Let’s be honest; packaging is not the most pressing environmental issue in the UK, or Europe for that matter. The packaging industry feels it is being targeted for too many environmental rules because the Government is nervous of tackling the real cause of issues such as climate change, lifestyle and a growing economy. A recent, well-publicised report commissioned by the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, entitled Towards Greener Households: Products, Packaging and Energy upheld this view. Nevertheless, the public’s concern over the impact the production of packaging and its final disposal has on the environment still prevails. The Radio 4 programme You and Yours gave listeners the chance to write their own version of the Queen’s Speech. The most popular measures raised by listeners were, among other issues, ‘reform of the Council Tax’ and ‘radical penalties for unnecessary and non-biodegradable packaging’.
Recent market research by retailers such as Boots the Chemists and Marks & Spencer has found that the number of customers expecting these companies to manufacture products in a sustainable way and minimise the environmental impact of products – including packaging – is on the increase. However, what customers do not want is packaging that is based on altruistic values and a ‘dowdy’ appearance. They want sophisticated and stylish packaging, but they also want the assurance that retailers have produced environmentally considered packaging. Consumers are convinced that the way forward is greater producer responsibility regarding sustainability issues. What this consumer expectation has done is feed sustainability into companies’ brand values, which means they now wish to introduce new Green products and ideas to inspire their customers; this includes packaging.
Public concerns over the impact of packaging on the environment gained considerable recognition in the mid-1980s to early 1990s throughout Europe and North America. The attention of Europeans eventually focused on the recycling and recovery of packaging waste. These concerns set off a chain of events throughout the European Community, resulting in the creation of new and more stringent national legislation and European Union Directive 94/62/EC on Packaging and Packaging Waste, with recycling and recovery at its core. These environmental regulations are another factor affecting a company’s decision to modify its packaging.
Research has identified that the introduction of environmental forces has created a dilemma for companies, born out of the requirement, on the one hand, to comply with legislation both at national and EU level and, on the other, to maximise the effect of packaging in building brand equity. This dilemma will only intensify for UK companies as the EU Directive targets areas such as packaging design. Meanwhile, the fees associated with disposing of packaging waste are set to rise – some predict by up to 30 per cent over the next year. Nevertheless, the tax on waste in this country is relatively low compared to the rest of Europe.
Both client and packaging designer have to take into account a wide variety of often conflicting interests at the strategic, logistic and operational design stages, and environmental issues add another layer of complexity. A potential barrier to companies addressing this packaging and environmental dilemma successfully is the lack of awareness and expertise of designers in this area. Clients now expect designers to not only understand these issues, but to also know how to respond as the focus shifts from the collection of packaging waste data to packaging design.
This issue has proved to be a slow burn agenda for the design profession – media coverage continues, but there is little evidence of it appearing as a key objective in clients’ design briefs. A major reason for this is a central flaw in UK packaging waste regulations. The bill companies pay is based on total packaging waste tonnage. In some European countries that operate the Green Dot scheme it is theoretically pay per pack. So if you are a brand manager you can relate the cost of the Green Dot fees to your product range. In the UK a company will receive an overall bill, (often considerable if you’re a large retailer), and it is paid centrally so the brand manager never connects it to their operation. If this cost was identified against the pack in the UK it would really drive eco-packaging innovation, packaging design education and training.
Packaging design and related branding activities are an important sector of fee-income for UK design consultancies. In 2002 the combined fee-income of the ‘branding/ packaging – UK top 20’ design consultancies was approximately £80m. Therefore, considerable collective resources and world class creativity and expertise could be brought to bear on this topic.
Most of the research and development activities addressing these issues are being led by large retailers and brands’ in-house packaging design teams, not by external design groups. The example of Boots the Chemists illustrates this point (see box), highlighting how the retailer is addressing lack of knowledge by deploying intranet-based tools to inform and guide them of their preferred preferences and practices. It is an example that could be well heeded elsewhere.
Anne Chick is reader in Sustainable Design, Faculty of Art, Design & Music, Kingston University
Case study: Boots the Chemists
Boots the Chemists is an international leader in health, beauty and general fitness products, with more than 1500 stores throughout the UK and a growing portfolio in other countries. It has a turnover of more than £4bn. Each year the company develops 1300 products and manufactures 400 million units, with more than 30 000 different components in its inventory. It is also committed to the principle of sustainable development.
Research relating to new product development includes a study of environmental issues around the packaging of the product, looking at choices of materials, processes that minimise waste and materials and compliance with international regulations. Developing optimum packaging requires detailed knowledge of technical information and international regulatory requirements. The NPD teams manage a large and constantly changing product portfolio. Information therefore needs to be easily understandable, consistent and up-to-date.
To help satisfy this need, Boots’ strategic marketing unit has developed an information system for the company’s intranet. Known as the Technopedia, the system provides essential information and tools to help optimise Green packaging. These include eco-design guidelines and checklists, calculation tools and pack design and labelling matrices for the global market. This tool has grown from an information and learning resource into an interactive system that helps Boots staff answer questions on eco-design and track decision-making; it also enables simple product/ packaging assessment. This resource is also supported with traditional methods of training and advice, such as workshops and access to expert advisors such as Andrew Jenkins.
Boots has recognised the need to support, but increasingly drive the design groups on its roster to address this agenda. Jenkins says: ‘We are building environmental considerations into our design roster’s criteria. We will also be building in a sustainable packaging checklist, which we will provide with a design brief, as well as modifying the brief itself. The idea is to get designers to produce designs that are wow and eco-friendly.’