Canadian Packaging

For crying out loud!


November 11, 2010
by George Guidoni, Editor Canadian Packaging

Making sustainable packaging really stick with North American consumers for the long haul was never going to be an easy proposition.

But it suddenly looks like mission impossible in wake of a stunning about-face decision this month by Frito Lay to sack its widely-lauded, 100-percent compostable chip bags launched only 18 months ago to package the snack-food giant’s SunChips line of potato chips—to thunderous reception across the consumer marketplace and in packaging industry circles enraptured by this grandiose display of environmental responsibility from the chips’ brand-owner PepsiCo.

Launched in April of 2009 in a glorious blitz of marketing hype touting the bags’ impressive sustainability virtues—primarily complete breakdown in an active compost pile in approximately 14 weeks, as opposed to 100 years for the conventional plastic bags—this packaging breakthrough may well have gone down in history as the defining ‘coming of age’ moment for the global packaging sustainability movement.

During the launch phase, 43 per cent of consumers surveyed by Mintel researchers said they were likely to buy SunChips precisely because of the brand’s environmentally progressive positioning, which also included the new distinctive sound the bags made when handled by consumers—an audio clue, if you like, to the chips’ lessened carbon footprint.

Well, so much for that little bit of green wishful thinking. Not only did the repackaged SunChips fail to set the market alight—with PepsiCo reporting an 11-percent drop in sales of the multigrain snacks since the launch—the compostable PLA (polylactic acid) bags, made from corn starch, were ultimately derided by some consumers for being too loud.

In fact, nearly 40,000 people signed up to a Facebook group ripping the bags apart for their noise-making properties—supported by YouTube clips featuring self-styled investigative journos crinkling and rubbing SunChips bags on the store-shelves to obtain handheld noise-meter readings of up to 95 decibels, dear God!

Alright, no one is saying that brand-owners should ignore consumer criticism—be it conveyed via social media or by other means—but how about a little sense of proportion and perspective?

First of all, 40,000 people may sound like a lot, but it’s mere crumbs when measured in the context of a vast North American marketplace for potato chips, for better or worse.

Secondly, just how many people really buy their food on the basis of noise made by its packaging, really now! And even accounting for the curiosity factor and social media-enabled glory-hunting, the whole business of walking into a store, video camera and noise-meter in hand, and mangling packaging to make a bit of noise to prove a point ultimately only proves that some people just may have a little too much free time on their hands.

As for declining sales, it takes a mighty leap in logic to conveniently dismiss the reality of shaky consumer spending in a recession-battered economy to single out noisy packaging as a culprit.

And yet there you have it: by the end of this month, five of the six SunChips flavors switched over to PLA bags will revert back to their original conventional plastic pouches, with only the original SunChips flavor left to retail in the compostable bags for some unexplained reason.

In its defense, Frtio Lay did indicate that it was going back to the lab to develop less noisy PLA chip bags for future product launches, but in light of this early lame capitulation, alas, there are far more questions about the depth and strength of its environmental conscience right now than there are satisfactory answers.