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2022 packaging predictions: UK experts provide their opinions

Matt Dobson: Last Updated 17th February 2022
Posted In: Guides and Advice xx 31179

What can the packaging industry expect to see in 2022?

The GWP team of packaging experts attempt to forecast the trends of the next 12 months

After all of the volatility over the past 12 to 18 months, there is hope that the outlook will become somewhat calmer as we move into 2022. That supply chain issues will ease. That shelves will be restocked. And that positive steps will be taken to help the environment.

But how does all this tie in with – and influence – the packaging industry?

Well, the senior directors and managers across the GWP Group have put together their thoughts, predictions and hopes for the coming twelve months. As with their 2021 predictions, this covers a wide range of topics and niches within the wider packaging market, including:

  • How ecommerce packaging will evolve in 2022
  • Whether supply chain issues and material shortages will be resolved
  • The general outlook on the economy, labour, wages, and utility costs
  • Whether sustainability will continue to be a key area of focus
  • And much more besides

Please continue reading to see all of the 2022 packaging predictions and trends as the GWP experts provide their opinions. Alternatively, you can use the table of contents to go straight to your area of interest.

And don’t forget – we’d love for you to share your thoughts and predictions with us on GWP’s social media channels (including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter).

Quick Reference / Contents

01: Supply Chain Issues & Uneven Demand

David Mason | GWP Packaging Sales Director

David Mason 2021 packaging predictions

David is a stalwart of the corrugated packaging industry, having been working with cardboard even before he joined GWP back in 1990.

This experience of the market, as well as his in-depth knowledge and understanding of exactly what goes in to making successful packaging, ensures that his predictions for 2022 are likely to be close to the mark. Read on for his thoughts on what 2022 will bring.

Raw material shortages and price pressures to ease – but not yet

Although this has been covered in great depth elsewhere (and was the key focus of predictions for 2021), there is still likely to be further pain regarding material shortages as we move into the first half of 2022.

Demand for material is still outstripping supply, largely driven by the increase in ecommerce (everyone from SMEs to the behemoths of Amazon, eBay, Next, Argos, Boohoo and many more).

material shortages
Raw material shortages - including cardboard - continue to be driven by the rise of ecommerce

And difficulties recovering the cardboard material used for delivering consumers orders – to recycle into new packaging – show little signs of being addressed.

As such, there is still the spectre of shortages, extended lead times and, regrettably, price increases. Especially in the first 6 months of the year.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however. Demand is (at least expected) to stabilise moving into the third quarter, whilst there is also additional capacity coming into the market (i.e. raw material output) scheduled for the end of 2022.

Whilst this may be too late to avoid volatility this year, it does raise hopes for 2023.

Unpredictable demand

The other impact of ongoing supply chain issues – besides the wider changes caused by the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic – is that demand is very patchy, and is becoming increasingly difficult to predict.

For example, it was expected by many that Christmas was to see a return to spending by consumers on the high street. But the arrival of the Omicron strain of Coronavirus changed this almost overnight, with cautious shoppers remaining at home.

The picture is similar amongst industrial and manufacturing businesses. Companies unable to take delivery of parts or components are seeing delays in production, which has a knock-on effect for packaging use (as well as forecasting). Sales across all product categories can often peak or dip simply depending on how much stock is available (or not).

All of this makes forecasting – as well as broader predictions – incredibly difficult. However, many are pinning their hopes on the ongoing issues starting to be ironed out as we move through the year.

Wider supply chain issues affecting UK manufacturing make demand patchy and forecasting more difficult

02: Development of Ecommerce Packaging

Jay Daggar | GWP Packaging Sales Manager

Jay Daggar 2021 packaging predictions

Jay is well into his second decade in the packaging industry, having joined GWP in a sales and customer advisory role back in 2008.

Over this period, Jay has developed an intricate knowledge of the demands that different businesses will place on their packaging, making him ideally placed to make a number of predictions for 2022. See what he thinks will happen below.

Ecommerce packaging market to mature

Whilst certainly not at saturation point, it is no longer accurate to talk about the “switch” to ecommerce. In fact, across a huge range of products and markets, it is now arguably the most established shopping channel for the majority of UK consumers.

This of course means increased competition, with corrugated packaging being used as a key weapon for businesses against their rivals.

ecommerce printing
Trends in ecommerce packaging have seen an increase in the popularity of "inside" print

So, whilst searches in Google for ecommerce packaging have decreased by around half year on year, online sellers are now looking for ways to differentiate themselves.

This includes companies exploring new print options (inside and outside printing of packs being a huge area of growth), an increasing move to retro and nostalgic design elements, and many taking a less is more approach to their artwork. All of these trends are likely to increase throughout 2022.

Sustainable ecommerce packaging

One area that is bucking the trend – at least in businesses searching for it – is sustainable ecommerce packaging.

As covered elsewhere in this article, businesses really do seem to be increasingly driven by showcasing their environmental credentials (which is a reflection of this becoming a real priority amongst many consumers).

This is being highlighted not only by the designs of their ecommerce packs – including use of white and green inks on kraft material – but also what is featured on them. Recycling logos, accreditation schemes (such as FSC) and other environment focused statements are likely to become increasingly prominent over the next 12 months.

Volumetric size another key consideration

Sticking with the theme of sustainability, another fast-emerging trend is that of businesses looking to reduce the “volumetric footprint” (i.e. size) of their packaging.

This is partly being driven by material shortages detailed earlier, but also has a number of environmental benefits (not least less material usage).

This includes size optimised packs reducing emissions generated through shipping – with more packs per journey also providing cost benefits for businesses – as well as being easier for consumers to recycle.

As such, expect to see much less “excessive” packaging in 2022.

Recovery of physical retail – but with some changes

And finally, this is probably amongst the more risky and contentious predictions, especially in light of ongoing announcements by large retailers of store closures.  But it may be possible that the high street and physical retail sees some recovery this year.

Whilst new variants of Coronavirus, supply chain issues and more could still derail this, it would appear that many consumers are keen to get back to shopping in person – at least when they believe it is completely safe to do so.

retail recovery
Can physical retail begin to see some recovery in 2022?

But what does this mean for packaging?

Well, it may be the case that for omni channel retailers, packaging is designed with an ecommerce first focus. Lessons learned from unboxing and consumer feedback will start being seen in on shelf retail packs, alongside a more minimalist design style (which also ties in with environmental considerations, as well also providing differentiation and standout vs in store competition).

The use of QR codes on packs to allow consumers to quickly access product details and other useful info is also likely to increase, whilst augmented reality and other technical advances could blur the distinction between traditional retail packs and those used for ecommerce too.

03 Business Challenges

Ruth Cook | GWP Group Managing Director

Ruth Cook 2021 packaging predictions

Ruth, as Managing Director of GWP Group, is able to take a holistic view of not only the packaging industry, but also what it takes to run a successful business.

Having been one of the founding members of Great Western Packaging (as GWP was once known), her predictions are focused on the challenges that businesses of all types are likely to face in the coming months.

Staff shortages

With all the talk of supply chain issues and Coronavirus, it often goes under the radar that a huge number of businesses are struggling to recruit staff. In fact, even with the end of the furlough scheme, UK unemployment fell to 4.3% (with an extra 257,000 people on company payrolls).

This impacts the packaging industry in two ways. Obviously, it means that packaging firms will struggle to recruit staff themselves. Coupled with material and supply chain issues, it could also mean that productivity amongst manufacturers and other businesses may dip too. The knock-on effect? Potentially, a lower demand for packaging.

Besides this, the packaging industry in particular is really suffering from a lack of available high-quality engineers and designers.

This is where apprenticeships may take on more significance in the coming 12 months – allowing businesses to train and develop staff to suit the evolving requirements of the industry.

General price pressures

Whilst cost increases regarding material and finished packaging are looking inevitable in the first part of the year (as covered earlier), price pressures elsewhere are having an equally significant impact too.

rising packaging costs
Price pressures across materials, utilities, transport, staff and more, are causing headaches for businesses

Packaging can be relatively bulky to transport, meaning that any increases in transport costs can be acutely felt. Energy prices continue to soar. And with a shortage of candidates to recruit, wages also have the potential to increase.

All of this feeds into higher prices of packaging, finished goods, and the increasing rate of inflation that is being widely reported. Unless there is decisive action – from within the packaging industry (i.e. material availability and pricing) and the government / central banks, this has the potential to become a real headache for businesses in 2022.

04: Focus on Efficiency (and Plastics)

Ian Cook | GWP Correx® Managing Director

Ian Cook 2021 packaging predictions

Whilst Ian has been involved in the packaging industry – specifically the returnable and specialist ESD safe sectors – his industrial background (he previously worked at British Steel) has also influenced his predictions.

This includes how changing consumer habits will impact how businesses store and handle products, as well as the upcoming Plastic Packaging Tax which is landing in April 2022.

Further adoption of picking bins

Alongside the obvious increase in the use of corrugated packaging for shipping ecommerce orders, another area that reported significant growth was that of picking bins and systems for fulfilment centres.

With businesses moving to online sales, many found that the ways in which their inventory was stored, organised, and retrieved for distribution, left a lot to be desired.

Whilst many businesses are still getting to grips with this, the frontrunners (i.e. those that have already have their warehouses and fulfilment centres in good shape) are seeing other avenues for picking bins to help them.

Order picking bins in a warehouse
Using order picking bins - either permanent or temporary - can significantly improve fulfilment times.

One such example is their use for “click and collect” orders. This sees smaller numbers of bins in back of store areas, used to hold and organise online orders which are collected in person by shoppers. This can work in reverse too, with in store returns also becoming increasingly popular.

This – alongside the use of temporary picking bins for meeting seasonal demand – is an area where considerable growth is expected in 2022.

Plastic packaging tax

One factor that could significantly impact large parts of the packaging industry is the upcoming Plastic Packaging Tax.

Launching in April 2022, the new tax will mean that all manufacturers or importers of plastic packaging will be charged £200 per metric tonne of plastic packaging produced.

However, this will only apply to packs or products that have less than 30% recycled content.

There are also ongoing discussions at Government level as to whether returnable packaging and semi / permanent items – such as picking bins, supply chain containers, plastic totes etc. should also be excluded from this (as they can help to significantly reduce the use of single trip packs).

The idea is that it will encourage packaging manufacturers to use more sustainable material, as well as increase the demand for (and therefore adoption of) increased recycling of material.

There is of course the risk that any taxes will simply be passed directly to the end consumers in the form of higher prices. And this is something that could easily be lost amongst the spiralling cost of a number of products, caused by wider inflationary pressures.

However, doing this could run the risk of further strengthening consumers demands for more sustainable packaging (which, if the tax is successful, would potentially make recycled materials cheaper too). There is, of course, also a strong possibility that it will see more businesses switch to biodegradable materials such as corrugated cardboard, to avoid the new tax entirely.

How this plays out will have a significant effect on the wider packaging market in 2022.

05: Evolving Protective Case Market

Richard Coombes | GWP Protective General Manager

Richard Coombes 2021 packaging predictions

Richard has been working in the protective case and foam packaging industry for many years, including time at Eastman Packaging (GWP Protectives’ predecessor).

His vast experience of this market – having covered numerous roles across the business including his current position as General Manager – means he is ideally placed to predict what may happen in this sector.

Case manufacturers getting greener

Up until now, the environmental focus that has become a critical consideration in many areas of the packaging industry, hasn’t really filtered into the protective case market.

And whilst there are a number of bio-based and recycled foam materials that have been growing in popularity, the predominant metric for a protective case is the level of protection and performance it provides.

This is starting to change however, and is something that is likely to accelerate in 2022.

eco-friendly protective cases
Many case manufacturers are launching more eco friendly models in response to consumer demand

In fact, this is already being seen with a number of case brands launching models that use greener or recycled plastics. This includes WAGs’ “Organic Line” cases (that use substances extracted from sugar cane, and consist of up to 93% regenerative raw materials), and Rose Plastic, who are offering cases and containers with up to 100% recycled plastic content.

Whether some of the larger players in the market – such as Peli™, Explorer, Nanuk and SKB – continue this trend remains to be seen. It could be argued, quite reasonably, that any growth in this area is likely to be dictated by whether the higher performance cases can maintain their protection levels when manufactured using more sustainable materials.

However, with consumer expectations and perceptions shifting, this is certainly an area to keep a close eye on.

Return to in person meetings

As Coronavirus and COVID restrictions (hopefully) begin to ease as we progress through the year – although this admittedly could have been written 12 months ago too – there is the likelihood that more people will return to offices, design studios, production facilities, and other business settings.

This return to physical workplaces is also likely to see an increase in the number of “in person” sales meetings / presentations too (however cautiously to start with), instead of the default Zoom or Teams meetings of the past 18 months or so.

Sales teams will again require physical samples and – crucially – suitable sample cases and foam inserts to present them.

As such, the popularity of lighter weight cases such as those from Hofbauer and Maxado (as well as custom option such as Smart Case / N Cases) could increase considerably over the coming months.

sample cases for sales meetings
In person sales meeting are likely become more common as the year progresses

Material shortages easing

And finally, although a lot of attention was given to cardboard shortages in 2021, foam materials were significantly affected too.

This would appear to be easing somewhat as we head into 2022, although price increases driven by the imbalance between supply and demand shows little sign of stabilising. This is of course also driven by raw material prices, as well as increased transport costs, staff wages and other inflationary pressures that will potentially be with us for the majority of the year.

06: Turbulent Economic Outlook

Ian Heskins | GWP Group Business Development Director

Ian Heskins 2021 packaging predictions

Ian is one of the founding members of the GWP Group, meaning he will be celebrating 32 years with the business this year!

This experience – as well as the broad knowledge and expertise he has picked up working as New Business Development Director for the Group – makes him the ideal candidate to make a number of predictions for the coming year.

Turbulent economic outlook

It may seem to be a relatively safe prediction to assert that, economically, we could be in for a rough ride in 2022. But the ongoing battles against coronavirus, supply chain problems, and inflation, will all have a significant impact on the packaging industry.

In fact, the latter point – inflation – is something that has been disproportionately affecting the packaging industry for some time.

Cardboard, foam, and plastic (such as Correx®) shortages have all driven prices of these materials to record levels. The cost of transport has also had a significant impact on packaging prices, as finished and / or assembled packs are often bulky relative to their value (meaning transport costs tend to have a more noticeable impact).

UK economic outlook
The UK economic outlook paints a mixed picture, which will impact on the packaging market

Labour shortages and wage competition are also a significant factor, as is the escalating cost of living crisis (that could limit consumer demand through lower disposable incomes).

Nevertheless, many are confident that, despite the challenges, there will be the opportunity for growth in 2022. In fact, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) believe that UK GDP will grow by at least 4%.

This is all predicated on one thing however – the supply chain crisis being ironed out as we move through the year.

The packaging industry is, again, particularly susceptible to this. This is because manufacturing businesses struggling to source or waiting on shipments of materials, components or even finished products, need less packaging (at least until such as a time as they return to full capacity).

As you can see, although the likelihood is that economic activity will stabilise and begin to improve in the second half of the year, there are still too many “ifs” and “buts” to be completely confident…

Re-shoring / taking control of packaging operations

One potential boon for UK businesses – including packaging manufacturers – is a reaction from many businesses to the supply chain crisis (and, to a lesser degree, Brexit).

This is that many companies are looking to re-shore production (i.e. move back to the UK from abroad), allowing them greater control over their supply chains.

Packaging is obviously included in this, and with more products being produced in the UK, it will also mean a greater need for UK manufactured packaging. This could see an increased demand for both single trip corrugated and returnable containers to safely transport these items.

Whether the wider packaging industry can cope with the demand in the short term is a different question entirely, but it does provide some reason for optimism heading into 2022.

07: Drive for Sustainability

Matt Dobson | GWP Group Marketing Manager

Matt Dobson

Matt joined GWP just under 10 years ago, and over the course of his time with the business has been involved in marketing all areas of the GWP business.

This rounded knowledge – as well as keeping a close eye on search engines to spot trends and changing consumer habits – allows him to make predictions for the upcoming year.

Environmental considerations to become even more prominent

Lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions led to a boom in businesses searching online for suppliers of packaging – and ecommerce boxes / corrugated packaging in particular.

And whilst this search volume has dropped away significantly as the market slowly begins to mature (as mentioned previously), one area has still managed to record significant growth – sustainable packaging.

Businesses are no longer seeing the use of recycled or recyclable materials, accreditation schemes such as FSC, and the elimination of single use plastics, as a nice to have or a clever marketing tactic. Many now consider this as essential to their success. This, in turn, has largely been driven by increased consumer demand.

recyclable packaging
Many consumers will no longer shop with businesses that do not use sustainable packaging

In fact, as many as 1 in 5 would not continue to shop with online retailers that did not use sustainable packaging.

So whilst this headline trend will continue, also expect to see businesses looking at other ways in which their packaging can help the environment. For example, packaging that is much more space efficient to reduce emissions (and transit costs). The elimination of void fill, films, and unnecessary plastics. And ensuring that packs are easily recyclable.

Recycling instructions / labels

This final point leads on to how businesses communicate their environmental credentials, including on pack recycling instructions.

This is an area that appears to be somewhat neglected. In fact, recent surveys have highlighted that many consumers have trouble recycling, as they have no clear instructions on what to do.

It is therefore likely that more retailers will include recycling symbols and instructions on their packs in 2022. This has the dual benefit of making consumers lives easier, whilst also highlighting brands’ environmental credentials (a form of soft marketing). Similarly, the inclusion of accreditations such as FSC certified packaging is also likely to grow in popularity.

Regardless, as attention (hopefully) moves away from Coronavirus and restrictions, environmental considerations have the potential to come into sharper focus.

sustainable packaging
Expect recycling symbols and instructions to become more prominent in 2022

08: In Summary

The packaging market in 2022

Similarly to 2021, at least the first half of the coming year is likely to be a difficult, turbulent period for the packaging industry, manufacturers, and the UK economy as a whole.

When and how much this improves depends on a number of factors – including the easing of COVID 19 restrictions, inflation, labour shortages, and the supply chain issues that are currently acting as a drag on the UK economy.

However, it will be interesting to see how the packaging market adapts and evolves, as new ways of shopping, working, and considering the environment emerge and become entrenched.

Regardless of how everything develops, GWP will be available to assist with any packaging requirement that your business has. So if you are looking to tap into a growing market, minimise your environmental impact, or simply reduce your costs, GWP can help. Please get in touch today to see how we can assist you in 2022.

Further Reading...

About the Author

Matt Dobson

Marketing Manager | GWP Group

Matt has worked in the packaging industry for approximately 9 years, having joined GWP Group as Marketing Executive in 2012. [Read full bio…]

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