It happens every day. All over the United States, consumers will buy products with the mistaken belief that the size of the package they buy is indicative of the amount of product within. Whether it’s for food products, pharmaceuticals, bath and beauty or any number of common items, product packaging is often misleading. And this phenomenon is becoming quite common, so common, in fact, that there’s an industry phrase for it: Slack fill. CPG companies everywhere would be wise to protect themselves against committing the act of slack fill. That’s because slack fill doesn’t just damage consumer trust, it’s illegal.
So what are examples of slack fill? Well, have you ever opened a large, full looking bag of potato chips and realized that about half of the contents of the bag are air? Or maybe you’ve bought a pharma product that comes in a box that, once opened, reveals a small vial, held in place with a false side wall? That’s slack filling. A (usually) intentional attempt to mislead the consumer into thinking they’re getting more product than they’re actually paying for. While this is hardly a new issue, educated consumers are taking a stand and against consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers guilty of slack fill violations, often in the form of class action lawsuits.
So what kinds of companies are the biggest slack fill offenders? Top of the list of offenders are pharma, food manufacturers and bath and beauty product companies. Take for example McCormick Spice, the subject of a class action lawsuit. McCormick cut down the amount of pepper in their 4-ounce tins to 3 ounces without informing the public or adjusting the price. Similarly, Mars Candy was the target of a lawsuit over alleged slack fill in their bags of M&M’s. And the penalties can be harsh. Take P&G who built side walls in their Olay Skincare product packaging to make the product look more robust on shelves. After an $850,000 settlement, they decided to change their packaging. While this ruling was particularly harsh compared to others, published settlements in similar cases have ranged from $40,000 to $250,000.
While it’s logical for most packaging not to be 100% filled to the brim with product, certain factors can lead to an unethical lack of product for the consumer dollar. While sometimes this is an intentional act to fool the consumer, it’s often not quite that cut and dried. Some CPG companies are tasked with producing thousands, or even millions of packaging annually. Packaging engineers are often put in the unenvious position of having to please everyone. For example, marketing may want the packaging double as a kind of on-shelf marketing billboard with large graphics. While operations wants packages to be larger so that they can run their equipment at top-end speeds, thus minimizing filling issues and changeovers. Legal counsel, meanwhile, demands packaging to be right-sized to eliminate non-functional slack fill and avoid slack fill penalties and lawsuits.
Fortunately, the solution in most cases is as simple as being ethical. Not going overboard with slack fill means you can make your packaging smaller. Smaller packaging means fewer materials which not only reduces costs but reduces the potential for the dreaded class-action lawsuit or industry fine. In the end, avoiding slack fill can increase packaging sustainability, help you avoid huge settlements that cost your company hundreds of thousands of dollars and can even help you save money by using less material.