Tim Rich: Wasting away your talent

It’s about time packaging designers took responsibility for their designs and put environmental concerns into the design equation from the start, says Tim Rich

The best British packaging design groups regularly win international commissions, awards and plaudits, and enjoy a reputation as world-class thinkers and creators. A significant amount of the £27bn or so spent by British companies on design each year is related to packaging. Once seen purely as a cost, packaging is now an important generator of value.

Packaging design is now so extraordinarily sophisticated that it has created a web of genres, with packs happily pastiching the language of another genre to create meaning. Take the packaging for Reebok Instant Tees T-shirts by 999 Design. The shirt is encased in a TV-dinner style foil tray and card – an ironic and self-deprecating referencing (‘hey, this is just another convenience product’) that helps create the value required to fill the gap between cost price and retail price.

Economically significant, commercially valued, creatively sophisticated – this article should be a celebration of the success of British packaging. It isn’t. Like many aspects of our contemporary world, the allure of packaging hides a disgusting reality. Four million tons of food packaging ends up in British landfill sites each year. The volume of domestic waste we produce in one hour would fill the Royal Albert Hall. We throw away 500 million plastic bottles and eight billion plastic bags a year. We use more food packaging per person than any other country in Europe. The Tidy Britain campaign estimates that 25 million tons of litter are discarded in public annually. Useless waste – redundant, poisonous.

Packaging is inextricably bound up with the version of consumer society we have created for ourselves. I’m sure that many readers think this society is – on balance – a good thing; others that it is not. Regardless of your position, the amount of non-recyclable, non-reusable and non-degradable waste we produce is clearly shameful. Worse, it is unsustainable.

Merely pointing out the ugly side of packaging probably makes me sound holier-than-thou. I would be wearing a hair shirt right now if I could find one that came packaged in biodegradable wheat starch.

In truth, I’m not denying that packaging protects goods, provides helpful product differentiation and (strike me down) can even be a pleasure in itself. I am also aware that the inescapable logic of a consumer society requires a constantly ravenous search for new material with which to communicate and increase product and brand value. And I believe that a reduction in overall levels of consumption is unlikely, in the foreseeable future. But does that mean it is impossible for us to reduce the volume of useless waste we produce?

No, look to New Zealand and its problematic, but effective pursuit of ‘zero waste’. Packaging designers here should be inspired. ‘But we have no control over our clients,’ I hear you chorus. Well, that’s garbage. If you’re unhappy with our culture of waste then you can make a difference. You can use your expert knowledge to persuade an opinion-sensitive and responsive Government to introduce more stringent regulations. You can educate your clients on the benefits of sustainable business practice. And you can act by making sustainability a factor in choosing with whom you work.

One example of the latter; last month a Continental drinks company asked me to recommend some British packaging design groups. I put forward three consultancies I know are at least trying to integrate sustainability into their thinking.

The issues and opportunities go beyond packaging design. The long-term solutions to short-term wastefulness will be found at organisational level, and it may be branding groups that are best placed to inspire change. I think it is a realistic challenge to demonstrate that a fundamental reduction in useless waste could increase retailers’ corporate brand value. But are any of our best corporate branding groups able and willing to show that less can be more? Some have achieved notable success in the industry and energy sectors – what about retail?

People may buy convenience, but they are not consciously buying the notion of useless waste. Indeed, it should not surprise us that so many members of the public are cynical about the value of design when the design medium they encounter most often is packaging. Ultimately, the work of most British packaging groups amounts to little more than useless rubbish. What a waste of talent.

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