Originally posted on The Guardian by Tracy Sutton.
Taking a holistic approach to consumer goods packaging, it is possible to be sustainable, innovative and profitable.
Global brands manufacture on an industrial scale, co-ordinating worldwide logistics to ensure consumers can enjoy their product from any country in the world, at any time. From crunchy New Zealand braeburn apples to nutty Peruvian potatoes, consumers can choose what they want, when they want it. Without packaging, this choice would not be possible, however. While its core function is to protect and preserve the product inside, it is often seen as a leftover inconvenience.
According to WRAP, food and packaging waste in the UK grocery sector is worth £6.9bn and an estimated 6.5 megatonnes of waste arises in the grocery retail supply chain annually, of which packaging accounts for around 1.2 megatonnes.Government figures for 2012/13 (pdf) highlighted that in the UK, 22.6m tons of household waste is thrown away each year – that's 423kg of waste per person. The story is very different elsewhere in the world.
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In Cambodia and Laos for example, discarded packaging becomes a useful secondary raw material that has both personal and monetary value. Plastic bags and packaging film is stuffed into empty plastic bottles and become building 'bricks'. Children are paid for the empty cans and bottles they gather from the streets and beaches. And some supermarkets in Peru pay cash per kilogram for packaging returned to the store.
By contrast, in the western world consumers have a transient relationship with packaging. Brandowners are cutting down on packaging weight and volume and integrating recycled content into the packaging material. Going down these paths has financial benefits and helps boost perceived brand value.
Innocent has been working hard to integrate recycled content into its packaging since 2003 as part of its sustainable packaging strategy. Recycled plastic content is currently at 50% across juice and smoothie bottles and 25% on carafes. The smoothie brand is also striking a balance between FSC sources and recycled content in its paper and cardboard packaging. Louise Stevens, head of sustainability at Innocent says: 'It's part of our ambition to leave things a little bit better than we find them. As part of this vision we are always looking for new packaging material sources that mean we can lower our footprint.'
Genuine product innovations can stem from a design process where product and packaging is seen as a single unit. This results in serious savings in packaging overall, as seen by cosmetics company, Lush, in its virgin raw material products.
"Packaging is considered right from the product innovation stage," says Gabbi Loedolff senior ethical buyer at Lush. "Last year our global sales of 'naked' solid shampoo bars saved the equivalent of 9,000,000 plastic bottles being used."
Another material-saving solution is to squeeze more final product into less single-use packaging by increasing the concentration of a formula. On-shelf examples include Robinson's super concentrate Squashd fruit squash, Unilever'scompressed deodorants, and household cleaning products company Splosh sells concentrated refills via an online platform.
Designers and manufacturers are realising that the so-called circular economy offers a rich vein of product innovation. Brands are seeing possibilities in collaborative work and new business models.
"We are working to introduce as many closed loops as possible and our next step is the launch of our Green Hub, a facility in Poole where we will sort and process our different waste streams on site," says Loedolff of Lush.
Lush takes minimising packaging seriously with 46% of products sold 'naked', and many other products sold in reusable packaging or refillable pots.
"Our cardboard waste goes back to the manufacturer that produces our cardboard boxes to be recycled and returned to us as new cardboard boxes; last year we returned 168 tonnes of card. We run a 'bring back' scheme in our shops, where for every five empty black Lush pots customers return they receive a free fresh face mask.
"These returned pots then feed back into our post consumer PP (polypropylene) stream to be turned into new black pots locally in Poole. Last year more than 189,000 black pots were returned through our stores, accounting for 5.5% of our total polypropylene requirement for our black pots."
Sustainable design is, unarguably, an intelligent approach to consumer goods and packaging manufacture. Lifecycle design thinking enables both product and pack to be considered as a whole, functioning optimally together within the specific consumer environment and climate. While focus is often on the product itself, many economic and brand benefits can be gained from considering the value of so called 'waste' throughout the lifecycle of the product and packaging.Sustainable design is a powerful creative tool that enables interplay between consumer needs, local and world economies, natural resources and climate.
Tracy is a brand sustainability strategist and the founder of Root
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