Sustainable Packaging series: Untangling the Complexity of Sustainability
How do we make packaging more sustainable? As a structural packaging designer, it’s a question that is often asked of me by clients. And while there’s no single answer or cookie-cutter approach to this, there are some guiding principles we can universally use where designers and brands alike can navigate this process together.
What is sustainability?
The answer to this may be obvious to you as a designer, but brands can have a plethora of different ideas about what constitutes ‘sustainability’. The first step towards reducing a brand’s carbon footprint is in understanding what ‘sustainability’ means to them. Does it mean improving ethical credentials? Using less plastic? Reducing carbon emissions? Manufacturing refillable packaging? Or using more efficient transport?
There’s an abundance of changes brands can make in order to operate a more sustainable business. Currently, the reduction, removal or use of recycled plastics is generally seen as the ‘sustainable’ option for brands. Nevertheless, plastic is only one material and one of the many factors that influence the carbon footprint of a product and its packaging.
Not all these factors are implicit in the design of the primary packaging and, as a result, are often overlooked at the point of creation, passing the impact down the supply chain. They become someone else’s problem at a point – too late to influence the design. The packaging world is littered (literally!) with examples of design choices producing less sustainable results. This is why we prefer to work as a collaborative team with our clients, as far up and downstream as practicable. This ensures that everything from material sourcing, to how the product gets into the stores and through to its end of life, are considered and inputted into the design process.
The balancing act
One truism of sustainable design is that all factors are intrinsically linked and changes to improve one can often have a negative effect on others. The result is a constant balancing act.
I was struck by a recent launch of a yoghurt brand. As part of their premium positioning, they’d selected glass jars and highlighted the sustainability credentials of the new 100% recyclable glass packaging. While a consumer might be quick to pick these glass jarred yoghurts over their plastic peers I was slightly more cynical.
Whilst that glass yoghurt jar may be 100% recyclable, does it actually get reused to make more glass yoghurt pots, or maybe whisky bottles? How does this compare to a plastic yoghurt pot which is made of recycled plastic in its second, third or perhaps fourth iteration? Or is it on a one-way journey and being downcycled into things like tiles or concrete because the glass waste stream is not pure? Which is more sustainable?
We’re already hearing from the recycling industry that during the Covid-19 crisis, materials normally recycled have ended up in landfill or incineration as it has not been economically viable to reclaim it. And can you imagine the kind of carbon energy bill that results from keeping a glass furnace hot enough 24/7, 365 days a year?
Maybe some consumers will be inspired to keep the jars and give them a second life for other purposes. Some enterprising Etsy sellers even sell resealable lids for that purpose. However, that will not be the case for the majority, and there’s a limit to how many small glass jars that even an avid collector can amass.
Product life should also be a consideration here. Using glass for a yoghurt that takes approximately 30 seconds to eat seems an incredibly indulgent use of materials, when compared to a glass bottle of whisky that may sit at home for many months. How many yoghurts would a family of 4 consume over a year? That’s a lot of fast-use glass.
While plastic has its own set of issues, one of the major advantages of plastic over glass is its lightness and robust nature which results in many supply chain benefits. If a brand moves from plastic to glass, their transport efficiency would plummet due to the weight of the material. It would also take up more space than the equivalent plastic jar. In addition to this, glass needs more robust secondary and transit packaging, further increasing material use. In fact, I know if we looked at the bill of materials and entire lifecycle, we would find that a glass jar’s carbon footprint is extremely large. Larger than plastics infact.
Try explaining that to a consumer on the back of a yoghurt!
Make do and mend
Some businesses have opportunities to start afresh: a new format with new tooling and new production lines. But most others have to work within an existing infrastructure. It is not easy for a supply chain that has spent years, and large budgets, on a quest for silky-smooth efficiency. For example, imagine a brand that makes and fills plastic bottles, having to rethink and start making, filling, and handling biodegradable pulp packaging. That sort of change is like trying to turn a liner on a sixpence.
One option is to launch a new range or light-house product alongside an existing range, as a first toe-in-the-water to prove a concept. This is a great first step that we’ve used to help many brands. But unless we work together to find the perfect mix of developing a compelling story, demonstrate that there is a broad consumer appeal, and strong commercial viability, there will be little appetite in the boardroom to scale it up.
There is no point in making it more sustainable if no one wants to buy it.
Unless we succeed in building these ‘toe-in-the-water’ projects into core products and brands, bought in their billions, the environmental benefits will remain slight, and run the risk of savvy consumers seeing these as a PR exercise.
Head and Shoulders are famous for their Ocean Plastics initiative. The project, which is a few years old now, makes bottles completely from plastic collected from our beaches. By June 2019 they had collected six tonnes of plastic and made one million bottles: a powerful statement of intent that won a UN ‘Momentum for Change’ award. But critically, three years from launch, has that filtered into the wider portfolio?
Head and Shoulders are working toward making 25% of their packaging from recycled plastic and pledged that it will be 100% by 2030, proving just how hard it is to turn that ship around.
Given that Head and Shoulders is the number one shampoo brand globally, and in 2018 had 13 million users in the UK alone and 32% of the US market [Kantar Media] , it really puts into perspective the scale of the challenge in front of us.
The luxury to shop sustainably
Think of the price tag attached to making packaging changes across multiple factories around the globe. Alongside the millions needed in new equipment, it is highly likely that using more sustainable materials, and converting them into packaging, will be more expensive than what has gone before. As the price of oil has hit an all-time low during the Covid-19 crisis, virgin plastic has become even cheaper. This is compounding the issue. If moving to recycled materials significantly impacts the profit margin, can brands afford to really go all out to be more sustainable? Simply passing on that cost to the consumer is a non-starter, as most of us are unable to see the costs of most brands in our weekly shop rise.
The retail price-sustainability-benefit relationship is a sensitive one.
Wild Deodorants are one of a number of new direct-to-consumer brands, a natural deodorant with a durable aluminium dispenser and plastic-free compostable refills. It looks desirable, works better and the sustainability benefits are clear to see – if you can afford it. Whilst there is clearly a viable business model for an aspirational super-premium natural brand; at £25 for a starter kit and £6 per refill, there is a very limited number of consumers that will be able to trade up from what they spend today in what is largely a commodity category.
So despite a desire to do better, there are a series of factors stacked against us in this move to creating successful sustainable products.
- A fundamental confusion in what is and isn’t more sustainable.
- A difficult material selection process involving a series of trade-offs.
- Significant investment needed in new manufacturing or supply chain.
- Higher material and conversion cost.
At the same time, we have consumers who are intent on making better choices, but when push comes to shove, it often falls back on ingrained biases and the size of their wallets. The only way to solve this on a scale that makes a difference is to deliver something more than sustainability. Together, brands and designers must create compelling packaging that offers better consumer experience through premium sustainable design which doesn’t cost the earth (literally). If we can deliver that, we can deliver commercial viability and growth.
If Wild Deodorant provides an excellent proof of concept, for this to translate to the mass market there has to be a much more accessible consumer benefit. If we asked people to invest only a little more in durable packaging (that is perhaps 25% better than what they have today) they will have an immediate ‘win’ through an improved experience. But the long term pay-off that will create a new behaviour, has to be the savings that can be passed on to them. Refills are cheaper to produce as they need minimal packaging and have less manufacturing costs. It is also easy for consumers to see what has changed as well as the sustainability and cost benefits.
That is why considering the whole supply chain when we are designing the next generation of packaging is so vitally important. So long hidden from view, it needs to be leveraged, celebrated, the effort become part of the brand story, and the actions tangibly reflected in the packaging. Commercial, brand, and consumer needs, must be perfectly balanced.
It is one challenge to have reinvented how you do things more sustainably; it is quite another to make consumers notice it, understand it, and make that vitally important purchase. It is only after brands and designers have mastered this together that we can move forward in our mission towards a more sustainable society.