The study, published in Food Quality and Preference, had people look at everyday foods with either sustainable or non-sustainable looking packaging.
They found that products with packaging which looked green were believed to be higher calibre than those in conventional plastic packaging.
This was regardless of whether the product inside the packaging had attributes – such as healthiness – which would typically be associated with quality.
The team say this is some of the first research showing a link between eco-look packaging and imagined quality of the product. Previous research has focused on consumers deriving quality standards based on the sustainability of the actual food product the packaging contains, driving them to buy.
“Product quality is recognised as an important competitive factor for companies, which can increase their market share and profitability (…) Individuals are usually willing to pay more for products with higher perceived quality,” the researchers – led by Lise Magnier at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands – said.
“We established that the sustainability of the packaging positively influences perceived quality in two different product categories.” When the package was noticeably more sustainable, the products were considered to be of better quality, they added.
Other recent research in a similar vein found that green packaging denotes a healthier product to the average shopper, but not to the organic-savvy.
The results come from two sub studies, the first of which included the online responses of 132 French consumers looking at raisins or chocolate with either sustainable or non-sustainable looking packages.
The sustainable pack had a recycled cardboard appearance, compared to white plastic wrapping for the conventional. Other elements such as brand, images and product description were the same for both packaging types.
Participants were asked to grade the sustainability of the packaging – confirming they believed the recycle appearance packaging was eco-friendly – and to rate the quality of the product.
In both cases, the number of participants which believed the product quality to be better with the sustainable packaging was significantly higher.
Furthermore, despite the fact raisins would generally be considered the healthier product of the two – usually a marker of quality – the healthy snack was not perceived as significantly better quality to the chocolate, the team said.
Another 127 participants also reviewed four coffee packages with their appearance altered to manipulate perceived sustainability. The coffee was given either a conventional aluminium or recycled pack and some carried a green and white agriculture biologique (AB) logo – recognised as a symbol of compliance with EU organic food regulations in France.
The eco packaging on the coffee without an AB logo had the same effect as the raisins and chocolate, with higher quality perceived than the conventional wrapping. However, it had no effect on perceived quality of those with an AB label, which are therefore recognisably organic.
“Packaging sustainability does not impact perceived quality when the product is intrinsically sustainable,” the team surmised.
Upshot for industry
Redesigning packaging with more sustainable-look alternatives can therefore boost customer perceptions of product quality and act as a “profitable strategy” for companies, the team said.
In Europe, sales of sustainable products are rising steadily and sales of organic food have more than doubled in the last decade.
“In order to decrease their global environmental footprint, industrial companies and manufacturers are developing more sustainable packaging,” the researchers said.
However, though the researchers believe consumers could be willing to shell out more money for products in sustainable-look packing, willingness to pay was not specifically tested.
Future studies could therefore review whether consumers would be willing to pay more for products in seemingly eco-friendly packages.
Source: Food Quality and Preference
First published online 16 June 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2016.06.006
"Judging a product by its cover: Packaging sustainability and perceptions of quality in food products"
Authors: Lise Magnier, Jan Schoormans and Ruth Mugge