It was just a few months ago, in February, that the AF&PA (American Forest & Paper Association) released a comprehensive research document in which it surveyed a number of paper mills around the US, offering then some guidelines on how to make more sustainable packaging. Whether you are in the US, in the UK or from any other part of the world, the guide from the AF&PA is an excellent resource to start designing sustainable today, as it informs designers and manufacturers on the most important challenges to recycling paper today.
One thing is incredibly evident from the AF&PA guidelines: it isn’t enough to employ cardboard to make something automatically recyclable. All sorts of different elements, such as coating, adhesives and labels, can make the process of recycling paper-based packaging much more challenging. That is why it is more important than ever today to design sustainable packaging and think about your design choices from the very start of the process.
When I reached out to Helen Davies, Production and Sustainability Manager at creative agency LOVE, one thing she mentioned stood out to me in an exceptional manner: “at the end of the day, you are designing tomorrow’s rubbish.” That kind of mindset is incredibly relevant for the times we live in, especially seen the average lifespan of any piece of packaging.
Still, it is undeniable that packaging is an important asset for any brand out there. It is the first thing that consumers will see when approaching a product for the first time, the first and most crucial touchpoint between the audience and a brand. Packaging is so much more than just mere design in which to wrap a product. So how do you actually design sustainable?
I had a lovely chat with Helen, who will be featured all over this piece from now on, to discuss the matter in more depth.
Image credit: Chang Hyon Lee
How to design sustainable
It was just yesterday that we talked about why packaging is so much more important than what any brand could ever conceive. It is a means by which brands can communicate their brand values and designers should keep that in mind when coming up with the next piece of recyclable packaging.
Plus, there is the already mentioned issue of tomorrow’s rubbish. Helen says: “With packaging (especially secondary and tertiary packaging) the useful lifespan is so short that the end of life must be considered. How would the designer feel seeing their packaging design littering ocean floors on Blue Planet 2030?”
However, Helen adds that sustainable design is an opportunity, not a limitation. It is a chance for designers to question the status quo and challenge clients to think more sustainably with their packaging. “It doesn’t have to mean boring brown cardboard, preachy messaging and recycling statistics. The challenges of sustainable design encourage creativity.”
Even if sustainable design were a form of limitation, any designer in the industry will tell you that creativity thrives in adversity and it is only when challenged that creatives are able to create the most compelling pieces of work. We need only look at all the marvellous campaigns created in 2020 to have a proof of that.
The most innovative sustainable solutions
Sustainability must be more than a box-ticking exercise, and that we said multiple times in these pages. Keeping that in mind, the industry is full of examples of incredibly inspiring sustainable solutions. Helen cites the Carlsberg Snap Pack for its simplicity, and the Ruinart Champagne’s second skin packaging made from moulded paper pulp. The former replaces “plastic 6-pack rings with simple glue dots to save an estimated 1200 tonnes of plastic per year,” while the latter “uses the honesty and tactility of the material to celebrate the brand story, whilst offering big carbon savings.”
Image credit: Carlsberg Group
But perhaps the most interesting and innovative trends that is rising currently is the refill revolution. Brands such as Ocean Saver and others are experimenting with a fully sustainable business model centred around refills. Dettol is doing something similar.
Whilst it may sound like this approach is limited or more sustainable for household products, in truth it is starting to spread well beyond that realm. According to Helen, “even luxury beauty and fragrance, industries that rely so heavily on the quality cues of resource and carbon heavy glass packaging, are embracing low-resource pouches and pods as a refill solution, elevating the original bottle to almost heirloom status.”
Common challenges and how to overcome them
Some clients may be wary of adopting sustainable solutions now, especially if that solution or material is just at the early stages of its development. The problem is that the planet will not wait for us to find a solution affordable, and designers are encouraged to challenge the status quo whenever possible.
If a client, brand or agency has always operated in a certain way, it is likely that a move to sustainable solutions will be pursued as a PR-able move to get into the headlines and have the business noticed in the eyes of the public. It is a common concern, and one that is also legit to a certain extent. So long as the client doesn’t fall into the practice of Greenwashing, it makes sense to worry for the future of the business and how it is perceived.
However, some innovative sustainable materials and solutions are still finding their way into manufacturers and supply chains, meaning they won’t always be readily available, and that above all they may not be cheap. Helen lists time and money as the prime and most familiar struggles with which LOVE’s clients have to clash. “Truly innovative solutions can take months if not years to develop,” Helen adds. “There are some quick fixes that don’t cost the earth (in more ways than one), but they don’t usually generate the headlines that clients are chasing.”
Clearly the appeal of PR stunts is much more tempting than the silent introduction of a new sustainable practice in the business. However, it is imperative that businesses find a balance of both, especially with the help of designers and agencies from all around the industry. Only then will we start reaching true sustainability, moving ahead on a path which is still incredibly long for all of us.
Image credit: SomeOne
Some useful resources for sustainable design
It used to be way more challenging to find some resources for sustainable design, but with the new push towards sustainability, a lot more companies and agencies are trying to help with creating a better future.
The most obvious resources come from official associations. Pro Carton is always a great place to look for inspiration, especially thanks to their European Carton Excellence Award. The company’s general manager, Tony Hitchin, has also been featured on these pages quite a few times.
Then there is the American Forest & Paper Association and the guidelines they published in February, as mentioned in the opening of this piece. The AF&PA guidelines are an exceptional way to start thinking sustainable at all stages of the manufacturing process, especially when it comes to designing all those shiny works of packaging that will wrap our clients’ products.
Nike has also created a Circular Design Guide to help designers work on products that last longer and are intrinsically recyclable. From material choices to circular packaging, durability and more, Nike’s guide is excellent for any designer and manufacturer, not to mention fully in line with Nike’s commitment to sustainability.
Lastly, Helen from LOVE recommends the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and their reports, incredibly useful for any designer out there. Both the Reusable Packaging and the Circular Design Toolkit documents are available for free and should be an essential tool in any designer’s belt.
Image credit: Ian Perkins for Adidas
Sustainability starts at a corporate level
All of what we discussed in this piece goes a long way to show that sustainability is more than just a cool design solution. It has to be approached as a mindset and sometimes a whole new way to envision design, totally different, implemented and embedded into the manufacturing process from start to finish, from production to transport and distribution. A piece of design can only, truly, be considered sustainable when every aspect of the process has a net positive effect on the environment, and not just by offsetting. In truth, Helen concludes, “sustainable design is the visible part of what should be a much larger conversation.”
It starts at a corporate level.