For all the stress related to meeting packaging waste targets, sustainability is still often left out of the packaging design brief. Louise Hunt looks at why and how the issue can be addressed

Sustainability has become such a buzzword in these times of global angst. There are now whole departments of multinationals devoted to attempts at achieving corporate sustainability and responsibility.

But it would seem that even those enterprises that are making great strides into implementing ethical policies are finding themselves in a tangle when it comes to packaging.

A conference on sustainable packaging held earlier this year by WRAP (the Government funded Waste and Resources Action Programme) revealed the minefield of complexity that surrounds the creation of packaging that is sustainable in the sense that it minimises environmental impact and makes the most of the resources used.

Out of talks given by those representing brand development and design, the packaging materials sectors and retailers, the fundamental issue that emerged was that sustainability was not given enough precedence within the packaging design brief.

The reasons behind this are naturally as complex as the solution. But it does seem something of an anomaly that, when so much effort is placed into dealing with packaging waste to meet the UK and EC targets, that often the measures that could lessen the impact of environmental legislation are left out of the equation before the packs are made.

Nick Verebelyi of Design Bridge Structure gives his perspective on sustainability in the design process: “Sustainability is generally not an explicit point in the design brief. What does appear is a much more commercial bias.

“You could argue that the quest for sustainability is met with the drive to reduce unit costs.”

Beyond reducing packaging it is difficult to know where to start. “There is such a wide range of attitudes when it comes to designing environmentally friendly packaging. Some people think if it can be recycled then it’s doing good. Or it could be that it uses recycled materials. Others think it’s about using fewer materials to minimise volumes of waste.

“This breadth of attitude is indicative of why it is so difficult to define sustainability within the criteria of a packaging brief.”

The debates raging around which materials are better for the environment certainly serve to compound the issue. Glass versus plastics is a prime example. Should the brand manager go for the renewable resource material that can be endlessly recycled but that uses up substantial energy in its reprocessing and transportation? Or the non-renewable resource material with limited potential for recycling but that saps less energy along the supply chain? It’s a conundrum that usually comes down to cost and use.

The fact is that nobody seems to really have the answer to which material is best. Life cycle analysis is still a relatively new concept for industry to get its head around and, until there is conclusive scientific evidence one way or the other, the likely response is to go with what looks good, costs less and hope for the best.

Nick admits to being somewhat jaded. “Those who have grown up with the debate have fundamentally lost interest. Ultimately, it’s a scientific issue.

“There are such divided opinions that it’s not worth getting too far into a debate with clients. The problem is that there are no universal standards on what is sustainable packaging. Brand managers need to be more aware of the technical issues because they are managing a lot of contradictory information.”

In many cases brand owners would rather pay the environmental tax than introduce sustainable packaging if it means compromising on the image of the brand. The bottom line is that marketers know they will loose market share if the packaging isn’t attractive.

“There is a real conundrum between what we as consumers say we want rationally, and what we do emotionally. Deep down we all want the shiny box because we’re still children at heart.”

Nick Verebelyi believes that environmental taxes alone are not enough real incentive to encourage sustainability in packaging design. “The crux of change lies with how business measures senior management. Designing sustainability into packaging needs to become part of career progression.

“There is room for it on the agenda. Once the criteria has become a hard subject with financial gain at stake the whole question of how it is handled with the designer becomes clearer.”

Dorothy MacKenzie of Dragon Brands agrees that change needs to come through the corporate hierarchy.

“All of these companies that have great environmental policies and sustainability reports coming out of their ears need to start implementing them right down to the packaging they choose.

“There’s a lot of top level commitment that is not really translated down to how the organisation thinks of packaging design. It seems obvious, but it’s not happening in design briefs with outside consultancies. I think it requires a great deal of work for brand managers and designers to increase awareness of the issues.”

Dorothy believes the way forward is to build sustainability into the brand to add value and interest. “We can’t afford to wait for the consumer pull to kick in. Brands need to think how sustainability can fit within their corporate message.”

This starts with ensuring that consumers get the sustainability message loud and clear. “There’s a case for more visible messages on packaging. At the moment we have a low key approach to labelling recyclability that people on the whole don’t seem to notice. Most messages are tucked away and consumers are unsure what the various recycling symbols mean. The more that you can associate the brand with recycling the better.”

In terms of pack design, sustainability should be achievable in relatively small but well thought out steps. Dorothy MacKenzie points to the move by Duracell away from blister packs to an all board version.

Most retailers are now implementing these measures to a greater or lesser extent. But even those that might consider themselves pioneers in the area of sustainable packaging admit that there is still some way to go. Andrew Jenkins, Boots advisor for packaging and environmental compliance, shares his experience.

“I am cautiously optimistic that designers, especially the younger ones, are now taking on board issues of sustainable development. However, there is still a barrier at the designer/marketer interface.

“There is a need to understand that there are exciting commercial opportunities to be gained from developing more sustainable products. Although ‘green’ may not be so fashionable anymore, consumers want sophisticated products with the assurance that they have sustainability credentials.”

Perception is the only barrier to overcome when it comes to developing sustainable packaging says Andrew. “There is a belief that developing more sustainable packaging is a threat to creativity. To address this we are aiming to alert our designers and marketers to the possibilities achievable from devel-oping better products.”

An example of Boots’ work in sustainable packaging design is its own-brand fragrance gift sets that have had materials progressively reduced over the last two years, while giving the product a more stylish appearance.

“The number of materials used to make the pack has been reduced, improving recyclability and the overall packaging weight has decreased by 10%,” says Andrew. “The new design for Christmas 2003 will see a further reduction in packaging, giving an overall material saving of 20%.”

Incorporating recycled materials into packaging is another matter, with obstacles relating to cost, regulation, availability and image. “The solution, in general, lies with packaging manufacturers to develop packs using recycled materials which are novel, appealing, technically good and cost-effective. We are currently investigating possibilities in this area.”

There is much that a packaging supplier can do to help designers and brand owners to deliver sustainable packaging, believes Andrew.

“Packaging suppliers need to be aware of the growing sustainable development issue. For example, the issue of chemicals used in packaging materials is currently high on the agenda. They therefore need to be aware of their supply chain – understanding what goes into the materials and be prepared to work with customers to address the issues.

“Packaging manufacturers should also build sustainable development criteria into their design process and be able to highlight the sustainable value of their components.”

“Considering the sustainability aspects of packaging should be a given part of the brief, not an optional add-on. Above all, new and creative thinking is required.”

Sainsbury is another major multiple that recognises the growing importance of delivering sustainable packaging. Its environmental manager David Catton says that packaging waste and recycling came number one in a recent consumer survey.

Like Boots, it has a policy to minimise packaging wherever possible. It has set itself the target to reduce materials by over 5% by 2005 and has already achieved 9% from its 1995 baseline, helped by the drive to reduce costs and lighter materials from the supply chain. Biodegradable plastics is another area of focus, realised by the introduction of compostable packs into the organic fruit and veg range.

David agrees that the relationship between brand manager and designer is complicated. “You have to decide if you are trying to put more recycled material into packaging, which might create more weight, or if recyclability is a core buying decision.

“What seems to be a straightforward commonsense approach is actually very complicated.

“We are waking up to the things that can make packs more recyclable. This might be clearer pack information, mono materials or a reduction in packaging. The bottom line is that the pack has got to be fit for purpose.”



* Think before using hard to reprocess adhesives, dyes, varnishes and resins

* Avoid over-specification of paper quality

* Avoid mixing materials wherever possible


* Avoid using security tags with self-adhesive

* Make clear that coloured glass (eg red, blue) can be recycled in ‘clear’ bin

* Use more clear glass for imports. Green glass is less necessary for UV light protection as the contents are designed to be drunk young


* Don’t mix PET with PVC as this will contaminate the recyclate

* Simplify materials – think how components can be separated

* Avoid dark plastics that are lower value for recyclers

* Plastics labels and shrink labels are often better than paper

* Choose water and alkaline soluable adhesives for easier label removal