
in the research process but operations that researchers use in the various stages of the
analysis. Categorization was made by identifying emergent categories from the data.
Abstraction builds on categorization (Spiggle, 1994) and consists in incorporating more
concrete categories into fewer more general ones. Comparison was introduced by Glaser
and Strauss (1967) and refers to the analytical procedure in which the analyst compares
observations in the data with other observations appearing to belong to the same
category, exploring their similarities and differences. Dimensionalization involves
identifying properties of categories and constructs once they have been identified.
Integration consists here in an axial coding in which the empirical data progressively
became abstract concepts. Iteration involves moving through the analysis in such a way
that preceding operations shape subsequent ones. Finally, refutation involves
deliberately subjecting the categories and constructs to deeper empirical examination.
The final coding led to three main categories which consist in defining the nature of
packaging cues conveying eco-friendliness, in the formative elements of the concept
of eco-designed packaging, that is to say, the elements shaping an eco-friendly packaging
and in the effects of eco-designed packaging on consumers’responses.
The subsequent section is divided into three parts. The first part explores the nature
of ecological cues displayed on the packaging and defines the boundaries of the concept.
The second part identifies the formative elements of an eco-friendly packaging.
A consumer-led taxonomy of packaging ecological cues is presented and followed by a
definition of the concept of eco-designed packaging. The third part of the results,
reflective by nature, presents the positive and negative effects created by the perceptions
of eco-designed packaging and reveals the ambivalence of consumers when it comes to
Nature of packaging ecological cues
Results reveal that ecological cues concern different elements of the couple product
packaging, and consumers tend to consider that there is an interweaving between these
cues. Analysis reveals that ecological cues displayed on the packaging can fall into four
subcategories. Although packaging is usually considered as an extrinsic attribute of
the product (Teas and Agarwal, 2000), it can display ecological cues which are intrinsic
or extrinsic to the product and other ecological cues which are intrinsic or extrinsic to
Respondents discourse indeed suggested that ecological cues displayed on the
packaging can relate to the intrinsic attributes of the product –e.g.; claims explaining
the use of natural ingredients, absence of chemicals. Ecological cues can also relate to
extrinsic attributes of the product such as organic logos. Likewise, although they
should be associated with the social dimension of corporate social responsibility (CSR),
fair-trade logos have been elicited several times as evoking product eco-friendliness.
This phenomenon can probably be explained by the fact that fair-trade seals are very
often displayed next to eco-seals.
Analysis then revealed that ecological cues displayed on the packaging can draw
on intrinsic attributes of the packaging –e.g.; materials, perceived recyclability,
biodegradability or absence of over-packaging. Finally, packaging ecological cues can
relate to extrinsic attributes of the packaging such as seals of approval and logos –e.g.;
FSC logo, biodegradable/recyclable logos (Table I).
Nature of the ecological cues
Element of the offer
on which the
Product Ecological cue focussing
on an internal attribute
of the product
Ecological cue focussing on an
extrinsic attribute of the product
E.g.: without chemicals,
organic ingredients …
E.g.: logo organic, images
representing the nature …
Packaging Ecological cue focussing
on an internal attribute
of the packaging
Ecological cue focussing on an
extrinsic attribute or an external
seal of approval attesting of the
ecological nature of the packaging
E.g.: reduction of the
use of recycled materials
E.g.: logo FSC, bio-compostable,
Nature of the
displayed on the
Consumer-led taxonomy of packaging ecological cues
This paper focusses on the range of cues available to communicate packaging
eco-friendliness; hence packaging cues aiming at communicating product eco-friendliness
will not be discussed further.
Packaging ecological cues relates to signals displayed by brands on their packaging
in order to suggest the eco-friendliness of the package. The following tables structure
the ecological cues elicited by respondents through discourse and images. These materials
were coded into three subcategories: structural cues, graphical cues and informational
cues. For readability constraints, the taxonomy has been separated into three tables.
Packaging structural ecological cues can be defined as cues that relate to the
structure of packaging. They can relate to the reduction of its structure, the quality of
its materials (recycled, recyclable, from renewable sources), and to the reusability of the
package itself (Table II).
Structural cues Quotations
“I brought the yoghurts image because of the absence of
Size “but at least the package is small, it’s a reasonable size compared to the
Shape “I thought these cardboards were funny, you can fold them to adapt to the
shape of your products, because it reduces the necessary surface
to cover the product”(R16)
(to replace few small
“It is a big 5 liters bottle, I find it better because it requires less plastic,
there is more contents and less containers and in that sense I find it more
Non diluted products
“Concentrated products, they enable to reduce packaging, by making the
product stronger and less diluted and then it takes less room”(R17)
“Buying loose products is good for the environment, because […], with
unpackaged products, you put the cereals in only one bag”(R8)
“When you go to the fish counter at the shop, there is usually less
Eco refills “It shows that it is a refill and that therefore it is eco-friendly”( R18)
Recycled materials “And then, on this product, the major ecological signal, it is 100%
Recyclable materials “Cardboard, it’s a recyclable material, you can reuse it too, but only if
there is no plastic or anything around it, then you directly know that it is
“[…] the use of natural components in the packaging, biodegradable
Made from renewable
“This packaging is a made out of wood, with a little cord to close it, it is so
Material weight “In the organic section, they usually sell products in plastic packaging, it is
very very thin and light plastic and you can see the product”(R13)
“it’s nicer to eat a yoghurt in this kind of terracotta jar, and then you can
reuse them to bake or something […]”(R13)
Reusable package “I would mention canvas bags, because plastic bags are truly an issue, and in
this case, you can reuse them, […]”(R12)
Packaging graphical cues represent cues that relate to the graphics or icons displayed on
the packaging and that evoke eco-friendliness. Respondents described dull colors, usually
in brown, green or white tones. They also mentioned photographs and images displayed
on the packaging as well as logos such as the recyclable logo and the FSC logo.
Logos have been included as graphical cues because they are icons aiming at
creating heuristics in consumers’mind. They usually need to be accompanied by
explicit verbal information to be fully understood (Table III).
Finally, packaging informational cues represent cues that relate to the information
displayed on the packaging. Respondents referred to environmental labeling such as
carbon footprint labeling, licensing agreements with environmental organizations,
pedagogical information aiming at educating consumers about environmental matters,
general environmental claims, such as assertions using ethical vocabulary, and
scientific or environmental attributes, such as the absence of BPA in certain plastics
The previous results enable us to create a global definition of the concept of
eco-designed packaging. It is therefore considered as a packaging, which, by its nature,
infers explicitly or implicitly on its own ecological character, whether it is because of its
materials, its reduction, its reusability or the range of ecological cues it displays.
Graphical cues Quotations
Colors –e.g.; brown, green, white “Colors are usually duller, they look more natural,
brownish like cardboard, or green too”(R11)
Photographs –e.g.; Trees, leaves, meadows …“The picture of the tree has an evocation of
Images –e.g.; Terms or symbols inherent to the
protection of the environment, hand-made
“The handmade drawing of a turtle evokes the
protection of nature”(R15)
Logos –e.g.; FSC, recyclable […]“I brought you a recyclable logo”(R11)
Informational cues Quotations
Environmental labeling –e.g.; carbon footprint “It would be good to have eco-seals that are clear
and unbiased with the carbon footprint, because
then you are really able to compare products
between each other”(R15)
Licensing agreements –e.g.; Approved, certified or
recommended by an organization which aims at
protecting the environment (WWF)
“If Coke has a partnership with WWF, you
imagine that they must make some
Pedagogical attributes –e.g.; ecological quiz,
information about waste sorting […]
explains how to sort things etc […], well it is more
Assertion/general environmental claims –e.g.;
Claims using ethical vocabulary: ecological,
biological, pure, honest […]
“It’s written ‘good for the planet’in big letters, so
it must be a sustainable packaging”(R16)
Scientific/ environmental attributes –e.g.;
“Plastics without BPA are ecological, like
bioplastics etc […]”(R18)
Perception of ecological cues by consumers –a cost-benefit approach
During the data analysis process, the category “consumers’responses to eco-designed
packaging”revealed a series of positive and negative responses. This category was
then structured into two dimensions using a cost-benefit approach.
•Health-related benefits: packaging ecological cues can, in a few cases, bring
health-related value. First, when the innocuousness is doubted (e.g.: when
phthalates are involved in the production of the package), the environmental
signal can make consumers feel better. Then, as a matter of fact, packaging
production generates pollution (raw materials, transformation, transports) and it
appeared in respondents’discourse that they positively value eco-designed
packages, because they infer, via a halo effect (Thorndike, 1920), that a decrease
in pollution will also be positive for their health on the long run.
•Convenience: the decrease of volume as well as the easiness to eliminate or
transform packages after their use (e.g. compost) evokes a feeling of convenience
and implies positive associations.
•Decrease in price: smaller volume of materials used in the process of packaging
manufacturing can, in certain cases, lead to a decrease in price. Ecological cues
and the absence or reduction of packaging can then be, in a few specific cases,
valued for their economic benefits.
•Social value: this benefit corresponds to the perceived utility linked to a product
and one or several specific social groups (Sheth et al., 1991). Conspicuous
consumption of sustainable products is then susceptible to reinforce self-concept.
This phenomenon appears in a context where pro-environmental attitudes and
behaviors have become social norms (Félonneau and Becker, 2008).
•Emotional value: it refers to the ability of an alternative to arouse feelings and
emotional state of an individual. Results show that an anticipated positive
emotion is a predictor of the intention to engage in pro-environmental actions or
•Protection of the environment: the perception of ecological cues on packaging can
refer to altruistic benefits and bring value to the consumer. Their remarks bear
upon the protection of earth resources and the environment as a whole.
•Protection of the well-being of others: in their discourse, interviewees also
address the question of the protection of well-being on Earth for future
generations (Table V).
Research on benefits related to pro-environmental consumption behaviors has
underlined that they fall into two categories (Thøgersen, 2011) that have been revealed
in our classification: private benefits and pro-social/altruistic benefits. Private benefits
refer to self-oriented benefits, and are inherent to values of status, safety or pleasure.
On the other hand, pro-social benefits refer to other-oriented or altruistic benefits; they
are related to values such as universalism.
The corpus analysis revealed a certain ambivalence in respondents’discourse. A series
of elements contrasted the benefits related to the perception of packaging ecological
cues and exerted a negative effect on consumers’perceived value. Negative attitudinal
responses detected tie in:
•Loss of pleasure during consumption experience: packages offering certain
environmental guarantees don’talwaysmeetconsumers’needs. It appears
that they are not always ready to give up the pleasure found through their
purchases. This pleasure can come from the inferences that a complex and
sophisticated package may involve, in terms of social value or aesthetics,
•Aesthetic cost: environmental packaging is also often perceived as less appealing
by consumers, particularly because of its simplicity, minimalism and lack
of colors. This absence or deficiency of aesthetic appeal seems to be highly
correlated to the precedent sacrifice.
•Decrease in perceived quality: packaging eco-design, and particularly the
removal of over-packaging is likely to affect perceived quality. Consumers evoke
the fact that the degradation/removal of packaging refers to low-end product.
“I am very careful with certain packages because I’ve seen a TV broadcast that was
showing that phthalates and bisphenol A, which plastics are mostly made
of, could actually be harmful for health, I know I cannot avoid them because
plastics are everywhere in packaging, but for example,
I appreciate it very much when I find bioplastics made out of corn for
Convenience “We are a bit messy you know, and we don’t discard everything right away. Empty
packages, it represents a bit the trashes inside my house, so less packages would
mean more room in my house, once the product is used”(R4)
Decrease in price “Last time, I was at the pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test, and the price was only
3€, and generally, it is like 8€. I asked the lady, why it was so cheap and she
said that it was because they removed the package (R1)
Social value “Some people don’t care at all or even laugh at me, but some other do respect
me, because I’m careful and I try to buy only eco-friendly products in my
Emotional value “I like to buy eco-friendly products, because then I feel like a better person, it
gives me the impression that I take care of the planet and of others in general”(R3)
Protection of the
“In my opinion, to buy something ecological, it means to buy something that will try
not to leave too many traces on the environment, that will not create
additional production and will help to reduce pollution”(R11)
“Therefore, right away, you think: Impact on the planet!”(R16)
Protection of the
“I think it is important to take care of all these things, and not only to think
about us right now, that is too selfish. It is also important to think about the
ones that will come after, they need to have available resources too in the future,
and it is important that they can live, at least, as well as we do”(R18)
Perceived benefits –
•Hygiene sacrifice: the inconvenience related to hygiene is evoked in respondents’
discourse in the context of packaging degradation or elimination. This refers to
the contamination theory introduced by Argo et al. (2006). According to this
theory, consumers evaluate products that have been touched by other customers
less favorably. Thus, a feeling of lack of hygiene and product contamination can
•Protection/efficiency: some of the respondents have evoked the idea that
ecological packaging might not protect the product as well as a conventional one
and therefore degrade products’properties. Literature had already suggested the
idea that in certain cases, ecological arguments can have a negative impact on
overall product perceived value which results in preferences for less sustainable
alternatives (Luchs et al., 2010).
•Higher price for the product: products and packaging presenting environmental
cues have the reputation to be more expensive. Although some consumers are
willing to pay more for an ecological offer, others find it unacceptable to spend
more for an ecological packaging.
•Lack of credibility: the fact that environmental cues are of multiple kinds and
sometimes misleading can generate problems in terms of trust for consumers
that don’t consider holding the necessary expertise to judge if a packaging is
ecological (Table VI).
The elements presented above can be used by designers and marketers to create more
powerful packaging but also by advertisers, in the context of social marketing campaigns
to encourage consumers to reduce the global ecological footprint of packaging.
Main conclusions and implications
This work adds to the emerging literature on packaging from a consumer point of
view. On the one hand, it provides an in-depth analysis on how consumers operate
ecological inferences through packaging cues and, on the other hand, it provides an
understanding on the positive and negative responses triggered by the perception of
these ecological cues.
The consumer-led taxonomy of packaging ecological cues led to a definition of the
concept of eco-designed packaging from a consumer point of view. In summary,
eco-designed packaging can be defined as a design that evokes explicitly or implicitly the
eco-friendliness of the packaging via its structure –e.g.; materials, reduction or removal,
recyclability, biodegrability or reusability –,itsgraphical/iconographiccues–e.g.; colors,
images/pictures, logos –or its informational cues –e.g.; claims, carbon footprints. The
taxonomy also proved to be relevant and useful because it enables to reaffirm and sort the
set of ecological cues perceivedandinterpretedassuchbyconsumersandavailableto
marketers and designers in order to signify the ecological nature of their packaging.
The second contribution of this paper was to highlight how consumers value
eco-designed packages. The cost-benefit approach appeared to be relevant in this
context and enabled to supplement the literature suggesting that product
eco-friendliness does not only entail positive inferences and that many costs are
associated to the purchase of green products (Luchs et al., 2010; Chang, 2011). Bringing
out these elements thus enables us to generate a better understanding of the existing
hiatus between pro-environmental attitudes and ecological behaviors and to
understand what can sometimes hamper the adoption of ecological packaging.
Establishing the benefits that emanate from the perception of these signals enables us
to complete the literature on the antecedents of ecological behaviors. The study also
confirms that, when it comes to environmental consumption, motivations can be either
private or altruistic/pro-social (Thøgersen, 2011; Van Doorn and Verhoef, 2011), which
implies that different motivations can be used to promote the adoption of products
displaying an eco-designed packaging.
The results of this exploratory study lead to a series of managerial
recommendations that could be relevant to a series of actors. Brand managers could
use this information to get an insight of how packaging signals are susceptible to
influence consumers’perception of the brand. Packaging managers, in charge of new
packaging development, can use the elements brought up in this paper when creating
their design briefs. Finally, product managers can benefit from these insights by
getting a better understanding of how packaging might influence how consumers
perceive their products.
In order to effectively use the aforementioned ecological structural, graphical/iconic
and informational cues, it is important that packaging managers take into
consideration the perceived benefits and costs triggered by their perception. These
Perceived sacrifice Verbatim quotation
Loss of pleasure “Packaging, I would describe it as the celebration of what is inside. I know, it
is contradictory, because it’s quite often too much, but on the other hand,
it enables to have a more beautiful idea of the product, it is a bit like a
gift wrap. And if it is degraded, then it might be less pleasant to
use or buy the product in the end”(R4)
Aesthetic cost “Well, especially for the presents, it’s important that it looks good, and
for that matter, we usually add packaging, little boxes, etc. It is not
totally necessary, but it is a present so it has to be beautiful and have its
Cleanliness sacrifice “Well, when I think about buying unpackaged products, where everyone
helps himself, sometimes, it is a bit shocking because I see everyone
touching with their fingers. So, I have to recognize that because of
this hygienic criterion, I don’t buy that, I don’t trust it. It’s like vegetables
and fruits, most of the time, I buy them packaged”(R6)
Protection/efficiency “For example, for products such as drain cleaner, it’s okay for me that it is in
a bottle made out of hard plastic, even sometimes the color of the bottle is
black or orange , […] because if it was in a very ecological package, then
I would probably think that the product might not be too efficient
just because of the package that does not evoke strength, or just that
the product might lose its properties with time because it is
not protected well enough by the package”(R5)
Higher price for
“I was thinking, all these kind of eco-refills, for example you have it a lot
with liquid soaps or coffee, I don’t really know much about it, but I don’t
have the feeling that it is more recyclable than other kind of packages,
so I just think it is once again, a marketing tool, used to sell the product in
another form and generally it is not at all less expensive”(R11)
Lack of credibility “About color, no I don’t really trust it […] because I think color, it is just
something that is added, an element that catches the eye, I would say, same
for the logos, unless it is a national logo that is very well-known, I don’t
really trust it, they can be more or less fictitious or not really in
accordance with what we think it means”(R9)
perceived benefits and costs may well represent arguments to encourage the adoption
of eco-designed packaging or to anticipate negative reactions.
In order to promote the adoption of eco-designed packaging, brands may shed light
on the health benefits related to the safety of natural materials. It may also be useful to
highlight the benefits of convenience associated with this type of packaging which
include smaller garbage volume, ease of discarding empty containers or, in other
contexts, the possibility to reuse packaging after the first phase of product usage (e.g.
mustard jars reusable as drinking glasses). In other cases and particularly in the case of
over-packaging removal, some brands may promote their products by featuring lower
price, while having a positive impact on the environment. Also, the benefits inherent to
social value, social comparison and social norm compliance may also be subject
to advertising claims. The emotional benefits related tothe experience of well-being while
using an environmentally friendly packaging can also be considered as a persuasive
argument to support the adoption of this type of packaging. Goals of higher level related
to pro-social benefits may also be highlighted. Protection of the environment through the
economy of resources, protection of the well-being of Others, and the acting to leave a
cleaner planet are arguments that brands may be likely to use in order to drive favorable
attitudinal and behavioral responses to their eco-designed packaging.
In order to anticipate negative responses and objections, brand communications
should reassure consumers about certain elements. First, loss of pleasure in consumption
is a negative response that might be offset with the elicited perceived benefits. Then, it
also seems very important for brands to focus on the aesthetic appearance of their
eco-designed package, because it plays a major role in quality perception and purchase
intention. Brands should also reassure consumers about the risks associated with the
poor hygiene that some eco-designed packaging may represent, as well as their ability to
properly protect the contents. Likewise, in certain product categories and for less
environmentally concerned consumers, it might be helpful to justify the price premium
inherent to packaging ecological design. Finally, to counter the negative reactions due
to the lack of confidence in packaging ecological cues, brands, organizations and
governments should keep on educating consumers in order to improve their expertise in
environmental matters and their ability to choose knowingly the most environmentally
Future research and limitations
Future research may enhance the validity of these findings. This paper reports on the
preliminary findings of the first stage of a research project and the relationships
between specific ecological cues and consumers’responses should be further investigated.
The theoretical concepts developed need to be operationalized into measures for
experimental surveys, which would then allow to measure the mediating and moderating
influences of the perceived benefits and costs on the adoption of eco-designed packaging.
Finally, it will be especially interesting for managers to identify the mechanisms by which
consumers adopt or reject eco-designed packages in order to improve the communicative
effectiveness of their packaging.
While this research opens a new direction for packaging research from a consumer
point of view, it also has its limitations. Although the respondents were
carefully recruited to provide variety, research would benefit from a bigger and
more diverse sample. A cross-country comparison could suit this purpose and
enable to shed light on the cultural differences of perception and responses
to packaging ecological signaling. Finally, this research aims at giving a panorama
of formative and reflective elements of the concept of eco-designed packaging.
However, the analysis of specific packaging ecological cues on a given product
category would probably enable to refine our understanding of consumers’
responses with consumers’inferences in terms of brand ethicality, product quality
or product naturalness.
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About the authors
Lise Magnier is a Doctoral Student at the University of Lille 1. Her research interests focus on
sustainable consumption, consumers’responses to packaging stimuli, decision making and cue
utilization. Lise Magnier is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: lise.magnier@ed.
Dominique Crié is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Lille 1. He is the head of a
Master’s Degree specialized in Marketing Studies. His research interests focus on consumer
loyalty, health marketing, qualitative and quantitative methods
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