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Green Lessons From a Noisy Bag of Chips

When it comes to going green, consumers have shown they’re willing to pay more and even sacrifice performance for products they believe are better for themselves and the environment. But they’re only willing to put up with so much, as a bag of potato chips, of all things, proved.

sunchips.jpegIn April 2009, PepsiCo-owned Frito Lay came out with a 100% compostable bag for its SunChips brand. At the time, it seemed the biggest barrier to acceptance would be that composting step, since so many consumers are unfamiliar with the process, much less maintain a compost bin. But then the bags hit shelves, and the company was quickly inundated with complaints that the new bags were too loud. By October, Frito Lay had returned five of its six SunChips flavors to their original bags.

Perhaps it was all those suddenly not-so-secret midnight snacks. In any case, the company didn’t give up. It went back to the drawing board and now they’re trialing at select retailers a quieter version of the eco-bag — one that makes 70 decibels of noise, compared to 85 with the earlier one. The key was developing a different adhesive to bind the inner and outer layers of the bag, making for a less rigid texture.

So while it’s disheartening that something like the crinkling of a bag could keep consumers from embracing a more sustainable product, it’s good to push companies towards greater innovation, because more often than not, they’ll deliver. This has been a theme with eco-positioned brands. Seventh Generation, constantly battling for market share with the Tides and Gains of the industry, last year developed a disinfecting formula for its cleaners that utilizes thyme. Stevia makers have tinkered and tinkered with the taste of their natural sweetener to bring it more in line with consumer expectations.

Beyond performance, companies are also pushing harder to bring their products in line from a price perspective. Seventh Generation now supplies Wal-Mart, and a big part of that partnership was rationalizing their cost structure to make more items available to more people.

The gap between many sustainable and conventional products is closing. That raises the question: All things being equal, would consumers opt for green products over conventional ones? I’d like to think they would.