5 Questions that Drive Conversations Around Sustainable Packaging Design

4/14/2023 Lisa Pruett

5 Questions that Drive Conversations Around Sustainable Packaging Design

Sustainable packaging design must be handled on a case-by-case basis. From paper to plastic to foil, at the outset of every project, it’s critically important to take enough time to answer the right questions as they will help lay the groundwork for an effective design process. For example, here are a few to tackle right off the bat:

  • Are there any preferred or unacceptable materials that need to be taken into consideration?
  • What sustainability goals are you looking to hit related to corporate sustainability initiatives?
  • Is the package intended (or have the opportunity) to be reused for alternative purposes?

According to our own research — The Unpackaging Reality Report — sustainability has become a key consideration in a brand’s packaging decisions. As your organization pursues its own sustainability goals, how can product packaging design play a larger contributing role? 

To answer that question, you’ll need to go to the source. The next time you connect with your packaging supplier, I encourage you to keep this list of questions within reach.

(FYI: We originally presented this content during the Adweek Sustainable Leadership Forum. You can access the free on-demand webinar right here.)

Can we use less?

It’s a big, broad question. It’s also a solid conversation starter for those brands in pursuit of more sustainable packaging design. Remember that using less doesn’t have to mean you’re compromising a package’s integrity or the end user’s experience. For example, as Amazon places an emphasis on frustration-free packaging and its ship-in-own-container (SIOC) initiative, the e-commerce giant’s packaging design principles remain realistic:

  • Design to reduce waste
  • Use 100% recyclable materials
  • Provide protection against damage
  • Be easy to open

Can we help consumers see beyond the surface?

Whether online or on the shelf, your package plays a leading role in the perception of sustainability. If you were to put plastic packaging up against a brown kraft paperboard container, to the common consumer eye, the kraft paperboard will generally be perceived as being more environmentally friendly.

If perception is an issue for your products, incorporating a new material into the overall packaging design may help as long as that mix of materials can continue together in the recycling stream.

How to Make Sustainable Packaging a Priority:
a Quick-Start Guide by RRD Packaging Solutions


Can we mix materials to create a smaller packaging footprint?

It might sound counterintuitive, but mixing materials can sometimes help decrease the total weight of a package. Again, the recycling stream has limitations as to what you can do and what materials you can combine.

When we consider a mix of materials, we’re also making sure that mix isn’t going to create a sustainability problem down the road after the package is used — e.g., gluing plastic or foam to a piece of paper and then suddenly it can't be recycled because there's no way to separate the two in the recycling stream.

Due to limited supply of virgin fiber, now is an excellent time to conduct a structural design engineering review. We often see this due diligence translates into material usage savings through the use of lighter weight paperboard materials as well as a smaller packaging footprint.

Does a smaller package always translate to better sustainability?

Short answer: Not always. In some cases, we might design a package to be smaller, but in order to do that we have to maintain its strength by making the material a little thicker. When we talk to our clients about going smaller, we let them know this can require some give and take.

This move can certainly improve the perception of sustainability, but it may not do much in the way of actual sustainability. And while we’re talking about smaller footprints, take time to understand what’s available to you to make the most of it. Print embellishments (e.g., embossings and foils) can maintain a premium look, positively improve the perception of value all without demanding additional space while maintaining recyclability.

Do your sustainability efforts have a place in your product’s story?

Research 1 shows 85% of consumers (globally) have become ‘greener’ in their purchasing in recent years. There’s a good chance the suppliers you work with have a sustainability story of their own. Is there an opportunity there? Maybe new materials are emerging that enable your packaging converter to use less (energy, water, material, etc.) on the front end. That's an important story to associate with and share.

An old concept that's more important than ever

Looking back, the pandemic has forced us to think inside the box as e-commerce growth continues to climb. A growing number of brands — I would go out on a limb and say consumers as well — are becoming less concerned about standing out on a shelf and more interested in what they can do inside of a package.

Going forward, brands must not only trust, but lean on their packaging converters to innovate, identify, and capture the sustainable design opportunities that lay ahead. According to McKinsey, this requires having three critical elements in place:

  1. A proven methodology to benchmark packaging products in terms of not only cost and convenience, but sustainability as well

  2. Understanding the full opportunity and value at stake across the product portfolio from increasing sustainability requirements

  3. Having the right partnerships in place to respond to consumer and customer packaging demands going forward

Recent research 2 has found 66% of U.S. consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products versus less sustainable competitors. The consumer challenge, however, is 78% say that despite their desire to support companies that align with their values, they don’t know how to identify environmentally-friendly companies. Packaging is a viable solution.

The truth is this clamor for sustainable packaging design is only getting louder. You hear it. Does your supplier? Just ask.

Lisa Pruett is the President of Packaging and Labels at RRD.


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