Sustainable Serviceware: What Went Wrong for Singapore Airlines?

Known as the golden standard of the aviation industry, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has successfully positioned itself as world-class in its latest global brand campaign launched in January 2023. However, its recent foray into sustainability, specifically the trial of paper serviceware for mid and long-haul flights, has left much to be desired. SIA’s CEO openly acknowledged they learnt a lesson. What went wrong, what was done right and what could have been done differently?

Sustainability Without Having to Sacrifice

1. Not living up to world-class standard

The sustainable initiative was perceived as a cost-cutting measure when it actually incurred higher costs. With the trial being rolled out to only the premium economy and economy, SIA fell short of the expectations set by its global brand campaign, which positioned the airline as world-class across all classes. The lack of consistent sustainability practices raised doubts about its commitment to both brand and sustainability.

Source: Singapore Airlines via CNA
Paper serviceware served on mid and long-haul flights on selected routes

2. Dining experience was not elevated

“This trial is part of SIA's continuous pursuit to elevate the onboard dining experience.”

While it started with good intent, that certainly did not deliver an elevated dining experience. Passengers were quick to voice their dissatisfaction with the practicality of the packaging design for handling hot food, as well as the fundamental issue of food quality.

Source: Singapore Airlines Facebook

3. Missed opportunities in market education

A social media announcement post was insufficient to communicate the intent behind the trial and how it aligns with SIA’s broader sustainability objectives. Consumers doubt the efficacy of single-use paper packaging compared to reusable alternatives like ceramics.

Source: Singapore Airlines Facebook

The Dilemma of Consumer Acceptance and Sustainable Packaging

Challenges in implementing sustainable packaging initiatives

Navigating sustainability initiatives is no easy task, and SIA deserves recognition for taking the lead as one of the world’s most renowned airlines. While its move was backed by first-hand customer data that passengers indicated a preference for a bigger main course over appetisers, the trial has shown otherwise. This is an all too familiar territory in which businesses find themselves. While consumer surveys and research highlight the significance of sustainability, the key question remains: How prepared is the market for sustainable changes?

During a recent brand audit session with a local F&B restaurant chain, we sought their perspectives on sustainable packaging. Stakeholders voiced their apprehensions regarding consumer acceptance. Like Singapore Airlines, they grappled with potential spillage concerns when serving gravy-rich dishes and struggled with the dilemma of whether customers, who were already paying a premium, would be willing to bring their own containers.


How could Singapore Airlines have done it differently?

Could SIA have introduced a curated selection of new soupy and gravy-rich main courses to enhance the value proposition of the new packaging? This would have not only addressed the concern of a standard menu but also showcased the airline’s innovation in sustainability and culinary excellence, transforming the perception of the trial from a cost-cutting measure to a genuine enhancement of the dining experience.

Could SIA have made more concerted efforts to enlighten passengers about the alignment between paper packaging and their sustainability objectives at every touchpoint of the customer journey? Moreover, leveraging the data garnered from the switch to paper packaging on short-haul flights could have contributed to their commitment to environmental stewardship.

Could SIA have gone the extra mile to express gratitude towards passengers who participated in the trial, considering that it was not optional? A thoughtful gesture of gratitude, such as KrisFlyer miles or complimentary Wi-Fi, would have acknowledged and appreciated their valuable feedback and support.

Culture of Customer-Centric, Culture of Sustainability

In another news, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) takes a significant move towards sustainability together with Members of the Sentosa Carbon Neutral Network (SCNN), an alliance that it started. All hotels, food and beverage operators and attractions on Sentosa island will stop giving out plastic bottled water by the end of 2023, saving at least two million plastic bottles a year. The SCNN, consisting of 25 businesses and partners on Sentosa, collectively accounts for 97% of the island’s carbon emissions, highlighting their commitment to carbon neutrality.

To support businesses in adopting sustainable practices, SDC has partnered with WWF Singapore to develop the “Sentosa Playbook for Reducing Disposables.” While its initial scope centred on Sentosa, the playbook’s recommendations can be readily adapted to other entities. Read the details here.

Sentosa Playbook for Reducing Disposables: The recommendations are provided with an indication of the effort needed and the level of impact.

Adaptation and Collaboration

Meeting customer expectations while driving sustainability is a dual challenge for businesses. The experiences of Singapore Airlines and Sentosa Development Corporation highlight the crucial role of adaptation and collaboration. Sustainability is a long-term investment that requires businesses to adapt their practices, collaborate with stakeholders, and actively learn from feedback. By embracing these principles, businesses can develop a more customer-centric and environmentally conscious approach, paving the way for a sustainable future.

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