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The Sustainability Challenge: Why we’re so far behind and what we can do about it.

by Jessica Deseo on 04/22/2016 | 9 Minute Read

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As designers, we have a responsibility to use our skills to solve problems. Our predecessors first tackled the design of objects, quickly followed by the design of systems, and now, as our our global community becomes increasingly demanding and our environment is devastatingly taxed, we are being called upon to design our collective future. Gone are the days when we didn’t need to consider the environmental ramifications of the things we created, replaced by the days of the increasingly conscious consumer. As a result, the demand for sustainable design is proliferating rapidly, and consumers are targeting packaged goods as an area deeply lacking in innovation and ripe for change.

But, as with any large scale change, the costs and challenges associated with this desired change are significant. And as brands, producers and consumers begin to react to this growing demand, there are a few challenges that are important to keep in mind. Here we’ll tackle some of the most common misconceptions about sustainability, the misleading or misused language that surrounds this shift, as well as offer up some conscious steps we can all make more informed choices and help build a more sustainable future for us all.


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Sustainability means many things.One of the most common issues standing in the way of a consumer’s ability to evaluate the environmental impact of a product or package is a lack of clarity in language. Consumer perception and market reality are two different things, and the line between the two is often kept purposefully blurry.  As the use of terms like “natural” or “organic” showed us with food, language can often be very misleading.

Like “natural,” the word “sustainable” has many assumed definitions, encompassing everything from recyclable, biodegradable, environmentally friendly or something with a low carbon footprint. But these terms are too often interchanged, and lack any traditional standards or government regulations, meaning that brands often use this terminology in ways that is confusing or misleading to the consumer. Here’s a little clarification:

The lingo:

Environmentally friendly: referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and policies that inflict reduced, minimal, or no harm upon ecosystems or the environment. - WikipediaWhy it’s confusing: Few to no parameters are in place to quantify this classification, including a dictionary definition. This particular explanation of the term came from Wikipedia, where eco-friendly, nature-friendly, and green are also listed under the same verbiage.

Recyclable: a substance or object that can be recycled. - Oxford DictionaryWhy it’s confusing: while most things can be technically be recycled, what we need to know as consumers is the recycling requirements and infrastructure in place to act on these requirements. Ie., just because it says it’s recyclable doesn’t necessarily mean that you can personally recycle it where you live.

Biodegradable: a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. - Oxford DictionaryWhy it’s confusing: this term can be very misleading. While most consumers might understand this as an item that they can toss into a compost or onto the side of the road, specific conditions are often required for biodegradation, meaning that your conscious efforts to buy biodegradable products might be foiled if you don’t dispose of an item in just the right way.

Carbon footprint: the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person, group, etc. - Oxford DictionaryWhy it’s confusing: Regulations are just now being put in place to help define standard units of measure for carbon emissions.

And finally, sustainability: creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations - International Institute for Sustainable DevelopmentWhy it’s confusing: In the world of consumer packaged goods, this is simply a hard goal to meet. To meet all listed criteria, sustainable packaging needs to be sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy, effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles and must be safe and healthy for individuals and communities. It is incredibly difficult to find a package/product that checks all those boxes and is also competitive on cost and performance.

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Dell Commits to 100% Waste-Free Packaging by 2020

The challenges: 

Demand, demand, demand.Despite our collective awareness as a society that issues of sustainability are increasingly important, we still put a premium on convenience. In the 80’s and 90’s an influx of single-serve packaging radically changed the marketplace. Now, most products that we use can be purchased in single-size portions, from deodorant to water to cheese. This means a considerable increase in waste. To avoid this, there’s a complex demand challenge to overcome. Consumers will need to prioritize sustainability over convenience to the degree that brands and manufacturers see a significant drop in demand, and therefore no longer find it profitable to individually pack items. That’s a huge ask for a consumer culture like ours that value convenience above all else!

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When we are ready to make a lifestyle change to commit to more sustainable purchasing, a lack of transparency can still be a barrier to progress. We’re often vastly unequipped to make the most educated decisions possible because we are only privy to one small piece of the whole picture. What I mean by that is to understand the true sustainability of a product we need to see its full life cycle, something we rarely ever do. How the materials were harvested, refined and shipped are just as vital to the story as what the product is packaged in.

If we narrow the problem down to product packaging, we still run into a roadblock. Intentions aside, a consumer’s decisions are complicated by a lack of continuity in recycling infrastructure from city to city and state to state. Even if you have chosen the most sustainable product produced, whether or not you can recycle it’s packaging is dependent on the resources available in your area. Tetrapak for example, is a recyclable substrate, but did you know that there are only a few specific areas in the world that recycle it?

Looks aren’t everything.

This next challenge is perhaps more controllable, but in many ways more frustrating. Since consumers most often judge “the book by its cover” during purchasing, a troubling trend has emerged - as the demand for green products grows, so has the growth of products attempting to look green. What is referred to as “greenwashing” is an increasingly complex sales tactic where brands position themselves as more sustainable or environmentally conscious than they really are.

Let’s take moulded paper pulp containers, which have been rapidly appearing on our shelves. While the outer container itself is quite sustainable, when it is used to hold a liquid (think wine or laundry detergent) the molded pulp must contain an additional plastic liner or barrier. As it turns out, this barrier, when paired with the molded pulp outer, completely negates the package’s recyclability. Think about it like laminated paper - separately, both the paper and the laminate could potentially be recycled, but together, they’re just headed for the landfill. Same applies for these “green” packages on the shelves. The craft color and organic texture leads consumers to believe that they are making a more responsible choice, when in reality, they’d be better off with a plastic or bottle.

The upside:

While it all seems a bit dark and stormy so far, it’s important to remember that big change is often the result of a lot of little actions. A great first step is a desire to understand the muddy waters, so props to you for reading this piece in the first place! Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with a few of the challenges and misconceptions around creating sustainable products, let’s take a look at the sunnier side. Here are a few things to think about and some resources to help us get started:

Innovation: The increasing demand for sustainability world-wide has already been a catalyst for technological and material advances. And since we can’t solve the sustainability challenge without the help of our technologists and designers, we must continue to support, engage and fund research in the area of sustainable to development to help ensure better options and resources for us all.

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The Anti-Packaging Movement

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5 Sustainable Hurdles to Overcome

Resources:Sustainable Packaging CoalitionInstitute for Conservation LeadershipThe Packaging InstituteBetter Packaging Better World (book)Institute of Packaging ProfessionalsInternational Packaging Institute

Education: Empowerment is a self-fulfilling tool in that multiplies on its own, but consumers must be armed with knowledge before they’re able to make or demand change. Since education on the topic of sustainability can be hard to come by, it’s important that we start dialogues, share information, and fuel debates by educating ourselves and our peers.

Resources:Ecopedia: Behind greenwashingRecycle FinderThe Guardian: Good product, bad packagingTreehugger: Boxed water just as bad as bottled

Consumer power: The beauty of the modern consumer is that he/she is demanding. Once consumers are educated about the issues, they often find ways to rally behind their causes and make smarter choices. And part of that rallying cry means demanding better options from brands and producers. Since brands are driven by customer loyalty, if enough consumers speak about about their desire for sustainable options, brands will listen.

Resources:Oxfam: Behind the BrandWrite your favorite brands directly

Legislation: And where the issue is a bit bigger than a single brand making positive change, legislation can play a huge part. Much like the controversy around “natural” v “organic” it may be that we need to make changes at the state or national level to help us make smarter, more informed decisions.

Resources:Call your SenatorPetition your local government

So while we’re probably not all living quite as sustainably as our product’s packaging made us think we were, there is actually a lot to be excited about, and we’re already on the path towards sustainability. Even just here with this piece, we’ve begun a dialogue and are starting to educate ourselves about the issue; we’re arming ourselves with better knowledge to make better choices, and we’re supporting innovation in the sector, which will help us in leaps and bounds by providing better, more sustainable alternatives to what is currently on the shelves.

All this to say, we’re in it together - whether we’re designers, innovators, politicians or consumers. So remember a few of these facts and nuances next time you’re drawing up a beautiful but over-packaged mock-up, or when you’re buying single serving portions in the grocery store. No matter which part of the chain you touch, we’ve all got a part to play on the journey towards sustainability. Hopefully conversations like these will help us speed up our progress, even by a bit.

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Brandi ParkerHead of Realization, PearlfisherNew York

As the head of New York’s Realization team, Brandi is the common thread between the creative vision and the technical expertise of project execution. A passionate innovator, she draws on over 13 years of design experience to help ensure that Pearlfisher’s designs come to life in ways that exceed both designers’ and clients’ expectations. Constantly inspired by new technologies and capabilities, Brandi loves to experiment. She brings an infectious excitement to the forefront of her workflow, nurturing the strength of the team with ideas that push the boundaries of traditional production. When she’s not leading the Realization team, Brandi’s love for music is tangible and a passion she loves to share – she composes multi-instrumental scores and has released numerous albums.