Consumer response to sustainable packaging design

Nigel Desmond Steenis

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The design of more sustainable packaging is an important step towards reducing packaging’s environmental impacts. Packaging however is also the ‘silent salesman’ that provides many cues which consumers may use to make inferences about the packaged product’s expected benefits. Successful sustainable packaging should not only be environment-friendlier, but should also be an attractive option for consumers. The overall aim of this thesis is to examine how functional and aesthetical aspects of sustainable packaging design affect consumer purchase-related behaviors through inference-making processes. Chapter 1 provides the background of the thesis and describes the overarching theoretical framework. Chapter 2 presents an initial empirical test of consumer cue perception and inference-making processes by using a methodology of idiosyncratic attribute elicitation to analyse consumer response to a series of tomato soup packaging designs. The findings show that (packaging) sustainability is a highly salient association (second to convenience-related perceptions), but is only moderately important for consumer attitudes. Moreover, packaging sustainability cues inform further inference-making regarding a variety of consumer benefits such as product sustainability, price, healthiness, quality and (expected) taste. Results also show a large gap between consumer perception of packaging sustainability and experts’ life-cycle analysis outcomes. Chapter 3 examines how packaging can be actively redesigned to be more sustainable. It considers the extent to which three different sustainable redesign strategies (based on circular economy design literature) affect consumer purchase intentions, moral satisfaction, willingness-to-pay and benefit inferences. The results showed that consumers tend to prefer circular over linear strategies, and biologically circular over technically circular ones. Additionally, applying combinations of such redesign strategies leads to diminished increases in perceived sustainability, and consumers derive little additional moral satisfaction from more intensively redesigned packaging. Chapter 4 focusses on the influence of packaging sustainability in conjunction with product contents sustainability and different firm sustainability (advertisement) claims. Findings showed that consumers are more likely to infer deceptive firm intentions when firms provide environmental claims for packaged products that are only partially sustainable. For such products, consumers make both positive and negative inferences such that they positively value the improved environmental  impacts, yet at the same time negatively value the deceitful actions of the firm. The usage of advertisement puffery has both pros and cons such that it strengthens both the positives and negatives. Furthermore, drawing from centrality theories, the results also suggest that consumers tend to be more critical when only a peripheral attribute (packaging) is made sustainable versus when only a central attribute (product contents) is sustainable. Chapter 5 examines the mental associations between sustainability low strength/high gentleness benefits. The chapter investigates how overtly sustainable (vs. conventional) laundry detergent packaging affects consumer choices, depending on consumers’ intended laundry usage (strength vs. gentleness emphasis). Results show that the sustainable option is disadvantaged in consumer choices when consumers seek strength, and is preferred when they seek gentleness benefits. The perceived strength deficiency can (partially) be overcome by providing aesthetical masculinity signals through packaging design, and packaging that contains both sustainability and masculinity design cues is perceived relatively favourable in terms of perceived strength, gentleness and environment-friendliness. Lastly, Chapter 6 summarizes the main findings and discusses theoretical and practical implications. Overall, this thesis shows that (functional and aesthetical) sustainable packaging design does not merely change consumers’ (potentially inaccurate) view of that packaging’s environmental qualities, but causes consumers to make a range of inferences which affect packaged product choice. Successful sustainable packaging design should seek to reinforce those consumer inferences with positive effects and/or inhibit inferences with potential negative effects to ensure an overall attractive packaged product proposition.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van Trijp, Hans, Promotor
  • van Herpen, Erica, Co-promotor
  • van der Lans, Ivo, Co-promotor
Award date5 Nov 2019
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463951401
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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