Product, Service & Design Innovation
Thinking About the Box:
The Role of Digital Printing in Packaging Sustainability, Consumer Experience

Brands have a powerful voice and field of influence; by leading by example on digital packaging innovation, they can not only reduce their impact on the environment, but be heroes of change and inspire others to take positive action, as well.

Some 200 years ago, the French government offered a money prize to the inventor who could create the best container for preserving food for Napoleon’s army. The contest presented the tin can, and arguably introduced the concept of ‘packaging,’ to the world. From Napoleon’s tin cans to today’s milk cartons and bubble wrap, packaging has evolved into a gigantic $900 billion industry (McKinsey, 2019) that uses enormous amounts of resources — energy and raw materials.

“Packaging is necessary. It is an important part of how we safely and hygienically transport products around the globe. But we can — and must — do more to reduce the impact that it has on the planet,” says Jose Gorbea, global head of brands, agencies and sustainability innovation at HP Graphic Arts.

According to a report by the Center of International Environment Law packaging accounts for 40 percent of the global demand for plastics — and that plastic ends up everywhere. Packaging waste is polluting coastlines, clogging waterways and, according to the World Economic Forum, is costing the global economy a staggering $120bn every year.

Where there is waste, there is opportunity. New technology is revolutionizing the packaging industry and allowing for major environmental savings.

“The secret to cutting packaging waste is to only produce what you need, without creating unnecessary excess,” Gorbea says.

Digital printing uses technology to transform the outdated and clunky process of analogue printed packaging. By digitizing the print process, it removes cumbersome stages, dramatically improving speed to market and removing the need for minimum order quantities.

Gorbea refers to research by the International Data Corporation that shows that digital printing can reduce supply chain waste by up to 26 percent and cut the carbon footprint of printing by 65 to 80 percent.

There is an impressive list of benefits of digital printing. The process requires less ink and paper than conventional offset printing, which uses plates made from rubber or polyester; each change in copy or design requires a new plate. Each time a new plate is mounted, the press needs to get realigned. In a traditional printing job, at least 15 percent of paper is wasted during test runs. Digital printing reduces that waste to 5 percent, and design changes have very limited material impact.

Conventional printing uses oil-based inks, which requires chemical solvents to clean the printing presses. Digital printing also uses less ink. Moreover, the solid toner is water-based and soluble, and eliminates the need for cleaning chemicals. The chemicals and inks in offset printing also release gases (volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) that can damage human health.

Digital printing also improves the color quality of the print. Offset printing uses combinations of four base colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, or CMYK) to match any color in the spectrum. Digital printing uses five to seven different toners and provides much better color coverage. HP’s digital Indigo printers can reach 97 percent of a Pantone — the industry standard for color identification — color.

However, perhaps the biggest contribution of digital printing is that it fits the ‘just in time’ concept that is driving today’s manufacturing and distribution processes. Traditionally, packaging is produced in volume to benefit from economies of scale. Boxes are stored in warehouses waiting for products to be manufactured and shipped. Often, substantial parts of that inventory are ultimately destroyed or recycled because products, regulation or marketing campaigns change. Just imagine the impact of authorities requiring any additional information on a food label.

Digital printing is fast and flexible. There is no need to pre-print excess inventory. The per-item price may still be a bit higher compared to the cost of high-volume offset printing, but that expense is amply compensated by the reduction in the use of materials and energy. Studies show that companies in the long run can reduce their packaging manufacturing costs up to 50 percent.

Gorbea observes that digital printing can also bring together marketing and sustainability priorities within companies: “Brand marketers sometimes feel disconnected from the sustainability dialogue. But packaging innovation is good for planet, people and profit.”

Packaging no longer serves as just a container. It allows for content marketing, storytelling. Chocolate manufacturer Hershey started an interactive #HerShe campaign to celebrate women and encourage an important gender conversation with changing, digitally printed packaging. The campaign increased consumer engagement while reducing the business’ impact on the environment.

In South Africa, liqueur manufacturer Amarula — known for the elephant on its labels — used digital printing for a special campaign to raise awareness about the dangers elephants face from ivory poachers. Consumers could design individual labels to show their support.

Digital printing allows for personification. Coca-Cola is running a special ‘share a Coke with a friend’ campaign using the 150 most popular names in different states in the US. The flexible process also makes it possible to adjust packaging to seasons — the same candles, for example, can be packaged differently for Valentine’s Day or Christmas.

At HP, the ultimate objective is to make packaging a completely personal experience. Today, packages arrive at our doorsteps like Russian dolls — a box in a box in a box. The shipping and product boxes could become one and contain a message that is specific and relevant to the recipient. Imagine your new hiking shoes arriving in one box that has a recommendation for popular hikes close to where you live, including trail descriptions and maps.

Technology is rapidly transforming the packaging industry. “Packaging is where brands and critical sustainability objectives can meet to drive real change and impact,” Gorbea says.

The secret to cutting packaging waste is with a faster print run — you only produce what you need. And digital print unlocks both efficiencies in cost and time. It can vary by brand, but a typical example would see analogue printing cycles of six to eight weeks reduced to one to two weeks, simply because you don't need to calibrate or produce much of the physical materials (plates and cylinders) used in the printing of packaging.

Take Hershey, for example, with #HerShe. The confectionary giant used digital print to create a truly creative and engaging marketing campaign to celebrate women — all while digitally printing its packaging in a more sustainable way and reducing the business' impact on the environment.

Brands' role in tackling the sustainability challenges we face is truly all-encompassing. It involves every facet of a business. And packaging is where many of these leaders can come together to drive real change and impact.

Brands have a powerful voice and field of influence; and by leading by example on digital packaging innovation, they can not only reduce their impact on the environment, but be heroes of change and inspire others to take positive action, as well.


This interview first appeared in the Sustainable Brands ’21 San Diego program, printed on stone paper by Kamp Solutions. Get a free sample issue of Kamp Solutions magazine here.

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