Ethical shape

How do you create packaging that combines real sustainability and compelling form, without compromising on either? Sarah Woods unpacks the issues involved and looks at what some key brands are doing to get their offer right

The physical make-up of a pack can be more central to the brand than the logo. And increasingly, creating structural packaging often involves using innovative materials, with an emphasis on sustainability.

‘When consumers look at something there is a microsecond between looking at shape, colour and branding. You want to get the whole thing to work together,’ says Diane Fox-Hill, head of semiotics at 1HQ. But she cautions that while ‘people want things to look beautiful and some clients are thinking about looking beautiful and being sustainable in a witty and engaging way, it is not happening all the time’.

Fox-Hill says that many clients want to get costs down and create something that looks sustainable, but isn’t really. ‘There is a lot of Greenwashing,’ she adds. ‘The customer may not know that more packaging is needed to protect [a particular] product. It just looks like there is too much packaging. So there is a need to make these brands look sustainable. It is a very complex issue.’

Things are changing though. On the one hand, rapid prototyping can create one-off or bespoke ranges, allowing brands to produce a few packs and see if they sell. This could have a big impact on a process that can take six months, and on the cost, says Fox-Hill.

On the other hand, there are developments in materials, mostly geared towards reducing environmental impact. Much of this is facilitated by organisations such as Waste & Resources Action Programme, which helps businesses reduce waste by making better use of resources, and the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement between Wrap and major UK grocery organisations which support the notion of producing less packaging waste. Paper and board with recycled content and materials such as recycled PET are becoming commonplace.

Branding group Dragon Rouge, known for its Green credentials, flags up brands that have developed packaging with high recycled content, notably GlaxoSmithKline’s Ribena and Boots with its Botanics range. It highlights bioplastics – Coca-Cola recently launched Plant Bottle, a material made from 30 per cent renewable resources – and biodegradable and compostable plastics to reduce landfill, such as Plantic used by Marks & Spencer in its Swiss chocolate assortments packaging.

Dragon Rouge creative partner Samantha Dumont says, ‘Structural packaging has many roles to fulfil, usually more than graphics, with one of the requirements being practicality for the consumer. There’s also brand fit – the structural part of the pack should be working to complement every other aspect of the brand.’

Striking a balance between looking good and being sustainable as well as cost-effective is what packaging designers strive for. ‘This is the holy grail,’ says Dumont. ‘But the implications of one, such as being the most sustainable, may be at odds with being cost-effective.’

If clients want to stand out, one way to do so is to make structural changes to their products’ packaging, yet this part of the brief is often sidestepped because the budget is larger than it is for graphics changes.

‘Our recent work on the Jamie Oliver Jme range is probably the closest to nirvana in terms of delivering a total sustainable solution through use of recycled and easily recyclable materials,’ says Darren Foley, realisation director at Pearlfisher. ‘Structure can be a key equity for the brand and it can do this through an innovative approach to colour, size, shape, material or a combination of all of these. Just like everything else, structure has to be an expression of the brand’s truth, and if done in a truly innovative way, it can become the brand’s most important asset – take the Absolut bottle, for example.’

JKR client Spiezia, an ethical and organic brand, meanwhile wanted packaging that echoed its ethos. Silas Amos, creative director at JKR, says, ‘Materials like aluminium, which has a guaranteed ethical provenance, proved beyond its reach. But we were able to create a 12 per cent reduction in secondary packaging via some nifty structural design and make core card components totally recyclable with an ambition for 100 per cent Forest Stewardship Council accreditation. It is not perfect, but it’s a start. No specific aspect is particularly sexy, but the net effect is design that combines a contemporary new look with an ethical approach in step with the brand’s personality.’

What more could you want?

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