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Why craft drinks packaging is a hot topic

Liz Wilks, Director of Sustainability & Stakeholder Engagement Europe for Asia Pulp & Paper, examines the role of packaging in the craft drinks industry and the current debate over labelling standards

Liz Wilks Asia Pulp & Paper

Go to any bar, and you are likely to see a range of quirky, bright and unique art – but this art isn’t on the walls, it’s on the bottles themselves. The craft drinks industry is known not just for its quality beers and spirits, but for the creative packaging and labelling that draws a consumer’s eye. Designers work hard to give every brand its own artistic style and attention-grabbing package, a feature that differentiates craft drinks from big-brand manufacturers and has elevated craft drinks packaging into its own form of cultural statement.

However, the future of craft drinks labelling is a heated topic of debate between those in the industry and health campaigners, who say that packaging should be aimed towards consumer safety with minimal design and information about the risks of drinking. As the Government contemplates stricter packaging legislation, drinks manufacturers and packaging designers are seeking to better define labelling guidelines in conjunction with health advocates’ views to protect craft drinks’ unique, artistic packaging.

Setting the stage: the debate over drinks packaging

Current best practice for consumer safety in drinks labelling is to include warnings about the risks of drinking while pregnant, the chief medical officer’s guidelines about responsible consumption and the product’s alcohol content. This is a voluntary arrangement the drinks industry adheres to, also called a “responsibility deal." While most alcoholic beverages in the UK already comply with this regulation, health campaigners say these warnings need to include further information to flag high calorie content and the dangers of drinking too much

Those in favour of more stringent packaging laws are advocating not just for increased information on drinks labels, but also for toned-down packaging, similar to that of tobacco.As of 2016, tobacco products in the UK are required to have a standard, plain packaging with graphic health warnings and stripped of any strong branding. This proposal for a complete overhaul of labelling guidelines is the one meeting the most opposition from craft drinks manufacturers and their packaging providers

These new guidelines would mean drinks were packaged in a uniform way, with the label’s emphasis being on the health effects of drinking rather than on the brand. Craft drinks manufacturers argue that uniform packaging will have the opposite effect, driving consumers to purchase higher quantities of cheaper product rather than lower quantities of high-quality craft drinks.

Drinks manufacturers and their packaging designers also say these regulations will push smaller drinks producers out of the market and lead to a reduction in enjoyment of social activities. Packaging plays a big role in the entrepreneurial aspect and marketing of craft drinks. An exciting label is what helps customers choose one bottle over another on the shelf, and makes up the bulk of their advertising. Designers are proud of their artistry and the role it plays in driving the market forward

Packaging professionals are also alarmed at the cultural and social implications of these proposed regulations. According to experts, apart from enjoying a drink, craft packaging’s focus on design allows consumers to enjoy a unique brand of art. Packaging designers see health campaigners’ proposals as a threat to the rich, vibrant aesthetic related to social activities.

Towards a definition – and a resolution

At the core of the issue is defining where alcohol packaging fits into the wider range of labelling consumable products. Those advocating for plain packaging and larger warnings do so based on the premise that alcohol is more dangerous to public health than a normal food or drink. While drinks manufacturers do not necessarily dispute that alcohol is different than other beverages, they also say it is not as dangerous as more controlled substances like tobacco and therefore does not require the same packaging measures

While tobacco packaging regulation is quite strict, the best practices on labelling for most food and non-alcoholic drinks include flagging any coloured dies, allergens, calorie content, ingredients and the use of genetically modified ingredients. Some European countries use a traffic light labelling system based on calorie, fat and sugar content. Red, for example, stands for the least healthy product, while green signals the healthiest choice.

Drinks manufacturers and packaging suppliers are looking for a way forward that incorporates more stringent food and drink guidelines without needing to take a tobacco-like approach to labelling. Drinks manufacturers, academics and campaigners have proposed ideas such as altering packaging in small ways, such as including more warnings on existing drinks labels or instituting a drinks-based traffic light system based on calorie and alcohol content.

Drinks manufacturers and health campaigners may be able to work together to find alternative solutions that do not affect packaging. For example, Herve Grandeau, the president of the Fédération des Grands Vins de Bordeaux, thinks prevention and training around drinking would be more effective in ending problematic drinking during pregnancy than trying to change people’s behaviours through a label. Public Health England also suggests other methods, such as higher taxation on drinks, to cut down on problematic consumption behaviours.

Defining alcohol’s place as a consumable will help drinks packagers to find their best plan of action to maintain the thriving artistic industry of craft drinks packaging. Increasing the amount of consumer information on labels to reflect other food packaging guidelines may help, as can conversations with health campaigners about the importance of labelling not just to the drinks industry, but to creative designers and packaging providers as well.

20 March 2017