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Sustainable packaging: Pitfalls to avoid—podcast

Audio-Sustainable packaging: Pitfalls to avoid—podcast

Honest lessons from a health brand’s packaging journey.

With sustainability high on the agenda of multiple industries and consumers, many brands are exploring meaningful changes that can be implemented across the supply chains of products and services. In addition to reforming sourcing and manufacturing practices, FMCG brands are challenged with addressing waste associated with packaging.

However, even small changes can yield complications that can test a brand’s ability to move forward. One such example is Pep & Lekker, a healthy snack brand retailing in the UK that recently embarked on a journey to rethink how finished products are packaged to consumers.

In this podcast, co-founder Susan Gafsen shares the company’s trials and tribulations as it sought out packaging alternatives that uphold its commitment to sustainability. Tune in to hear more about:

  • The pressure on brands to respond to industry and consumer demand surrounding sustainability concerns
  • The necessary investment in sustainable alternatives and the realistic cost to consumer
  • Learnings from Pep & Lekker’s various packaging discoveries and challenges associated with label printing, shelf life stability, working with outsourced partners, compostability, and packaging structure throughout transportation
  • The huge opportunity that exists for better packaging options that could help FMCG brands overcome their common challenges


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Susan Gafsen
Co-founder at Pep & Lekker

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Vitafoods Insights Podcast

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Podcast transcript:

Vitafoods Insights 00:05
Welcome to the Vitafoods Insights podcast. Join us as we explore the latest science innovation, helping the global health and nutrition industry connect, develop and progress. Today's host is Charlotte Bastiaanse, editor.

Charlotte 00:22
Hi, and thanks for tuning into this Vitafoods Insights Podcast. I am delighted to be joined today by Susan Gafsen of Pep & Lekker, which is a healthy snack brand with products retailing in the UK. Thanks for joining me today, Susan.

Susan 00:35
Thanks very much for asking me.

Charlotte 00:37
So today we are talking about some of the pitfalls to avoid when it comes to adopting sustainable packaging for brand owners. Susan's recent experience exploring new packaging alternative, yield and all sorts of learnings that other brand owners might benefit from, especially if they don't always know what to consider in their respective journeys. So it's a real privilege to hear about some of those key considerations from Susan. But before we dive into all that, Susan, please do tell us a little bit more about you and your brand.

Susan 01:06
So I came from a completely different background. I was in the city where I worked for 25 years. And although I wanted to start my own business, it took me until my 50s to have the courage. And the idea came to me because my son vegan was eating really badly, and I was struggling to find nutritious healthy food for him. So Pep & Lekker is an all natural snack brand. We chose seeds as our base because they're packed with nutrients and goodness. And we bind them together with kitchen cupboard ingredients, and bake them to create a snack focused on nutrition and taste. There's 14 all natural ingredients, they're allergy free, and there's nothing artificial in them.

Charlotte 02:05
Right. And well, really good to hear the basics and the foundation of your brand and what your position is in the market. Obviously, you've just been through a journey of transitioning to sustainable packaging and exploring what that opportunity is. And I think obviously, that stems from not only the interest from a lot of brand and company stakeholders to consider environmentally friendly options, but there's obviously quite a lot of consumer interests and a lot of consumer demand for products that are sustainably produced across the full supply chain. So what in your view is the pressure on those brands to respond to that demand? How are they sort of rethinking the difference that they can make through how their product is sort of manufactured before it ends up on the consumer shelf?

Susan 02:48
Well, I do think there is a lot of pressure now on brands, particularly supermarkets, you know, have got their own sustainability targets to fulfil. So if you can tick the sustainability box, then the supermarkets will show more interest. I think that consumers are looking for brands that do have a bigger purpose. And so there are lots of pressures, I think, for all brands, not just in food, but all consumer products, beauty, etc. to think about the sustainability angle. The struggle is that some brands are looking at it from a kind of gimmicky point of view and are not sufficiently authentic. But I think it's good that those sustainability questions are really front and centre.

Charlotte 03:49
It's interesting you say that, Susan, because I think a lot of companies are very commercially minded. And when, although there's pressure on certain industries, all sorts of consumer products, as you mentioned, to consider sustainability and make those changes in the supply chain, often, the decision to do that is a commercially motivated one. And looking at the consumer data, can be misleading, because I think a lot of consumers do tend to indicate that they're willing to spend more on sustainable products, although when those products are then positioned at market at double the cost, often, you know consumers are choosing to go for the more conventional options because that's, you know, an additional cost that not all of them can absorb. And I think having that purpose within the business to reform and have sustainable practices has to be brand led rather than sort of commercially led. Did you have this in mind when you sought out packaging alternatives for your brand? And you know how proactively do you think consumers are seeking out sustainable options? You know, are they willing to pay for them? Can we rely on them to pay for them? What is your view there?

Susan 04:52
Well, I think that's a really interesting one. So we knew that we had a small bag, so a small 30 gram bag. And I think that the plastic debate is something that we're all aware of, you know, nobody can see the David Attenborough series and not be moved about the threat, bad plastic. So Juliet's, my co-founder, we felt very strongly that we couldn't bring a product out into the market, which was vegan, which was focused on health, without considering sustainability. So we felt that it was really cool for us to find the most sustainable packaging that we could. But interestingly, along the journey, it became evident that actually, consumers, although they are interested in your packaging, they aren't prepared to pay extra for products that have sustainable packaging.

Charlotte 06:01
Yeah. And I think that's the reality that I think brands need to be aware of. There is obviously always an inevitable investment and costs attached to exploring some of these alternatives. And again, you know, that needs to be purpose led by the brand, rather than hoping that the consumer will support that cost change. Well, now moving into sort of the lessons and your experiences, tell us a little bit about the journey to seek out new alternatives and what your key learnings were along the way. I'd love to hear a bit about, you know, some of the materials that appeal to you, and you know, maybe what their pitfalls were. And also, if you could tell us a bit about how you approach things like shelf life stability, and you know, package printing, they'll be great to hear about.

Susan 06:44
Julia and I came from completely different worlds. So we didn't know anything about packaging. So our first step was to go to the NEC packaging show. And we were shocked, actually, that there were so few materials out there at that time, that were sustainable or affordable, because when the sustainability packaging started, it was all using plates. And the material wasn't digitally produced, which meant that there was a huge cost, because you had to pay for the plates. After research, we found this fantastic, innovative paper based pouch, which we thought was the holy grail of sustainable packaging. It ticks all the boxes: it was made of paper, and it was home compostable. The shelf life wasn't fantastic, but at that time, we didn't have a particularly long shelf life. So we weren't really overly concerned about that, and we thought that consumers would pay. So we ordered this packaging, we were very excited. And when it arrived, I was completely horrified. First of all, the material, the ink absorbed in the material. So although the colours that I'd selected on the computer were vibrant, punchy colours, the ink was completely washed out. So the colours were very muted. But the real horror was when I turned the packaging over and the ingredients you just couldn't read them. So how could we sell a pouch where you couldn't read the back of a pack? There was then this huge dispute as to who was responsible, you know, was it the packaging company? was at the printers? was it me? So that was a real baptism of fire, because that was my first introduction to the world of sustainable packaging. So the lesson from that was that you've always got to go to the printers if you're using plates and approve the first print run to make sure all the colours and everything come out okay. So once we had managed to agree a way forward where you know who was going to pay for this terrible error, they then re-printed it. And that was okay for a while but we realised that for snacks you really needed 12 months shelf life. And this material, because it was paper and home compostable, it wasn't going to achieve 12 months. So we looked around and we found that there was a new digital compostable material. So this was exciting because this material was digital, which meant that we didn't have the huge cost of plates. And we could approve the colour before the print run. So we thought those two boxes were ticked. Because we wanted the longest shelf life, the compostable material had to have a metallized barrier. Unfortunately, if materials have that barrier, then they can't be home compostable. So even though they say compostable, they won't be home compostable. But nevertheless, this was going to be the best material, it was very expensive. It was 10 times the cost of a plastic material; over 10 times. But we felt that it was really important for us to go the compostable route. The salesman was very helpful and we signed up and we found out our second packaging lesson. So even though the salespeople that we were dealing with had devise this fantastic innovative material, they didn't actually produce the packaging, so they outsourced it to a printing firm. Now, that printing firm were very, very busy, which meant that our print run kept on getting bounced behind their own orders, which meant that this packaging took months and months and months to order, which is not great for cash flow. And it's not great for when you're trying to organise orders. Anyway, when the packaging finally arrived, we were very excited. We have this fantastic new compostable material. But then we found out a problem which we hadn't anticipated. We got this fantastic trial in a supermarket. And what we didn't realise was that along the supply chain, this compostable material really crumpled badly. So when I went to first visit our snacks in the supermarket, all that I could see was a complete crumpled mess. And because of COVID, the staff were too busy to tidy up the snacks in their shelf packaging. So what that meant was that we were there on a small trial, but we were not putting our best foot forward because the bags were all crumpled. And even though we were the only ones on the aisle that had sustainable packaging, customers were not interested in picking those bags up if they were crumpled. So that was a very difficult lesson. And so we then had to think again, and we realise that also, our product was too expensive, because although we tried to pass some of the cost on, it made our snacks appear expensive compared to other products. So being under a huge pressure to reduce the price, we knew that we had to switch the packaging. In reality, more people recycle than compost. So with a heavy heart, we switched to a recyclable material that was fully recyclable. So we thought, well, look, that's great. It didn't crumble, it was much cheaper, so we could bring down the price. And also it could be produced digitally. So we thought great, but however, there was another lesson. And that was that fully recyclable packaging is quite stiff. And so the bags are very difficult to open, it's a kind of stretchy material. Not only are the bags difficult to open, but on the flow wrap machine, the materials quite thick and it sticks. So we had to switch the material again. And this time we've had to with a heavy heart, pick a material that is the best recyclable option available that at the moment is not fully recyclable in the UK, but will be fully recyclable by the end of the year. Yeah, so that's really the up and down journey that we've had.

Charlotte 14:58
Oh Susan, I just feel for you. And you know, they say bad things come in threes. But it seems like you're unfortunate, like, far exceeded that metric. But I admire your perseverance through the learnings around packaging, printing, and you know, the home compostability potential and working with outsource partners and packaging structure. I think those are things you only learn when you're on the ground and running it and looking to make those changes. So honestly, kudos to you and the team for powering through all of those challenges. And I think you've come out of this with huge learnings, which I think the listeners on this podcast are really lucky to learn from. So I'm so sorry for all your bad luck, I'm glad that you guys did manage to land on something eventually, which you know, hopefully is sufficient until things change. I think there's obviously clearly a huge opportunity in the packaging space to develop options that do overcome some of these challenges. And, you know, obviously, you've mentioned where you've landed as any partially recyclable. So hopefully, their new options come into the market in the future. What is your closing advice to brands who are looking to make these changes that, you know, obviously, improve the overall sustainability of their product? And, you know, how do you think brands need to approach the topic of cost? Do you think that, you know, there'll be new packaging options coming to the market for food and beverage brands in the coming years? What are your thoughts there?

Susan 16:16
I think it's twofold. So, one is the responsibility of the local authorities to provide better recycling options. I mean, in continental Europe, you can recycle all sorts of plastics, and they've invested huge sums. So, I think there's a huge responsibility on the government and on local authorities to invest in recycling. So that's the first thing. And then the second thing, I would say that there's innovation in this area with materials all the time, and the best that brands can do is buy material that's digitally produced, because that means that you haven't invested in plates once other materials come onto the market. And you can also produce in smallish volumes, so you don't have waste. And also, digital allows short lead time. So there's no longer the need to wait months and months for packaging. And I suppose just watch this space. So I mean, I think there are changes happening all the time. But I think that the more brands can invest in this packaging, the more pressure there will be for more materials.

Charlotte 17:49
Absolutely. And I agree with your approach that it needs to kind of be driven from the top down in a sense and give support to those brands who are genuinely keen on making those changes. But you know, needing a little bit more bandwidth to get there. Susan has been such a pleasure to have you on the podcast and your learnings have been invaluable for the brands who might be on this journey, thinking about this journey, thinking about ways they can make changes across the supply chain to improve, you know, this big mission we should all be working towards in terms of sustainability. So thank you for sharing your learnings. It's been such a joy to have you on the podcast, and hopefully, this will just help another brand on their way to avoiding some of these pitfalls and, you know, challenges that we encounter along the way. So thank you.

Susan 18:32
It's a pleasure and thank you for having me.