How to defuse the Easter egg ‘arms race’

How do we stop the “arms race” in Easter egg packaging? Every year, supermarket shelves fill with garish, unnecessarily big boxes to exploit our shallow desires for the fanciest-looking chocolate eggs.

The bigger the front face of the packaging, the more attractive it is, the more shelf appeal it has, and the more likely it is you’ll buy it. But more packaging also means more plastic, cardboard, energy – and waste afterwards.

It’s big business. Every year, more than 80m boxed chocolate eggs are sold in the UK alone, leading to around £250m in sales.

Meanwhile, food and drink packaging continues to cause environmental problems. Packaging uses resources and generates waste. The weight of food and drink packaging per person has not declined in the UK since figures were first generated in 1998 and 3% of the total environmental footprint of British households, measured by energy, still comes from packaging.

Faced with public concern in 2008, confectionery manufacturers made some progress in 2009 towards reducing Easter egg packaging but progress since then has not been tracked and manufacturers still seem to be locked into unnecessarily large, eye catching packaging. Sweets are usually an impulse or gift purchase, and sales are still largely driven by what they look like. Two identically-sized chocolate eggs will vary in how well they sell: the one with a larger shelf “facing” will tend to generate more sales simply because of its increased eye appeal.

Competition for shelf space means each package is as wide as possible. Mikey, CC BY

The result is that Easter egg manufacturers and retailers are in an “arms race”, a race that demands eggs take up more and more space on the shelf. Each larger package means fewer individual units can be displayed in the same shelf space, leading to lower sales, which then requires higher profit margins to create the same revenue … and so on.

Meanwhile, confectionery manufacturers fear that discussing the problem between themselves and agreeing standards will be seen as restricting competition and they don’t want to fall foul of competition law. Buyers at the big supermarkets are in the same situation; they can’t talk to their confectionery suppliers unilaterally because they’d lose sales, but they can’t talk to suppliers collectively because they fear the wrath of competition law.

Of course, Easter eggs need protecting. They’re only fragile shells of chocolate, after all, and poor packaging would arguably mean greater waste from damaged goods that have to be thrown away.

The challenge is to design gift packaging that uses as little material as possible – without limiting the egg’s “standout” on the shelf. Resizing primary packaging (the part that shoppers see) would reduce the cost of cartons and transport costs for the manufacturers; no one wants to pay for a lot of empty space surrounded by an attractive box. Retailers don’t really want to use precious shelf space on cartons containing lots of fresh air either. And smaller packs would also reduce the amount of waste we have to throw away or try to recycle from our homes.

Easter eggs in large, shiny packets back in 1963. PA

Manufacturers of detergents, deodorants and food and drink have all seen the environmental benefits of cutting back on unnecessary packaging. But Easter eggs are bought almost entirely as gifts – looks are all-important, and size matters.

Big British-based manufacturers have drawn up a Code of Practice for responsible packaging. It requires honesty. Manufacturers adopting this code no longer use packages with “double walls”, for instance, since any hollow space between the walls can mislead customers. However, this same code sets out the gifting dilemma, too:

When a product is conceived as a gift or luxury item, it is recognised that the packaging will reflect the presentational nature of the product and may be more elaborate than functionally necessary, but this does not mean that it should be excessive.

A simple rule on the ratio of packaging to product could change the way the system works without any one supplier or retailer disadvantaging themselves against their competition. This sort of rule would mean less packaging, lower transport costs, less waste and retailers would be able to sell more per unit of shelf space. Consumers would also be more confident that they won’t be disappointed when they open up their Easter egg.

It’s an example of how government regulations can be good both for businesses and consumers. What we suggest for Easter eggs has echoes elsewhere, from the changes in supermarket refrigeration displays to reduce energy consumption, to the call from businesses for a carbon price and clear consistent regulation from the recent climate change COP in Paris. Sensible regulation has worked elsewhere – and not all regulation is bad.

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