First published on The Drum, March 2021
Beyond the strong moral (and sheer existential) arguments for significantly improving the sustainability of consumer products across the board, it’s now also simply good business; sustainability is cited as a key concern to consumers, and so it must also be to marketers. While in 2020 the pandemic dominated headlines, research has shown consumers have become more, not less, worried about the natural world in the last year.
But the very same consumers also demand great-looking products and we can’t risk their heads being turned by another brand’s packaging by compromising the look and feel of ours. A combination of beautiful, impactful and premium looks and significantly more environmentally friendly executions are not at odds with each other. Improvements in materials, processes and the innovation workflow itself make it eminently achievable.
What does sustainability mean to your brand?
It’s a question every brand should ask itself – and the answer will vary. Some packaging is really part of the product itself. As an example, collectors’ TV boxsets contain plastic, but they are treasured for years and decades. Some packaging may not be kept as part of the product but can be reused with minimal effort rather than thrown away. Some of these are by default, as in the case of premium glass bottles, which are often featured on Pinterest and in magazines as vases, candle holders or objets d’art. Some are by design; the paint company Little Greene delivers its DTC sales of paint in a range of cardboard boxes designed to look like dollhouses of different proportions.
But clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The highest-profile and potentially most deadly environmental issue is rising carbon emissions – a complex challenge that requires a multifaceted solution.
The use of recycled materials in packaging is generally seen as a blanket positive and it certainly has many pros. It uses less energy and creates demand for large-scale recycling, putting positive pressure on improvements in technology and investment in services in turn. But there’s also an argument to be made for new materials; FSC/PEFC certified materials support managed forestry, which supports carbon absorption. After all, we can’t recycle our way out of global warming.
Sustainable by design
Plastics, and choice of materials more broadly, are just one consideration in innovating for sustainability. There are many more that receive fewer headlines but are just as vital. For example, the use of some inks and hot glues can be detrimental to recycling, as are foils. Lamination and glitter can render material non-recyclable. The way in which different materials are put together can also make separating materials for recycling harder or easier.
But to make a real impact on emissions, there’s still more to think about, such as minimising the sheer volume of packaging by using no more components or material than necessary and designing ready-to-ship packaging that doesn’t require e-commerce platforms, which increasingly dominate purchasing, to box the box for shipping. Minimising the amount of air (unused space) in each pack and making packs fully stackable to minimise wasted space on pallets can improve the efficiency of the transport journey, reducing overall emissions (not to mention saving costs). Away from design, the choice of delivery partner and evaluation of their fleets of vehicles can make a surprisingly significant impact also.
The role of agencies and suppliers
Bottom line is, a concerted drive for maximising sustainability is a complex challenge that requires rigour across granular details. But brands don’t have to do it alone. The best agencies and suppliers understand their clients’ business, consumer and markets, as well as the details of their own offering, and are there to help clients get to grips with and navigate the choices available. While it’s not up to agencies to dictate what’s ’good or bad’ – those decisions lie firmly with brand owners – they are there to do the heavy lifting of research, education, innovation and selection of realistic options. They can and should streamline the process.
That requires strong graphic and structural creative expertise, detailed expertise of materials and impeccable project management of the entire supply chain. We at Spark understand the scale of the challenge from experience; as part of No7’s Christmas 2020 range development, we worked with the brand team and specialist suppliers to eliminate plastic and ensure the entire range was recyclable. Some of the tasks were immediately obvious; get rid of acetate windows and any plastic components. But through the exploration of how to deliver on this and also create a premium look and feel, we had to rework many other elements, major and minor, from ensuring strength in transit, right down to the specific material composition of the gift-ready items’ outer ribbons.
Brand teams like No7 have a wide remit to juggle and it isn’t realistic for them to manage this level of detail or the ongoing changes in packaging technology, especially at a time when a fluctuating macroeconomic and consumers environment are demanding their constant focus. It’s our and our fellow partners’ roles to help navigate the complexity, with end-to-end solutions that lean on all the relevant expertise to deliver products fit for the demands of today’s consumer.