Beginners’ Guide

How can packaging designers and clients tackle environmental legislation and the economics of waste? We quiz three champions of sustainability for some answers, and ask them for their top tips


Darren Foley
Managing director, Pearlfisher

Getting design right at the start of the process is fundamental to creating truly environmentally considerate product and packaging. If the full lifecycle is considered at the outset, it is possible to create innovative, beautiful packaging that does not cost the earth.

Pearlfisher regularly holds ’enviro-mentality’ workshops for its teams and clients. We need to educate, challenge and inspire. The packaging design and material selection should always be respectful of distribution channels, as well as the waste collection/recycling systems of the countries the brands populate.

Designers can take advantage of technologies such as lightweight caps, tubes that use a layer of recycled content in the sleeve, biodegradable adhesives and materials where appropriate. Consumers and clients still believe that environmentally considered solutions come at a premium. One of the fundamental principles of sustainable design is to minimise and simplify – less packaging equals less energy, less water, less carbon and reduced costs.

Cost is still a prohibitive factor when it comes to materials such as bioplastics. In some cases or applications, these products are still two or three times the cost of their oil-derivative equivalents.

All of our clients want to do the right thing and many of our brands (such as Jme, Otarian and Nude) ensure that environmentally considered packaging is part of the brief and integral to their approach.

There is an increase in client awareness, but real knowledge of the ’how to’ is still largely deficient. This is where our expertise is called upon. Incredibly, a large proportion of briefs still come with no mention of environmental objectives.

There are regular attempts to create a viable plastic alternative out of natural, renewable sources but, to date, there are none that are technically, economically and environmentally sound throughout the lifecycle.

Refills are increasingly explored, while the concept of reusable packaging is being trialled commercially – but cost is still a limiting factor. We would love to think that in a few years’ time we may get a brief to design a ’bottle for life’, a beautiful piece of packaging that is treasured and
looked after rather than thrown away.

Top tips

  • Minimise
  • Simplify
  • Ensure your pack can be recycled easily
  • Use technological innovations to create sustainable solutions
  • Consider the full lifecycle of the product and its packaging

Key areas design can tackle:

  • Clear communication (in copy)
  • Appropriate materials
  • Design for disassembly (for recycling)
  • Mono-material, mono-component (for simple recycling)



Silas Amos
Creative director (strategy), JKR

Once upon a time, sustainability ideas were punted to clients as the meeting closed. Typically, any
appetite for change was ’for next year’. That’s changed, but the next phase was as ineffectual: enthusiastic workshops with ’blue sky’ ideas that were then headed off at the pass by the production experts. The easily discouraged stalled.

It was a teething phase. Those ideas were not truly blue sky, just well-meaning but ignorant, and they fell between two stools: the practical and the truly revolutionary.

There are two fruitful places to start any corporate social responsibility thinking. The first is to consider what can you do today? To answer this, involve production experts. Get them to present what’s possible. And which ideas will save, not cost, money. Then it’s the role of design and marketing to take these (sometimes seemingly dreary) starting points and turn them into compelling, creative, brand-centric activity.

The second place is true blue sky. Consider what would happen if your packaging was banned altogether – this silly line of enquiry will take you to some inspiring places for brand distribution and behaviour.

Now it’s time to sell the ideas up. The magic words are ’pilot scheme’ and ’prototype’. In other words, don’t try to boil the ocean, but aim to get
some commitment to tangible progress. ’Cheaper’ is also persuasive.

The best advice I have heard came from Eugenie Harvey, one of those instrumental in launching the Anya Hindmarch-designed ’I’m not a plastic bag’.

It launched with a fantastic amount of publicity, and Harvey went off on her honeymoon. On her return the negative backlash had begun. Her view was ’perfect is the enemy of good’. In other words, you are not going to nail it all, but getting started is, indeed, the best start.

Top tips:

  • Do the simple stuff first, and don’t over-engineer
  • Check local legislation – we don’t have a national approach to recycling, let alone a global one
  • Browse – a great one-stop shop for information and inspiration
  • If you ’reduce’, compensate for loss of perceived quality with other branding, such as embossing
  • Consider changing the mechanism of sale and delivery, such as refill pouches – connect with consumers through the notion of ’doing their bit’



Andy Dawe
Head of design and resource minimisation/retail
Waste & Resources Action Programme

It’s worth putting sustainable packaging in perspective. Packaging has got quite a bad press over the years. It’s seen as a waste for householders to get rid of, and there has been a sea change in terms of the response from the packaging sector, retailers and brands in addressing this issue.

But without packaging there would be more product damage and food waste. That’s what packaging is there to do – to ensure goods are delivered to the consumer in the way they were intended to.

The Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement which we developed over the past couple of years, has served to accelerate the view of resource efficiency within packaging in a host of different areas.

The Glassrite suite of projects looked at more resource-efficient glass packaging involving the whole supply chain, for example. We also brought organisations together in other areas, such as seasonal confectionery, where we helped develop design concepts for lighter weight packaging for Easter eggs.

Refillables are also worth considering. They don’t work in all cases, but the ability to reuse a robust and long-life glass container, for example, is extremely useful.

In some areas, the product has changed in response to the desire for lighter packaging – such as Tesco doubling the concentrate of its squash drink, so you only need to use half as much. There are also opportunities for new materials in packaging innovation, such as lighter weight materials which can extend the shelf-life of products. Emphasising that need for shelf-life is critical, and wherever shelf-life can be improved at the same time as reducing the environmental impact of packaging, it’s a win/win situation.

Sustainable design should be at the heart of any design consideration, and an increasing number of consultancies are recognising this.

Top tips:

  • Consider the environmental impact of the pack and its relationship to the product
  • Don’t just look at the primary pack, but also how secondary or even tertiary packaging could be used to get the product from manufacturer to consumer in the most efficient way
  • Design primary packs with secondary packaging in mind, and vice-versa
  • Make sure your approach is as resourceefficient as possible, and that the integrity of product is ultimately the goal
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