The Future of Brand Packaging Lies in Sustainable Practices and Materials

Finding ways to make products last rather than dispose of them

A couple of pressed juice bottles; sustainably made packages
It's become more and more obvious that packaging needs an environmental upgrade.
Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Unsplash

I can’t remember a time when fellow designers and myself weren’t concerned about reducing packaging waste and the impact our work had on the planet. We shared stories like, “The time I went fishing and saw the Downy fabric softener bottle I designed floating in the pristine mountain lake.” Our clients were looking at light-weighting, minimizing parts, refilling SKUs and incorporating recyclable resins to help achieve sustainability.

But consumers were busier than ever, and packaging innovation was all about convenience. The original Tide liquid package and the revolution it started in delivering a much more convenient, less messy approach to adding detergent to the wash comes to mind. All that plastic in the waste stream versus the paperboard carton of dry powder was the price to pay for a happy consumer. It seemed that innovation in packaging was creating more waste, not less.

Now our single-use disposable packaging world is changing again, and it’s thanks to consumer demand. Witness the backlash against plastics with the ubiquitous refillable metal water bottle in everyone’s hands; the ban of single-use plastic bags in New York, California and elsewhere; the focus on how our oceans are overflowing, not with fish, but with tons of plastic. Efforts to recycle are also proving too difficult and costly to be effective and also don’t address the root cause of the issue.

With consumer acceptance growing, we now have the opportunity to view packaging as durable rather than disposable and offer solutions that are truly sustainable while delivering usage experiences never before possible.

With consumer acceptance growing, we now have the opportunity to view packaging as durable rather than disposable.

One evolving option is the Loop system, a zero-waste platform announced at the World Economic Forum and formed by a coalition of major consumer product manufacturers, including Procter & Gamble, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. With pilot programs rolling out in New York in May, this circular shopping platform features products in durable packages that are delivered, consumed and then returned back to the manufacturer to be cleaned and refilled before being sent out again.

This major shift in ownership of the package from the consumer to the brand is a ticket to unfettered imagination in consumer experience and sustainability. The package essentially becomes an asset and can be viewed and designed as a device. This unlocks technologies that can change the experience of the user in ways never before possible. Brands can rethink what their package does and how the consumer uses it, such as a pill package that reminds you when to take or reorder pills, detect when food has expired (say goodbye to the smell test), automatically order more product when it’s running low or even self-seal to ensure freshness.

So, now it’s up to the brands to rise to the challenge and think of their packaging in new and different ways. Here are tips for how brands can do this successfully.

Define the ideal experience from your consumer’s point of view

What can be done for consumers to change their experience and differentiate brands from the competition? For the Loop initiative, Häagen-Dazs developed a refillable stainless steel ice cream tub that keeps the product colder longer. Reusable packages have the potential to allow technological features that make them more “intelligent,” able to anticipate user needs, etc. Think of it as a chance to deliver something to consumers that is really important to them and even tailored to their unique lifestyle.

Test it to understand the real value delivered

Make sure that you avoid gimmicks. Usability studies and in-home usage tests provide a window into the real world. Think of this as designing an asset so that it can be robustly engineered. For pharmaceuticals that need to be kept secure, a locking mechanism that can only be opened by the patient or verify that the patient has taken their medication for the day can be incorporated.

Determine the perceived quality standards

Does the consumer believe specific defects to be unacceptable? What does the consumer perceive if there’s a dent in these reusable packages? Can these be designed for disassembly and repair? If a product is damaged, can it be repaired cost effectively? There can be a fine line between healthy wear and tear that signifies a sustainable journey and wondering what the last user did to it because it’s all scratched up.

Source a supplier network of quality vendors

Brands that are currently manufactured using plastic need to source entirely new manufacturing partners. Finding the right partner manufacturers willing to take on these new challenges and utilizing the right technology is key.

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