Here’s what store shelves will look like in 2035


Consumers are increasingly looking to support brands that create sustainable products and packaging. These evolving attitudes are pushing companies to leverage new innovations, along with cross-industry collaboration, as they consider the overall environmental footprint of their products.

How different will shelves in our stores look in 2035, and how will consumers evaluate whether goods and packaging are sustainable? A panel of experts tried to answer such questions at the recent Sustainability Next Summit, hosted by Dow and Fast Company. Here are four key takeaways from their discussion.

1. CONSUMERS EXPECT MORE TRANSPARENCY ON THE ENTIRE PRODUCT JOURNEY.

Veronica Riojas, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo in Latin America, foresees a “dramatic” shift in consumers’ expectations over the next 10 to 15 years; they’ll look at sustainability information on packaging similarly to how they read nutritional labels now. Consumers will want to know where a product was produced, what kind of “footprint” it left, and what natural resources were used in its production. “They’re going to look at the packaging and judge whether it meets their expectations on recyclability,” Riojas said. “This is going to be a different consumer.”

To meet those high expectations, companies are investing in innovative new packaging, said Colgate-Palmolive chief sustainability officer Ann Tracy, who discussed one of the company’s latest initiatives. She explained that toothpaste tubes have traditionally been made with a mix of materials that cannot be recycled or would require extra effort on consumers’ part—like shipping the packaging back to the manufacturer as part of a corporate responsible-recycling program.

Earlier this year, Colgate-Palmolive began rolling out the first recyclable toothpaste tube. It’s made from the same material as milk jugs, so consumers can simply drop them into their curbside recycling bins. Colgate also shared the technology with other companies—including competitors—to try to bring it to scale quickly, with no consumer behavior changes needed.

2. DIGITAL TOOLS ARE EXPEDITING THIS TRANSPARENCY.

Digital technology unlocks myriad opportunities for consumer education, as it helps provide more information instantly. Riojas said PepsiCo is leveraging that opportunity through Sabritas, a PepsiCo subsidiary in Mexico, which prints QR codes on potato chip packaging. Shoppers scan the code to find out where the potatoes were harvested, where the chips were produced, and all the other steps it took to get the product in their hands.

“It’s an amazing experience to bring to the consumer, so they have full transparency,” Riojas said. “Education like this really helps people think differently. . . . The digital universe [enables] us to drive this education—and the simplicity that consumers are looking for—to take action.”

3. COLLABORATION IS CRUCIAL IN ORDER TO ADVANCE INDUSTRY STANDARDS.

There’s a lot of confusion around how to recycle various packages—we’re all [packaging] in different formats and different types of plastic,” Tracy said. “One of the keys of the future will be consistency at scale.”

She noted that the three consumer brands represented on the panel are members of the Consumer Goods Forum, a trade association comprising more than 400 retailers and consumer goods companies committed to “drive positive change through action and collaboration.” The Forum also developed a guide of nine “Golden Design Rules” to increase the circularity of packaging. These include reducing plastic overwraps, reducing virgin plastic use in B2B plastic packaging, and printing recycling or reuse instructions on packaging.

Hugo Menilo, R&D head of Packaging for Nutrition at Unilever EMEA predicts more “refills and reusable packs”—something of a return to a process that was common decades ago. “We’ll see a lot more shelves that will allow products to be refilled [at] the points of sale, [and] we’ll probably also see that via digital commerce.”

Companies should also focus on consumers’ desire for more sustainability information on packaging, said McKinsey & Company partner Jeremy Wallach. The future consumer will expect more than “things like ‘65% recycled content’ on the bottles,” he said. Some will look for more granular detail, like the product journey map that Riojas detailed. But others will prefer more of an at-a-glance record: a nutritional label for sustainability, to use her analogy, that can be compared across products by measuring factors, such as the percentage of recycled materials in packaging and the greenhouse gas emissions involved in producing the item.

4. COMPANIES ARE WORKING TO CLOSE THE RECYCLING “INTENTION GAP.”

Tracy cited a 2020 study which revealed that 92% of consumers want to lead a sustainable lifestyle—but only 16% are actively changing related behaviors. She said companies need to recognize that “intention-action gap” and act to narrow it: “It’s our responsibility as consumer-products companies to meet people where they’re at and try to design—through R&D, formulating and developing, packaging, and delivering to the shelf—a supply chain with responsibility.”

“We can democratize the shelf,” Tracy concluded. “We can provide much more information to consumers.”

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