What’s Behind the Growth of this Sector and What to Watch in the Future
Flexible packaging is one of the fastest growing trends in the industry. According to 2013 figures from the Flexible Packaging Association, flexible already represented the second largest segment of the U.S. packaging market at 18 percent. Of that figure, 58 percent was dedicated to the food sector. As we curate news from around the industry, we’re seeing many other uses for flexible packaging materials.
The editorial staff decided that it was time to take a closer look at flexible packaging and the factors driving its growth. Recently we had the opportunity to speak with Kevin Young, president of Consumer Goods Packaging, Mondi, North America, a regional division of the international packaging and paper company Mondi Group, which operates in 30 countries and employs almost 25,000 people worldwide. Mondi North America was established as a regional entity in September 2013.
Flexible Packaging Expert and Innovator
By the end of our interview with Kevin Young, we recognized that we could as easily have written a “Meet the Innovators” feature
about Mondi and its approach. Its dedication to sustainability within its own operations and in its work for customers is, as he put it, “…in our DNA every day.”
From sustainable forestry practices at its forest properties, to investments in its manufacturing infrastructure with a goal of reducing its carbon footprint to zero, to supporting environmental awareness in its local communities, Mondi is establishing itself as an industry leader in this arena.
A Good Packaging Partner
In fact, Mondi is the kind of packaging manufacturer described by our “Meet the Innovators” interviewees as the type they seek out as partners: committed to working with them to develop innovative packaging solutions that solve problems and provide competitive advantage; sharing their values regarding eco-friendly manufacturing and materials.
However, Kevin Young was so well versed in flexible packaging trends and their drivers that we’re keeping the focus there for the benefit our readers. Following are highlights from our conversation.
Q: Kevin, what do you see as the top trends in flexible packaging?
A: I see three major trends.
First, I think the main reason we see more and more companies moving from rigid and semi-rigid packaging to flexible is the ability to print eye-popping graphics on six sides of the package. The graphics gain consumer attention at shelf and also give companies more room to tell their stories. Our customers have a keen interest in what the brand stands for, so having the space to share information about sustainability, safety and other important messages is increasingly important. Mondi is consumer focused every day and dedicated to understanding the needs of our customers’ customers.
Second, we can put clear windows into the package so that the product is visible. Consumers today care about freshness and want to know what they’re feeding their families. They have on-the-go lifestyles and limited time. When they’re shopping they can pick up a pack of fruit or vegetables and see the quality. At home they can squeeze out the air and reseal it to maintain freshness for longer, while minimizing waste. In addition to closures, new barrier films have increased shelf life, which is important to both retailers and consumers.
We’ve come a long way from the tear-open pouch. Although in some ways we’re going back to the future. Retort bags are reminiscent of the MREs that soldiers have been familiar with for decades. They had a long shelf life and they could go anywhere. Today, kids are used to drinking out of flexible pouches and even alcoholic beverages are being packaged that way so you can take them to the beach or elsewhere, not have to worry about broken glass and reseal what you don’t drink.
The third trend is sustainability. I’m talking about sustainability across the entire value chain. Not only are companies using flexible materials that can be recycled, but the packages take up less space. This saves on warehousing of raw and finished materials, as well as shipping costs. With flexible, you can ship more product in less space. For example, we helped Clorox take kitty litter pails from eight truckloads down to one by switching them to flexible. With rigid packaging, you’re shipping around a lot of air.
Q:What’s driving these trends?
A: A few things are driving them.
First, is the growing role of packaging as a marketing tool. With DVRs and other changes in the way consumers watch TV and get information, often the first marketing messages they see are at the supermarket. For many packaged food manufacturers, much of the available messaging space on traditional packaging was taken up just trying to get the regulatory labeling on. Now they have the entire package available for talking to the consumer and with graphics of unprecedented quality and appeal.
Next, is cost. We touched on this in the last question. But as an executive, I look at total supply chain costs – not just the cost of the package itself. In fact, that cost becomes almost irrelevant when you look at the total picture. What are the freight and warehousing costs and the working capital required? Sustainability ties into this, too. What’s the amount of energy that goes into
packaging and related activities? We’ve been investing many millions of dollars into installing recovery boilers in our manufacturing plants to make us energy self-sufficient and to control energy usage and costs. These kinds of cost reductions enable companies to invest in better packaging and still increase their ROI.
The Flexible Packaging Association came out with some eye-opening statistics. It looked at the relative weights of various packaging materials to 60 pounds of beverage product. For glass, it was 50 pounds of packaging to 60 pounds of beverage. For PET or similar rigid packaging it was six pounds of packaging. Aluminum was three pounds. And with flexible, only one-and-a-half pounds of packaging. With flexible you can reduce shipping costs by 80 percent!
Another interesting driver is the competitive environment. It’s hard for many established brands to move from their traditional packaging. But we see much faster adoption of flexible packaging among private label retailers. That’s going to cause national brands to move ahead more quickly to compete.
Q: It’s about a year since Mondi introduced its patented square flexible bag. Have you set a trend of your own?
A: In some respects we have. We have some large CPG companies looking at it, which will certainly propel it forward. Actually, the square bag grew out of the flat-bottom bag trend. For the manufacturer, no matter how it’s stacked on the shelf, the branding is visible. For the consumer, it sits firmly on the floor and as you use product and roll the packaging down, it takes up less space. Flat bottom has been very popular for pet foods and home and garden products.
This question does bring up some of the issues with gaining adoption of new flexible materials and shapes. Filling equipment and other manufacturing infrastructure often lag behind new materials and designs. There needs to be enough positive consumer feedback to create confidence in investing in new equipment.
Mondi is in touch with its customers every day. Often what we do with our customers is to go in and see how we can leverage their existing equipment for new packaging. In this regard, we act as strategic partners.
Q: Does your partnership approach help your customers to innovate around packaging?
A: Absolutely. Our engineers will go in and work with customers – co-packers or brand owners – to help them solve problems. In fact, we have what we call ‘Innovation Days’ where we invite customers in to update them on equipment and technology advances they may not be aware of, to demo new materials, shapes and closures for their feedback and to brainstorm with them around their ideas and issues.
Q: Do consumer demographics drive any of the innovations and trends in flexible packaging?
A: Yes, indeed. Consider families with babies and young children, active adults and seniors. We recently introduced a choke-resistant cap for babies and young children that allows them to drink safely from pouches and gives their parents peace of mind. On-the-go, single servings and ready meals fit in with the lifestyles of families and active adults. Families rarely gather for meals like we did when I was a kid. They’re looking for convenience for their busy lives.
Seniors are looking for easy-to-open packages as they lose strength and develop conditions like arthritis. They also want smaller, lighter packaging. And re-sealable features are important to them as they care about not wasting food and other products. Also, easy-to-hold packages and easy-pour handles are now possible with flexible. As more Baby Boomers retire, these senior trends will continue to pick up speed.
Q: Kevin, thank you so much for sharing this important information with the Chief Packaging Officer community. Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like comment about?
A: Yes. The whole notion of the Chief Packaging Officer. I think you’re really onto something here. If a company has that role covered, it really believes in branding. For today’s consumer, branding is everything and if all they know about your brand when they get into the store is the package and what’s on it, the importance of packaging speaks for itself.
About Kevin Young, President of Consumer Goods Packaging, Mondi Americas
Kevin is a global senior executive and general manager who has had P&L responsibility in Global Fortune 500 companies including Mondi, Avery Dennison, Sony, and Gillette. He has over 30 years of experience in materials, specialty chemicals, medical products, and consumer packaging industries.