Designing a More Sustainable Future

We sat down with Tim Wood, Design Director at Elmwood, to discuss how he sees the packaging landscape shifting in response to changing priorities.

Sylvicta works closely with eco-conscious brand owners, converters and printers to replace plastic with paper across the packaging industry. But the truth is that it is never too early in the process to be considering materials and their impact. At the concept stage, agency design leads are perfectly placed to shape projects that balance sustainability with effective design.

We sat down with Tim Wood, Design Director at Elmwood, to discuss how he sees the packaging landscape shifting in response to changing priorities. Tim has worked at Elmwood, a global brand consultancy part of MSQ, for nearly ten years. He has worked on some of the biggest and best, from Kimberly-Clark and Alpro to Mars and Heineken. Elmwood translates tension into brand power to accelerate the growth of meaningful and memorable brands, which means they understand that conflicts are a natural part of a brand’s evolution. Indeed, this push-and-pull when shaping a brand helps build depth, dimension and distinctiveness, driving recall and recognition.

So how does this approach to drive emotionally charged, culturally relevant ideas and innovation work hand-in-hand with the desire to make positive steps? According to Tim, it is all in the understanding of motivational behaviours.

“...the visual language of protest is permeating the world of packaging design too.”

“Social media has long influenced visual trends – we saw it with the rise in popularity of overhead photography to feel more Instagram friendly, and it is clear that the growing environmental responsibility movement we see online and the visual language of protest is permeating the world of packaging design too.

People have endless information at their fingertips, so they know whether brands are acting on things like climate and sustainability, and are not afraid to call them out if they don’t like what they see,” says Tim. “When discussing the impact of consumer trends on pack design, there are some small steps that create that larger feelgood impact on the shelf; Black plastic, for example, is harder to recycle than clear plastic, and I’ve witnessed the online backlash against brands who dare to use it. But the online pressure from their customers has definitely led to many brands exploring new, more innovative ways to package their products – Do we really need a plastic lid as well as a foil lid on a yogurt pot for example?”

Plastic packaging with multiple layers often ends up in incineration, or landfill or is easily contaminated which renders recycling more difficult. Paper-based alternatives such as Sylvicta can overcome these issues, simplifying the primary packaging lifecycle.

But wider societal concerns need to be part of the conversation, particularly when more environmentally friendly packaging tends to come at a higher financial cost, which is a privilege that not everyone can access:

“Society’s desire for environmental action must be balanced with the growing demand for better value for money – UK consumers are feeling the pinch and are looking to retailers to help. We have noticed a rise in ‘bulk packs’ where you find whole supermarket aisles devoted to giant boxes of essential goods, from multipacks of washing-up liquid to mega-sized rolls of toilet paper. Often the sort of packaging you would normally find in warehouses, on cheap substrates with minimal colours and finishes available, is now becoming a giant canvas at the end of the aisle for brands to showcase their value and eco credentials.”

Indeed, Tim’s recent work on Alpro leaned into this trend: “We recently worked with Alpro on a new SRP (Shelf Ready Packaging) design as part of our ongoing work with them. We moved from a white board with 3 or 4 colours per product, to a single design on uncoated brown cardboard stock printed with a single white ink – Not only kinder to the planet, but more cost-effective to produce, and just as (if not more) eye-catching at shelf.” 

But what about the packaging that encases the product itself?

“I think the first port of call for brands and retailers should be ‘what is the minimum amount of packaging that would get this product safely to the consumer?’ – Cutting down on excessive packaging is a great way to reduce waste. If the pack fits the product better, there’s less wasted space when shipping and fewer resources used all around. Moving from plastic boxes for laundry capsules to cardboard boxes is a good example of this, and I expect we will see more to come as people continue to shun unnecessary plastic. As mentioned earlier, balancing sustainability with cost-effectiveness also helps to encourage brands to change, as it makes a great case for businesses to take forward.

The supermarket chain Iceland’s commitment to removing all plastic from its packaging is an admirable one too, especially if it can be achieved without compromising on product experience. Again, there’s a balance to be struck here, as we saw with the online backlash to Sainsbury’s vacuum-packed beef mince packaging where consumers felt the product was adversely affected by the format change.”

A report on its website highlights that changes to pack format will save 450 metric tons of plastic annually, which represents a significant shift. We asked Tim if he felt any changes might require the customer to be more embedded in the stewardship of the product:

“Definitely. There also seem to be a growing number of small local shops where you can bring your own container and refill it with things like cereal and cleaning products. I think it is only a matter of time before the bigger supermarkets start to explore something similar, which will have interesting implications from a branding perspective, as you will potentially start to see brands appear differently in the home. Maybe there’s a future in branded reusable containers, but I don’t see packaging as we know it disappearing any time soon. I would see it more as a pick-n-mix style aisle in addition to the usual offering rather than instead of. Also, in many South American countries, they use returnable glass bottles for beer that can be collected, washed and re-used which I always thought sounded like a good way to reduce consumption of natural resources. It would be great to see more tangible ways consumers can see the benefits of their positive choices.”

“As designers, we have to rise to the challenge and redefine what premium looks like to make it fit for the future.”

All those involved in product marketing know that products still need that stand-out magic, which poses an interesting challenge for those offering more sustainable packaging. Tim had a resonating perspective, “One of the biggest challenges we have seen is how to ‘premiumise’ in a way that is more environmentally friendly. Many premium finishes we once relied on such as foiled card are a no-go for the sustainably focussed brand due to their impact on recyclability. As designers, we must rise to the challenge and redefine what premium looks like to make it fit for the future.

Another challenge I have seen played out in stores is how tetra packs have begun to be used for refills of cleaning products to cut down on plastic bottles. Using a packaging format for chemicals, that consumers traditionally expect to see in the drinks aisle, comes with a degree of risk, and leaves the heavy lifting to the graphics to clarify and reassure what the product is. Interestingly, brands with distinctive structures have tried to get around this and retain their recognition by using a graphic of the familiar format on the front of the tetra, but you still wouldn’t want to get mixed up.”

Clearly, customer momentum is strong, so how to keep one step ahead?

“I think the most important thing to consider with green packaging initiatives is whether it is making a positive difference. Care should be taken to make changes for the right reasons and not just for optics.”

Indeed, whilst there is an increasing realisation that the traditional, linear model of waste is incompatible with a sustainable society, the circular model needs to have products with genuine intentions. Ultimately, investing in packaging solutions that enhance the integrity of the product and the brand is a great place to start.

If you’re ready to invest in new solutions for replacing plastic in packaging, see how Sylvicta can make the difference.

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