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The Future Of Sustainable Packaging Is About Being Smarter And More Adaptive

by Diane Lindquist on 10/01/2013 | 6 Minute Read

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"The future of sustainable packaging will not just be in material usage, lightweighting and recycling – it will be about empowering consumers with the ability to lead their lives in a more environmentally positive way. In what ways can your branded packaging enable people to use your product more responsibly and efficiently?"

Ben Sillence, Strategy and Innovation Manger of Path, describes the future of sustainable packaging as being smarter and more adaptive. 

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For more than a decade, packaging has become a key battleground for brands to compete and communicate their sustainability credentials. With packaging being such a visual and tactile touch-point between consumer and brand, innovations have come thick and fast – from lightweighting glass bottles, to using organically based inks.

However, the sustainability movement has evolved consumer perceptions – sustainable packaging is no longer seen as a bonus or a value added feature. Instead it’s expected as default that brands will produce designs that are lighter, more recyclable and less wasteful.

Such is the value put on sustainable packaging by consumers that a recent survey by IPSOS found that 55% of people would pay more for eco-packaging. Just as interesting is the fact that those in South Africa, Malaysia and India were most likely to say this, as people in developing economies start to put greater emphasis on sustainable living.

In China, Unilever has recognised the growing ecological concern of urban residents and has produced more products in a refillable format to encourage re-usability. The Chinese government has also realised the aspiration among it’s urban population to improve living conditions by reducing pollution, improving air quality and having cleaner city streets. As a result, in 2012 the government pledged to significantly reduce packaging waste and promote recycling by 2015. 

A dominant aspect of the Neo-Eco trend is the growing awareness among brands that having a greener approach to their business not only provides a marketing advantage, but also financial benefits too.

For example, British retailer M&S expects to save £70million by 2015 through its sustainable packaging initiative, Plan A.

Other brands have seen rising fuel prices and landfill taxes as key economic reasons to innovate their packaging, with lightweighting and concentrated product formats particularly popular. Such is the drive among companies to reduce their product footprint, that many FMCG brands are reducing the amount of landfill they are responsible for by 30% by 2015 (Mintel).

Coca-Cola and Nestle are two such brands, as they seek to reduce production costs as well as their environmental footprint. The lightweighting of the Coca-Cola glass bottles has been well publicised, as has the efforts by Buxton and Pure Life to reduce the amount of PET used in their bottles by 25%.

Sustainable design cues are also moving away from cliché uses of brown paper and card, with a refocusing on packaging being more intelligent, self-regulatory and adaptive to the market. Neo-Eco packaging has become about the addition of technology, not just the reduction of materials.

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The Sustainable Expanding Bowl is one such example – designed by Anna Glancen, Hanna Billquist and Swedish research company Innventia, the packaging expands into a bowl that users can eat from when hot water is added. Created predominantly for freeze-dried food, the pack comes in a compressed state and is made from bio-based and bio-degradable materials. 

As consumers increasingly expect sustainable packaging to have intelligent, reactive design attributes, brands will continue to produce more packs with transformational properties.

The perception that sustainable packaging should provide better material properties than the non-sustainable equivalents has even led some premium brands to experiment with new and innovative substrates.

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Veuve Clicquot has recently produced a bio-degradable pack using potato starch and recycled paper. Despite obviously being a sustainable pack execution, the key feature is the isothermal properties of the material that will keep the champagne bottle cool for up to two hours after being removed from the fridge. The use of the materials also allows a handle to be moulded into it, creating a packaging that is convenient, provides better performance and positions the product as well suited for an outdoor / picnic scenario – a considerable advantage over it’s competitors.

Importantly, this shows that using a sustainable approach to packaging can result in better product experience and a move away from packaging that is good because it’s sustainable, and towards packaging that is better through being sustainable.

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Other brands have used sustainable packaging to create stories, such as the Method‘Ocean Plastic’ range that uses bottles created from blend of recycled plastic and plastic collected from the oceans. Although this execution is undoubtedly sustainable, it also clearly highlights the millions of tons of plastic that make its way into our oceans. Using tactile cues, like the ridges usually found on sea urchins, also help reinforce the message. Not only does this type of packaging have a positive effect on the brand perception, but also uses structural packaging to tell a story and educate the consumer.

Sustainable packaging will continue to be a key area of development for brands looking to not only improve their image with consumers, but also provide a better product experience and, ultimately, improve the bottom line. However, Unilever recently reported that global consumer usage accounts for almost 95% of the green house gas emissions associated with its soaps, shower gels and shampoo’s.

This would indicate that the future of sustainable packaging should not only be about becoming more efficient and recyclable, but also empowering positive changes in consumer lifestyles – helping the global consumer lead a life that’s more convenient and aspirational, but with a limited impact on the environment.

Key Take-Outs

  • Using sustainable packaging is no longer seen as a value added feature – it’s expected as standard. Look to see how your packaging can be inherently sustainable, from it’s manufacture, through to usage and disposal.
  • Developing economies are becoming increasingly concerned over the environment and the adverse affect pollution has on their aspirations for a better quality of life. Can your brand accommodate local environmental needs, and develop sustainable solutions that can work without an established or reliable recycling infrastructure?
  • Neo-Eco is the next evolutionary step in how sustainability is addressed in packaging, with new innovations in material technology improving the product experience. Look to see if your brand can improve both the functionality and ecological credentials of its packaging through the use of new substrate technology, not just by reducing material usage.
  • The future of sustainable packaging will not just be in material usage, lightweighting and recycling – it will be about empowering consumers with the ability to lead their lives in a more environmentally positive way. In what ways can your branded packaging enable people to use your product more responsibly and efficiently?
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About Ben Sillence


Ben Sillence is a creative strategist with a background in product and packaging design, and joined Path as their Strategy and Innovation Manager in 2012.

With a belief that strategic innovation works best with creative thinking, he has helped grow some of the worlds largest brands, such as JTI, SABMiller, P&G, Dell, PepsiCo and Kraft. Ben also acts as author and editor of Mapº, a monthly trends briefing piece from Path that seeks to inform brand leaders through trend analysis, and inspire fresh thinking.