Breaking Down the Bias: Unpacking the Complexity of Sustainable Choices in Packaging

A research blog post on perceived sustainability by Tim Döring, an Assistant Professor at Marketing and Supply Chain Management Department.

Sustainable choices are often more complex than we think - even when they seem crystal clear, our intuitions about sustainability can be wrong. 

Take something as simple as buying a cucumber - in or without plastic wrap. Choosing the cucumber without plastic wrap seems like the more sustainable option. Plastic wrap does indeed add to the environmental impact of the cucumber. However, the additional environmental impact of the food waste created by not wrapping cucumbers outweighs the impact of adding the wrap by about  five to one ! Similarly, some  studies  suggest that coffee pods - the epitome of wastefulness - are more environmentally friendly than regular filter coffee. Lastly, if you use an organic cotton tote over a plastic shopping bag, you might have chosen the less sustainable option - unless you reuse the cotton tote at least  20,000 times. 

Estimating the environmental impact of products is a difficult endeavor and consumers are often not equipped to make these judgments. Instead, they rely on intuitions, so-called  heuristics , to simplify a complex choice environment.

In our latest paper, "Paper Meets Plastic: The Perceived Environmental Friendliness of Product Packaging" , we show that consumer perceptions of the environmental friendliness (PEF) of product packaging may systematically deviate from its objective environmental friendliness. Consumers judge plastic packaging with additional paper as more environmentally friendly than identical plastic packaging without paper. This perception is driven by two mechanisms. First, consumers tend to simplify complex environments by using  categorical thinking : paper is good, and plastic is bad. While this categorization may seem entirely reasonable, it can skew environmental friendliness judgments. As such, consumers believe that adding "good" paper to "bad" plastic increases the overall environmental friendliness of the packaging. That is, while potentially necessary plastic packaging is perceived as "bad", adding potentially unnecessary "good" paper packaging shifts the perception of the overall packaging from bad to good. Paradoxically, this proportional thinking makes consumers believe that the more paper is added to plastic, the more environmentally friendly the packaging becomes. Our studies also show that consumers with the greatest environmental concern are biased most.

One of the most exciting aspects of the research is an intervention we developed to mitigate the PEF bias. A "minimal packaging sticker" increases the environmental friendliness perceptions of plastic-only packaging, making plastic-packaged products preferable to their plastic-plus-paper-packaged counterparts. This sticker is not aimed at increasing the perceived environmental friendliness of plastic packaging but rather at reducing the erroneous belief that additional paper increases the overall environmental friendliness of product packaging.  

The research is valuable for business and sustainability scholars. By understanding how consumers perceive environmental friendliness, companies can create packaging that is both sustainable and appealing to consumer preferences. Policymakers can also use this research to develop interventions that encourage sustainable behavior.

Tatiana Sokolova, Aradhna Krishna, Tim Döring, Paper Meets Plastic: The Perceived Environmental Friendliness of Product Packaging, Journal of Consumer Research, 2023, forthcoming, https://doi.org/10.1093/j­cr/ucad008 is currently available as an advance article.