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Designing packaging for sustainability

Working towards sustainability means package designs that acknowledge and respond to the larger system that the product/package is a part of. A package is integral to that broader system, and part of the big system’s sustainability.

A design that merely does not worsen the system’s sustainability is not a breakthrough. And packaging pursuing only its own greenness is missing the chance to help the whole system.

The leading edge of packaging design often falls short. Designers recognize the centrality of sustainability. But they often work with a narrow perspective vis-a-vis the wider total lifecycle and contextual reality of the package. More often than not, the view is too narrow, focused on a simple substitution; “Do it with a renewable material”. 

Another narrow-view solution is finding a secondary use for the package. That is not enough. In most contexts, there will be too many waste packages for the secondary use opportunity. We cannot turn all PET soda bottles into jackets and pullovers.

How can designers and brands work together to come up with solutions?

Each side knows much the other does not. Joining brand owner experts with designers and innovators can move designs to the next level. This means joint explorations of possibility taking a whole systems view, understanding emerging change, learning together, and finding inspiration from parallel and distant situations. For example, drawing on nature, harking back to old approaches, and discovering things from other cultures all can inform and inspire design thinking.

Are consumers really demanding change? 

Designers and innovators should know what consumers want. But they also often have to lead and educate consumers for the need for change. On the old question of technology push versus market pull, the answer is, both.

More consumers live where there are tightening requirements for sustainability, limiting, recovering, and recycling waste. Brand owners’ choices in packaging may hand the consumer a waste problem. A consumer may not make a personal choice for more sustainable packaging. But if their community requires something, it’s part of their daily lives anyway.

How do you balance sustainable design with a better consumer experience?

Work to make sustainability itself par of the consumer experience and do it well.

What role does education play with consumers when designing for sustainability?

It is central. To be able to educate the consumer about sustainability while also handing them a solution that works in their lives is the pathway to success.


We bring this kind of thinking to our triennial Future of Packaging program. It’s a multi-sponsor program for packaging executives and others with a strong interest in packaging. For more about the program, visit Future of Packaging: 2030. Our program launches at the beginning of 2019.

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