As Christmas looms, we can look forward to a week of excess – and, sadly, waste. We each throw away about 50kg of rubbish over Christmas, according to the National Office of Statistics: food, cards, wrapping paper and, the worst offender, packaging. From toys and chocolates to alcohol and crackers, products at Christmas are over-packaged with an eye on the gift-buying market.
But this year could be different. It has seen an unprecedented interest in the fate of our planet, and as a result, we could be heading for the most environmentally conscious Christmas ever: organisations are tackling pre- and post-Christmas waste and packaging designers are challenging the notion that gift products must be lavishly packaged.
We Are What We Do, the global social change movement behind designer Anya Hindmarch’s successful canvas shopper I’m Not A Plastic Bag, tries to persuade retailers to reduce their use of plastic bags this Christmas by only giving them out on request. The aim, says co-founder Eugenie Harvey, is for every high street shop to display its logo – Plastic Ain’t My Bag, designed by Antidote – in the window.
Harvey admits their goal is ‘ambitious’, but so far Sainsbury’s and Debenhams – alongside the likes of Dermalogica, selected branches of Waterstone’s and Books Etc and independent stores on London’s fashionable Lamb’s Conduit Street – have signed up. The campaign launches officially on 1 December. ‘At Christmas, shopping bags become almost a badge of honour – how many you’re carrying [is] proof of how generous you are,’ says Harvey. ‘It’s a good time to focus attention on shopping bag waste.’
Elsewhere, the Government-backed initiative Recycle Now – implemented by the Waste & Resources Action Programme – is launching its biggest Christmas campaign yet. Advice includes reusing last year’s wrapping paper or using wrap made from natural materials such as raffia or mulberry tree bark, buying real, rooted Christmas trees and, of course, recycling everything once Christmas is over.
These are laudable measures. But it’s down to packaging designers, brand-owners and manufacturers to tackle the most burning issue – the over-packaging of products in the first place.
Dragon has just redesigned the bottle, label and box for Ballantine’s 12-year-old premium whisky, in time for Christmas. ‘The environment is top of the agenda in every piece of work we do,’ says design director Chris Barber. ‘But if it’s a top-end product like this, it’s more of a challenge, because consumers and clients expect packaging of a certain quality. We’re aware of the issues of over-packaging — in Ballantine’s case we would always favour an outer box made from card over a metal substrate – but we still have to create a high-end product.’ This year has seen a ‘marked change’ in consumers’ tastes, he says. ‘They are starting to realise that the value of a product doesn’t equate to its size. As creatives, we must be responsible; we can influence our clients and, by extension, consumers.’
Jonathan Ford, creative partner at Pearlfisher, agrees that packaging designers must take responsibility – and is staging an exhibition throughout the Christmas period to demonstrate this. The show at Pearlfisher Gallery in London comprises three machines, concocted by sculptor Nik Ramage, which will steadily demolish Pearlfisher’s packaging designs. ‘Each design represents a mountain of waste – we want to bring that vividly to life in a way that will inspire us to create alternatives,’ says Ford. ‘Environmental thinking must be at the forefront of designers’ minds.’
Jones Knowles Ritchie has just designed the packaging for Molton Brown’s luxurious Christmas gift boxes. JKR chief executive Andy Knowles agrees that in the luxury gift market, it’s hard to strike a balance. ‘If brands such as Molton Brown don’t conform to the notion that products must be extravagantly packaged at Christmas, they lose out on sales. But if they do conform, they risk alienating eco-savvy consumers. Luxury cosmetics are often bought as gifts at Christmas, but there’s still a desire among consumers to tread lightly [in their carbon footprint],’ he says.
JKR attempts to satisfy both camps, says Knowles, by creating beautiful packaging with a conscience. In Molton Brown’s case, this means using a single, recyclable material such as card, and decorating with a separate ribbon. ‘We are noticing a growing demand from clients for more simplicity and smaller packaging, and a shrinking demand for plastic, which is driven by the cost of oil,’ he says. How much sway do they, as designers, have? ‘We’re being listened to more than ever, but the level of knowledge among clients about what’s environmentally aware, and what’s not, is patchy.’
Other designers are taking a more obviously planet-friendly approach. On-line eco-retailer Biome Lifestyle is introducing a range of eco Christmas products, including a reusable cracker made from seed paper, which can be planted, by product designer Marie de Ryck.
And for the ultimate low-carbon footprint, there’s the inaugural ‘decoration exchange’ in London’s Covent Garden, whereby you swap your own decorations with someone else’s. Now if that idea took on…