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5 Sustainability Questions Agencies and Studios Need To Ask Clients and Brands

by Rowena Curlewis on 03/23/2023 | 5 Minute Read

It has never been clearer that all businesses and brands need to step up their efforts to improve their sustainability. 2023 is barely underway, and from North America to New Zealand, extreme weather reports and environmental disasters are already rolling in. 

This urgency has filtered down to consumers. According to recent research from Deloitte, 45% of Gen Z shoppers stopped buying certain brands because of ethical or sustainability concerns. Any brand agency that doesn't make it a core element of its work is doing a less-than-stellar job and alienating consumers. It's no longer a matter of creating a policy for the website or making claims of sustainability when only one element of the packaging gets made from recycled material; greenwashing has absolutely no place here, and every agency and design studio should expect to be asked tough questions on a brand’s sustainability positioning and impact. 

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At Denomination, being a partner in the sustainability of any brand means securing our future and theirs. We won’t be able to work with a wine brand if there isn’t an environment to grow grapes in. Here are the five questions we use to get to the heart of a client’s sustainability position, and it’s what the whole branding and packaging industry needs to be asking too.

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Where does sustainability fit into your brand or company’s vision?

When we asked this question three years ago, most brands would say it didn’t feature prominently in their goals. 

These days, that’s changed. People are more aware that it’s something to at least consider, even if they haven’t factored it into their long-term strategy. Some brands are way ahead in how they envision their packaging, recycling methodology, energy usage, or carbon footprint; with others, it's merely on their radar. Wherever they are, agencies need to hone in on how a brand sees sustainability fitting into its future. 

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Where are you on the sustainability journey?

Our responsibility as an agency is to ensure that sustainability is high on our client's agenda. But, as I mentioned, some are doing better than others. 

Some brands are not as far along in that journey as they first think or would like to think and quickly find that, when it comes to packaging, there's an awful lot to consider. There are, of course, brands out there that are greenwashing. It’s not as simple as using recyclable materials in packaging; agencies must push brands on this. Have they considered the ink they are using? The weight of the product? There are plenty of subsidiary factors you'll need to examine when you're working out whether a client is really as green as they claim to be. 

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What areas of sustainability are you most concerned about?

That is likely the question clients find the hardest to answer because there are many aspects to developing more sustainable solutions. It’s possible to get lost in it all. 

Some wine bottles are made with recycled PET that are lightweight—the ergonomics of the pack mean you can fit a lot more vino inside, and then the bottles can get recycled again. But, it's still plastic (even though you are curbing emissions by abstaining from using heavier glass). These are critical details any packaging design agency and their brand need to know, and they can’t shy away from addressing them just because it’s complicated. Create clarity about where best to start and where the brand can make changes that will have the best impact—but force them to be honest with themselves. What areas have they missed? Where do they need to make the most improvements?  

It’s essential to find these sustainable solutions and balance that with having a successful and financially stable brand. If the brand can’t make money, it’s not sustainable. 

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Do you really know what your consumers want in terms of sustainability?

Each brand has a different target audience, and that audience will have its own sense of urgency about climate action. With brands targeted at Gen Z and millennials, the expectation for that pack to be sustainable is very high. Brands need to make sure that there is a connection between what the consumer values and what they put into the market. At the end of the day, you still need your brand to be successful, or it won’t be sustainable.

We have come across brands whose target audience doesn’t see sustainability as a priority—that's because, generally speaking, they target slightly older generations. Even so, those brands will one day need new consumers, and those younger generations do see sustainability as the priority. If you're stuck with an audience that's dying off, the brand won't have longevity.

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Which suppliers do you use for your packaging materials, and are you happy for us to work with them to create more sustainable pack solutions

It’s crucial to look at every element of the packaging. One of the problems facing brands is that every supplier will have a vested interest. Paper manufacturers want to talk about the benefits of paper over plastic. Sure, you can recycle glass—but how heavy is it? What sort of ink do label printers use? We are always trying to push every supplier we meet to really think about their sustainability. That needs to be a very frank conversation between everyone. The crisis we're facing won’t get any better if every person in the supply chain doesn’t make improvements.  

Every agency out there needs to be asking these detailed questions. It’s no good for brands to only make one or two sustainable choices and call it a day. There needs to be an honest appraisal of every element of the packaging journey. The heating of the globe is having such a massive effect on the weather patterns around the world, and consumers can see that. Unless we do everything we can to prevent disaster, we won't have an industry to work in. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Packamama's bottles are not recyclable in Australia. This is not true—they can, in fact, be recycled.