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Connecting the Dots of Sustainable Packaging

by Brandi Parker on 03/26/2019 | 6 Minute Read

Sustainability is at the forefront of public consciousness. At best, this means we are all more educated and motivated to make noise. At worst, the term "sustainability" has become another 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 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 the 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.

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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. As a result, the solutions are 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, McDonald’s has stated that “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.


At Pearlfisher, we’ve called our philosophy of working sustainably with brands, “Lightweighting." Taken both literally and figuratively, Lightweighting means 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.

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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). There's single-use and biodegradable, and then there's 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.

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 in 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 get 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 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 launching this spring in which goods get 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 solution for sustainable design, we’ve created this spectrum specifically to allow for aspirational endpoints, along with gradients of solutions in-between.

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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.

While talking about alternatives to plastic is not a straightforward consideration, if what we need to do is replace plastic, then we should make sure what we’re replacing it with is considerably 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. On-the-go convenience culture has 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 a concerted effort on the part of consumers and brands alike.

The trend of consumers changing their spending habits to favor brands with smaller environmental footprints will only become more pervasive with time. But with the build-up of awareness and energy, how can we do the most while making the most change?

By keeping momentum. As consumers opt for pricier, sustainable products, brands can’t afford to stand idly by. Såomewhere in that phase between awareness and action where potential is bottled-up, designers can meet brands where they are to un-muddy the waters by first explaining the possible routes and solutions based on organization-specific goals, then mapping out the tiered and timed approaches to change brand behavior and finally, improve the brand’s output through new design.

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.

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