Packaging can’t keep costing the earth

What will define the future of sustainable packaging? It’s a question doubtless keeping brand managers awake at night. Over the years green packaging has evolved into a hugely competitive marketing tool. It doesn’t just reflect on business values, it influences purchasing decisions and sets the scene for a much deeper, emotional bond – the consumer experience.

And demand is growing for greater transparency. A Forum for the Future report released last year, Scaling Disruptive Innovation in Sustainable Packaging, found that the vast majority of consumers feel companies should do more to improve industry standards. Discerning shoppers aren’t just looking for more recycled content in packaging, they want to know that less energy and raw materials have been used in its creation.

But balancing these different metrics – material optimisation, carbon, recyclability, toxicity, ergonomics, and so on – is a complex task. For instance, lightweighting a plastic bottle can impact on its potential to re-enter the supply chain in a circular fashion, meaning it may only be fit for one life cycle. It’s becoming clear that more brainstorming is needed as new corporate social responsibility agendas, such as the circular economy and net positive, start to bed down.

Consumer view of industry standards on sustainable packaging

Being sustainable yet efficient

“The lighter the weight of a pack, the less value there is in the recycling process, but the higher the weight, the more resources are needed to create the pack. The balance is crucial,” says Kevin Vyse, packaging innovation lead at Marks & Spencer.

He adds that customers trust M&S to “do the right thing” – that means choosing the right packaging for the right task. “The challenge is to keep them informed as to why the packaging is used and its role – for instance, protecting from damage in the supply chain, keeping it fresher for longer, easy dispensing and reducing food waste.”

This view is echoed by Dax Lovegrove, director of sustainability and innovation at home improvement group Kingfisher. “I think we need to apply different approaches for different uses. If it’s for non-durable use, you might want lightweight compostable packaging that is safe for people and nature. For more durable use then you do want more substantial use of materials, built for reuse,” he says.

Consumers are looking for well-designed solutions which add to and enhance the product experience, including what to do at the end of life

Local authority managed waste and recycling rates in England


To avoid potential conflicts, Eelco Smit, director of sustainability at Philips, says brands need to define at the design stage which level of circularity – for example, recycling, reuse or remanufacture – will apply to the packaging. “If we know the packaging will end up in a recycling system, we need to design it so it can be recycled,” he says. “If we know it will be returned, we need to ensure the packaging can withstand several return cycles.”

So how can packaging designers help facilitate this process? Chris Thorpe, director at Intelligent Design Associates, believes designers are uniquely placed to balance both brand and consumer needs against each other while having one eye on the wider stakeholder context. New ideas must also be workable for materials suppliers and logistics providers. “It is part of the designer’s key responsibility to adopt a critical position in such matters,” he says.

But Dr Thorpe admits it’s not always an easy task. “I think circular economy and the metrics, terminology and consensus around such matters are still evolving,” he says. “Consumers are looking for simplicity and authenticity rather than complexity… for well-designed solutions which add to and enhance the product experience, including what to do at the end of life.”

Tracy Sutton, founder of Root, which specialises in packaging innovation, shares a similar sentiment. “Much of the work I’m doing is helping brands understand the business and brand benefit of the methodology, and help them understand how to integrate the principles of the circular economy into their brand and packaging,” she says.

Still further to go

Ms Sutton feels sustainable packaging as a whole is still very much in its infancy. “We’re just starting to uncover materials that are finally better than less environmentally friendly materials,” she says. “The idea that all compostable materials and recycled materials are sustainable is simply a myth. For example, there’s no benefit a pack being compostable or recyclable if there is no supporting infrastructure in the local environment where it ends up.”

The smart brands, she says, are now specifically requesting information about how design partners can help integrate sustainability into packaging design concepts. “This crucial progression empowers designers to consider the environment in a way that they have not been given before,” says Ms Sutton.

 Brands are certainly recognising the need for more inclusive dialogue. “As well as working closely with product and packaging suppliers, we recognise there are other stakeholders who need to be engaged to ensure that we have end-to-end solutions for some of the more intractable packing problems we face,” says Cathryn Higgs, food policy manager for the Co-operative Group. “We always try to look at packaging design in the round and factor in whole-product impact.”

Looking ahead, packaging responsibility might reach new heights as brands such as Kingfisher, owner of B&Q and Screwfix, get to grips with net positive, which is about putting more back into society. “Net positive is an interesting concept because the idea is that we create positive impact and we don’t just look at damage control. Maybe what that means is we recycle more waste than is produced by the business,” says Mr Lovegrove.

In theory, he says, this could mean Kingfisher taking back packaging waste from customers or other commercial companies. “We are looking to raise our game… that means looking at what waste is out there in society which we could somehow reuse in a way that’s useful to the business.”