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Connecting the Dots of Sustainable Packaging

Brandi Parker, Head of Realization

Sustainability is at the forefront of the public consciousness. At best, this means we are all more educated, thus, motivated to make noise. At worst, the term “sustainability” has become another limp piece of jargon used for attention-getting.

As designers at a brand and design consultancy, we know that affecting change in design, materials and environmental footprints of brands will involve a gradual and consistent transition period. It can be overwhelming to think about a starting point, stakeholders, brand value and revising existing production methods. We know because we’ve been there with many of our clients. But there’s an approach to lightening impact and a way of thinking, which creates the opportunity to do more by using less.

Building and keeping momentum

The 2017 documentary, Blue Planet II, illustrated the major waste problem in our oceans in an especially effective way. 37 million viewers in the UK woke up and paid attention to the environmental warnings from presenter David Attenborough who said, “The world’s oceans are turning into a ‘toxic soup’ of industrial waste and plastic, putting the future of humanity at risk.” In the months after the documentary was released, organizations such as the film’s parent company, BBC, set goals to ban single-use plastic by 2020. Even on an individual level, viewers reported a newfound urge to reduce their own use of plastic knowing its role in polluting the oceans.

With the vastness of our planet and sustainable concerns, having a focal point is helpful for a sense of scale and serves as a great starting point to command the attention of brands, but oceans can’t be our only area of focus.

According to Forbes, Millennial consumers are 73 percent more likely to pay more for a product that comes from a sustainable product. This demand for brands to do well as a function of “doing good” is likely to become more pervasive in the future.

With the build-up of awareness and energy, how can we do the most and make the most change? Keep momentum. Just as your basic self-help guide would suggest, making baby steps toward your goals is better than attempting to make too large of changes or no change at all.

Building balance between brand vs. consumer responsibility

Historically, brands have pointed their fingers at consumers when discussing responsible consumption. But this is not a burden for one group or the other.

Of course, brands should continue to educate the consumer on recycling, reuse and other post-purchase activities as a way of dealing with their sustainable responsibility. However, this cannot be their only initiative or else brands deflect their role in responsible practices by saying to us, “Here, consumer, you throw this away.” Brands can also take more active roles earlier in the creation, production and distribution processes to create solutions prior to products coming into market.

Consumers are a large part of the solution at the end of a product’s life, but brands can help dictate lifespan by designing away poor decisions. Let’s shift that weight in an equitable way.

Combat the complexities, narrow your focus

When it comes to optimizing packaging materials and the products they contain, the list of considerations is extensive: public and food safety, shelf-life, structural integrity or protection, and communication and more. The tangled solutions as a result are equally overwhelming. Add sustainability to the equation and you’ve got a regular exponential math problem on your hands.

This means overwhelmed brands often don’t know where to start. In fact, even if they’re pursuing positive change, many do it quietly out of fear of being criticized for doing it wrong or not doing enough.

There’s no silver-bullet solution to solve everything at once, but many corporations have begun by establishing a goal and a target date to see that goal to fruition. By focusing in on the recyclability and renewable factors of the packaging, McDonalds have stated, “By 2025, 100 percent of McDonald’s guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources.” This is not to exclude the list of other long-term goals, but serves as a focal point for the first step. The great news is many corporations are following suit.

Lightweighting our approach to sustainable brand behavior

At Pearlfisher, we’ve called our philosophy of working sustainably with brands, “Lightweighting”. Taken both literally and figuratively, Lightweighting can simply mean using less material in a given solution to come away with the same result. It also can extend beyond the literal meaning and translate to lightening the burden of sustainability for brands by identifying a pathway to business goals as unique to the brand as their own story, history or offering. This way, brands are positioned to take a design-centered, holistic approach to solutions and focus on doing more with less.

We highlighted the complexity of sustainability, and in light of it, we still must find ways forward.

Sustainable design occurs on a spectrum

As part of our lightweighting model, we’ve created a continuum of sustainable design. It’s a way to stress-test our designs to be created for either obsolescence (short-life) or for eternal use (long-life). Read: single-use and biodegradable versus well-made and reusable. Staying true to the idea there is no silver bullet solution, this spectrum allows for a gradient of solutions and ideas. All of which emanate from our current state toward aspirational targets in either direction.

At the center of the continuum, you would find examples of packaging on par with today’s sustainable design. Take, for example, L’oreal’s personal care packaging, which uses a water-resistant paper bottle instead of traditional plastic packaging. It makes great strides reducing the amount of plastic used by creating the shell out of recycled corrugated board and paper labels. However, the current complexity of plastic pumps makes them non-recyclable. Coupled with the High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) inner pouch, this packaging becomes positioned further from short-life status and closer to today’s “used today, here forever” state of design.

An exemplary piece of design demonstrating single-use or limited use products that consumers can dispose of knowing it will compost or be recycled is the Eco 6 Pack Rings made from by-product waste and compostable materials. Breweries and brands across the globe, like Saltwater Brewery, are using the 6-pack rings to safeguard their packaging in the event that it isn’t composted responsibly and ends up in the ocean, where it will still disintegrate within days.

Toward the eternal life side of the spectrum, we’re sure to see some innovative, new concepts. Or maybe some more nostalgic models like TerraCycle’s Loop program – a subscription delivery service (think 1950’s milk delivery) intended to increase reusable packaging amongst consumers. Brands like Pepsi, Nestle, Pantene, Gillette and more have committed to trial this program, which launches this spring, in which goods will be delivered by UPS. When consumers finish the products, they can schedule a return and the system will ensure packaging is cleaned and replenished for purchase.

To be used by brands and agencies alike, this spectrum holds space for products and packaging that are making strides toward sustainable design. Because there won’t be one, singular solution for sustainable design, we’ve created this spectrum specifically to allow for aspirational end points, along with gradients of solutions in-between.

If plastic is the enemy, what’s our ally?

In terms of packaging materials, people often ask “what is the more sustainable alternative to X”, but that’s not the question they should be asking. Instead, we should ask, what are we able to do differently with what we have today?

First, we have to unpack packaging. In the case of food packaging, for example, replacements for plastic don’t yet exist that can tick every box when it comes to protecting food, extending product shelf-life and fitting into available budgets. Even the best material innovations, thus far, have illuminated new limitations, confirming that replacing plastic isn’t a like-for-like substitution. However, the pursuit of new material options has allowed us to challenge decades-old convention in problem solving where the cheapest option is viewed as the best no matter the cost to the environment.

As you can see, talking about alternatives to plastic is not a straightforward consideration, especially in the world of food packaging. And if what we need to do is replace plastic, then we should make sure what we’re replacing it with is truly better, and not worse in another way.

Shifting the paradigm

As designers, it’s just as critical that we are becoming more familiar with the process and with what’s possible. Whether we’re focused on materials, behaviors or both, we can’t continue with our collective status quo. Our “on-the-go” convenience culture has certainly made life easier in many ways, but the shortcuts have encouraged increased levels of waste in our modern lives that we can’t ignore. Breaking from that habitual thinking will again take concerted effort on the parts of consumers and brands alike.

There isn’t just one solution for sustainability – there are many. Some will require multiple phases over time to get where we need to be. Still others might require a more collaborative approach as we take on the task of designing more sustainable brand behavior for the future. Regardless of the details, Lightweighting our brand design to be fit for purpose is the answer.

If you’re interested in what Pearlfisher’s Lightweigting design manifesto could mean for your brand, get in touch and our team will get back to you:

This article was also published on The Dieline.

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