Designers – the new plastic surgeons: Designing it out, not putting it in

Published by

Jonathan Ford, Creative Partner & CEO

From Davos to Iceland, the last month has seen Governments, retailers and brands pledging – and taking – action to stop plastic pollution. Their commitment, campaigning and crusading is vital. And we are already seeing people change their daily behaviours and choices when it comes to packaging and particularly, the scourge of single-use plastic. But, the onus and responsibility is now firmly in our hands. Designers now need to step up to push and realise this opportunity. Designers are the new plastic surgeons – and we need to make it desirable for brands to design it out at all levels, and not put it in.

Plastic, when it was introduced 70 years ago was viewed as a wonder material and revolutionised the life of brands and consumer with shiny, new product and packaging solutions. Extremely versatile, durable and pliable, plastic was highly desirable. Not anymore. Now, it is fast becoming the most vilified undesirable. Of the 8 million tons of plastic a year that goes into the ocean, not all of it is packaging, but a high proportion of it is. And it is packaging, and its components, that floats to the surface of our oceans, washes ashore, chokes sea life and is a highly visible problem that needs to be, and can be, solved either by choice or design.

The plastic tide needs to turn – and there are three ways we can start to drive – and design out – the change:

1.    Make change today: Switch.

Choose readily available alternatives to single-use & non-recyclable packaging and do it now. If you are a brand, consumer or designer your choice forces that change on others. Give no options. Do you need a plastic straw or stirrer? No. Swapping plastic for a paper straw is an easy, positive step and symbolic of many choices that can be simply switched to now if there is a commitment to change. The next step is to stop wrapping items we use in our everyday lives that do not require plastic packaging.

2.    Cut it out: Design out the problem.

Brands and designers have a moral responsibility to co-create options that use far less wasteful packaging formats, introduce better substrates and which harness genuinely reusable and recyclable systems. In doing so, they can reframe the brand experience to have a more sustainable stance embedded within. For example, if laundry liquid comes in soluble pods, why can’t the outer packaging also be soluble? In doing so to save us from that hideous single-use plastic box that is destined for ocean or landfill for thousands of years? Whole categories of brand consumption could be redesigned to suit new brand consumption criteria and responsibilities. Conspicuous or mixed packaging cues that for ages have defined luxury, for example, will soon be considered, if not already, the vulgar veneer that they really are and create rejection rather an irrepressible sense of desire.

3.    Do nothing. With even the U.K. Prime Minister responding to the many plastic-free ocean campaigners and galvanising support for the idea of a #PlasticFreeAisle, we all know that gratuitous plastic use is clearly becoming the new antisocial face of packaged brands. It’s not going away. Laws are changing, loyalty will change and then consumers will start boycotting you to make better choices. If you don’t change then your brand desirability index, along with your market share and share price, is most likely to fall.  Of course, I’m not suggesting that option 3 is an option at all – I am merely pointing out that for the cynics who say there is no option, that it’s too hard to change or that consumers don’t care, these will be the brands and producers that will fast find themselves being out-paced and on the back foot while others take the lead. It’s your choice.

Yes, we do need packaging – we just need better, more sustainably designed and creative solutions which can, in turn, affect human behaviour around packaging and its lifetime. None of us yet have all the answers but by changing our minds and behaviour now, we will start to change the future. By just making a start, we can collaboratively and positively make a change for the long-term. Closed loop recycling may be the answer for Brand A, but material innovation may be by far the most pertinent solution for Brand B. Each brand is different and therefore the solutions are too, but single-use, non-recyclable plastic use must stop.

At Pearlfisher, we are currently working with major brands to look at every aspect of their ethos and process to not just find the most conscientious solutions but also ones that may be ownable and unique to them – while always ensuring that we are enhancing that all-important packaging and therefore brand experience. As this design thinking and communication creates new-found desire, respect and equity for these brands, as it surely will, it will also automatically push for change and better solutions along the whole manufacturing and supply chain. It absolutely is a domino effect.

And just as we are looking at new solutions for, and new ways of working with our clients, in what is our 25th year, we have also decided to make a design statement on this complex yet simple theme with an exhibit at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower ShowThe Pearlfisher Garden, the first underwater themed garden at Chelsea, will invite everyone to reflect on the issues of how to change our use of plastic and the consequences of what happens if we don’t cut it out.

It’s not about feeling obligated. It’s about caring about how the world looks – and functions – and making it a whole lot more desirable by choice and by design. The design industry needs to have its scalpels at the ready to start radically transforming the face of plastic packaging. And as we use our expertise and ability to embrace our new roles as plastic surgeons, our ultimate aim must be to design for zero waste – and even design ourselves out of business.

Jonathan originally posted this article on LinkedIn which can be found here



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