There are many opportunities for the design industry to play a bigger part in product sustainability. Case in point: Many of the technological advancements in sustainable packaging suffer from issues that could be tackled through partnership with strong design thinkers. The design industry can also help to bring the conversation about sustainable packaging design further upstream. Here are three important things to consider when it comes to designing for sustainability.
1. Collaboration is key
Scientists, packaging developers, materials suppliers and manufacturers neither control demand generation nor the consumer experience, which are a result of the positioning, opening ceremony, branding and graphics. These are the responsibilities of marketing and design.
In the same vein, collaboration is a theme often discussed at design conferences. It is typically laced with suggestions on how to forge design into boardroom and business conversations. Sustainable packaging design is an opportunity for the design industry to further prove itself to the business world.
Some of the organizations at the forefront of sustainability have amazing ideas, but it is going to take collaboration with designers and marketers to succeed. Marketers have control over budgets and the dialogue with consumers. And designers have the ability to reinterpret sustainable packaging technology into actual packages that signal something new to consumers; they have a responsibility to proactively inform themselves and bring that information to the table.
2. Design with intent
There are many opportunities to improve the sustainability of packaging, so it is critical to understand the full product lifecycle when doing so. Whether improvements come in the form of the reducing packaging materials to optimize the product-to-packaging ratio, using recyclable materials, enhancing distribution and palletization efficiency, or allowing for an easy end-of-life recycling stream, it is absolutely vital to design all packaging components in unison.
Much can be done to increase the sustainability of the package ecosystem through efficiency and operations but at the end of the day, it is most important to do what is right for the brand, and every decision should be made through the lens of the brand equity. The goal is to create a win for the brand, a win for the consumer, and a win for the manufacturing stream.
3. Think about end-of-life recovery at the beginning
The sustainability payoff for some of these technologies has more to do with end-of-life recovery than actual materials, so the consumer would ultimately need to understand his or her role in recycling or composting. These are big communication challenges that, in many cases, will need to be told on pack — clearly and simply — and supported across an integrated marketing campaign. The How2Recycle campaign is a program marketers and manufacturers can utilize to support sustainable packaging design.
A lot of consumers would be disappointed to know that numerous items they’ve attempted to recycle or compost actually get diverted to landfills. The reason: Many recyclable and compostable products and packages look too similar to non-sustainable items and can’t easily be differentiated by workers sorting the recycling streams — think flexible packaging and compostable flatware. As a result, recycling and composting centers work under the premise of ‘when in doubt, throw it out.’ Some regional policymakers have even banned some sustainable materials from recycling and compost streams.
As sustainable packaging developers create new materials, they are utilizing existing product and packaging forms to prove them out. ZealaFoam is a great example – it looks and feels like polystyrene, and does the same job as polystyrene, but it’s bio-based and can be disposed of through industrial composting. But how do you expect someone at a composting center to distinguish between the two?
Sounds like a great design challenge, and it is definitely something that design industry professionals needs to consider when it comes to the creative brief for packaging design.