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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Sustainable Packaging:
A Call for Better Design

One of the things I love about the Sustainable Brands community is its diverse mix of sustainability experts, designers, innovators and entrepreneurs coupled with brand and marketing specialists. It makes for a heady mix of often differing views on related sustainability challenges. That’s why I jumped at the chance of co-editing this Issue in Focus on Innovations in Sustainable Packaging.

As product and packaging design consultants, Seymourpowell inevitably come at sustainable packaging from a design perspective, with our goal of making things better by design. That’s always meant better for people, but now better means more sustainable, too. Rather selfishly, I’m half hoping design — in all its various manifestation and interpretations — might provide a redline through this month’s sustainable packaging stories.

I’m looking forward to some world-changing examples of sustainable packaging design in action. Plus I anticipate great stories and shared experiences of how sustainable packaging gets designed from designers, product developers, managers, marketers and technologists alike.

Better design guides our growing area of sustainable packaging design so I thought I’d kick things off with three principles we use, in the interests of stimulating debate:

“It’s All the Product”

To make innovation easier to manage, clients often separate packaging and product development, which can be a mistake in our opinion. Great products and experiences are usually a combination of pack, product and communications excellence, in which the product is seamlessly announced, delivered and enhanced through the pack. When asked what’s the key to great packaging design, we tell clients to see packaging as "all the product.”

This holds true for sustainable packaging. Many lifecycle assessments or environmental footprints — particularly of branded consumer goods — suggest bigger impacts rest with the product not the packaging (my time in Philips indicated packaging as 2% of the total carbon footprint of the product system), so focussing just on the visible, packaging part can miss the real hot-spots. Critically, packaging can also positively affect the product footprint of categories such as food and beverage, by extending shelf-life of the estimated £6.7bn of food wasted here in the UK each year. My esteemed co-editor Charlie Sheldon will explore this later in the month.

Separating product from packaging design may make sense for your resources, management and budget, but it often doesn’t for holistic design, for your customers and consumers, or often for the planet.

“Early Is Best”

The earlier you think about or involve design, the better your resultant product and packaging will be. Project costs are locked-in at these early design stages, with changes being inefficient and time-consuming later on. It’s a universal truth that great design relies on its early-stage involvement. The lesson in this is to design things right in the first place, rather than bolting design on at the end.

Similarly, 80% of the environmental impacts of your product — and packaging — are said to be determined at these early design stages, too — as it is hard, more costly and less effective to add sustainability factors retrospectively. Getting clients to clarify and lock-down sustainability specifics early on, preferably in the design brief, is key to us successfully delivering it in resultant design work. We also find the ‘early stage’ rule applies in that new-to-the–world, more breakthrough designs have higher degrees of sustainability freedom than your average redesign/renovation project, which often features mature designs or technology, so we try to focus attention there, too. Not considering sustainability in these early stages of packaging design can mean building in future risks for you or your clients, and that is simply not good business or good design.

“Making More of Less”

Breakthrough packaging innovation requires a multi-disciplinary approach, usually involving supply chain and marketing — leading to one of the great sustainable packaging dichotomies.

Simply put, supply chain usually want ‘less,’ while marketers want ‘more.’ It’s a dilemma we constantly wrestle with: how to balance the ‘less’ of cost savings, efficiencies, reductions, simplifications, etc; with the ‘more’ of added value, benefits, new functions. Obviously doing more with less is familiar to the sustainability world, though it is a more efficiency-based approach. Yet the marketers who usually lead our projects mean more benefits, added functionality, or better performance, which often equals more materials, and which in turn equals a higher footprint that is tricky to square with sustainability. In the end this is about making ‘less seem better’ for consumers and customers, and finding these kinds of benefits in sustainable packaging design can be a challenge. We will be sharing further thoughts on just these via our ‘refill’ packaging design experiences, too.

In all this, we see sustainability challenges as design challenges. Yet I don’t believe all this does or should revolve around designers alone — it should revolve around better design. This in turn means design with a big, rather than a little ‘D.’ I look forward to rich and diverse discussions this month. Do drop us a line with your thoughts and experiences.

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