Sourceful Blog

Designing sustainably: How we approach packaging design

April 9, 2021

Getting a product to market is no easy task. Your design will have been through many rounds of strategising, development and testing before it meets your audience, and there is no reason not to apply the same rigorous design principles to your packaging in order to give your product the best possible launchpad. Your packaging must of course be functional first and foremost, to ensure that your product reaches your customer safely. It should then act as a marketing tool that represents and promotes your brand, at a price point that makes sense to you. That’s already a lot to consider, but at Sourceful we like to encourage brands to think about how they can meet all of these objectives in a way that is also sustainable.

Sustainability is a growing concern amongst consumers: a representative survey of people across the UK and Ireland found that over the last year, 22% of people had chosen not to purchase a product due to its packaging materials.

Businesses clearly need to cater to this changing attitude if they are to retain and grow their customer base. So, how can this be done? The most radical carbon reduction can be achieved by re-thinking the entire business model. By going back to the drawing board, companies may be able to identify where they can eliminate the need for single-use packaging, reduce the amount of material needed, or optimise a design to make re-use or recycling easier. Once these structural changes have been explored companies can take the additional step of optimising the materials that comprise their packaging. This whole systems approach enables brands to discover packaging solutions that best meet customers’ sustainability expectations without compromising on either the function or appeal of their current offering.

The hierarchy of priorities

How then do we decide on the best course of action? We can use the below hierarchy of priorities, ranked in descending order of greatest positive impact. This model encourages us to analyse the fundamentals – our business model, product shapes and sizes, how packaging flat-packs – and identify which changes could produce the biggest outcome.  

The hierarchy of priorities for sustainable packaging design

Companies that are prepared to redesign their offering will make the biggest gains by considering their options in this order:

Prevention

This means re-thinking your design to ensure that your packaging meets its requirements using the minimum amount of material. At Sourceful we never upsell extraneous items, we believe efficiency is the smartest choice for both businesses and the planet.

Minimisation

Not just reducing the number of layers of packaging, but also the volume of material used – resulting in the additional benefit of more efficient shipment and storage.

Re-use

Consider designing a package that your customer could put to another use – perhaps something that they could refill or repurpose.

Recycle

If you are able to choose recyclable packaging materials, you can maximise their benefit by designing for ease of recycling – for example, by simplifying the way a box folds, or avoiding the use of black inks that are not recognised by recycling facilities.

Understanding product life cycles

Only once we know our fundamentals are fully optimised for efficiency is it worth zeroing in on our packaging components. There is more to this than simply substituting non-recyclable materials for recyclable ones; we must consider an item’s whole lifecycle to get an accurate measure of its environmental impact. Once you understand every stage you can optimise each one for price and performance, and ensure that no one process results in unintended harmful consequences. The packaging lifecycle can be broken down into the following key stages:  

  1. Material

The raw materials selected should give the packaging its necessary functionalities throughout its life cycle, and be extracted with the minimum possible harm to the environment. For example, you may assume that paper packaging is always a more environmentally friendly choice than plastic, but that’s not the case if the paper’s properties result in product damage or spoilage and therefore waste further down the line. It may be that it’s a matter of optimising the source of your plastic.

  1. Manufacturing

Here, we need to consider not just the amount of energy consumed by the manufacturing process, but the sustainability of the energy source and potential pollutants in the waste products generated.

  1. Processing

This is the point at which your packaging is transformed into a branding tool. The aim here is to create maximum impact for your brand while doing minimum damage to the planet, so every element – from the form the packaging takes to the inks, foils and embossing that may comprise its finishing touches – needs to be carefully considered.

  1. Logistics and distribution

The means by which you store and transport your packaging should be optimised for carbon efficiency. For example, sea freight is more carbon efficient than air freight. At Sourceful we take the additional step of offsetting the CO2 emissions of all our shipments.

  1. End of life

Recycling, reuse, energy recovery and composting are all ethical options for packaging that has served its purpose – this final stage will be determined by the decision made at the start of the cycle.  

Putting theory into practice

At Sourceful, we are experienced in designing for impact. Prior to working with us, online florist platform Floom packaged their bouquets in a large, one-size-fits-all box that also needed a thick polypropylene tape to secure it. When we assessed the packaging requirements from first principles we saw an opportunity to minimise the amount of material being used. We realised that Floom could benefit from having bespoke boxes of different sizes to suit their different products. Once we had settled our design approach we were able to move onto optimising the materials used; we were able to source cardboard boxes with a self-adhesive strip and box zip, removing the need for the plastic tape. Combining redesign with optimisation in this way helped us to achieve a bigger outcome: our re-evaluation resulted in a 7% reduction in packaging materials and translated into 15% savings on ink, logistics, storage and final mile delivery. It is innovative design like this that helps convince customers that sustainable choices are genuinely better propositions, not simply substitutes or compromises for the options that they are used to.

Sustainable solutions from Sourceful

Having concluded that we want to put as little packaging out into the world as possible, it follows that whatever we do produce will have to deliver on multiple fronts. Sourceful are here to help you achieve the balance of creating packaging that functionally protects your product, delivers a great customer experience, represents your brand and is as environmentally friendly as possible. Like any good design, packaging tells a story, and it is Sourceful’s mission to help ensure that you are telling the one you want. We’re passionate about helping businesses do better and have a track record of finding a perfectly tailored solution for each company that we work with. Our deep understanding of product lifecycles means that, whatever your business, we can identify areas where there’s a saving to be made, both for you and the planet.

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