The Great Packaging Dilemma

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Willoughby Design



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The Great Packaging Dilemma

Finding a profitable approach to sustainability for your brand.

The sustainability in packaging “trend” that has risen and fallen over the last three decades is heating back up. At this summer’s American Packaging Summit, the conversation felt more urgent, real and actionable than ever before. What has changed?

More and more companies like Unilever and Clorox are committing to achieving net zero through the lifecycle of products. This is leading to a race for less waste, more eco-friendly materials, efficient production processes, recycling/reuse programs and consumer education initiatives.

The friction? This new urgency is not consumer driven. In a recent Nielson report, “many (consumers) have found it difficult to make daily decisions that have a true sustainable impact. As a result, we have not seen the revolutionary change in consumer and business behavior that was once anticipated.” With this in mind, many companies are working to be better but lower price points and convenience still win over sustainability. This is particularly true as inflation continues to be front and center in the mind of the consumer.

This cold reality was voiced well by panelist Miranda Helmer, Vice President, Innovation Discovery at The Clorox Company, who said: “Sustainability can’t survive on ‘we have to do this because it’s right.’ We have to make a business case for it.”

So the discussion has taken a turn. What are some of the leading considerations for innovation as companies work to make sustainability profitable?

  1. Convenience. Changing behaviors is hard. It will be tough for proper upcycling, recycling and reuse practices to reach a tipping point as long as it is still easier to use a product and throw away the package.
  2. Education: Corporations are working hard to figure out how to educate and convince consumers to change their habits and think differently about the lifecycle of the products they use.
  3. Reward: Some retailers are offering rewards and rebates to customers who buy their products or participate in recycling/reuse programs. From subscriber discounts for repeat online purchases or coupons/discounts for used textiles to keep them from landfills both online and brick and mortar stores are trying new ways to encourage sustainable practices. 
  4. Standardization. While standard packaging types are counter-intuitive to the “pop-off-the-shelf” mentality of the past, if brands can standardize packaging forms, it makes reuse much easier. It also allows for production of higher quantities, which leads to cost savings.
  5. Online vs On Shelf. As more products are being marketed and purchased online vs on shelf, the “unboxing experience” can be designed differently than the on shelf experience to reduce the complexity and number of plastic components.
  6. Collaboration. Industry-wide collaboration is successfully eliminating less-sustainable practices and creating regulations and movements to advance positive change. Consumers will ultimately respond if they have more options when it comes to sustainability.
  7. Authenticity. Corporations should be proactive with their approach to messaging, but if consumers catch you in a lie, you are not likely to get a second chance. They do not respond well to greenwashing.

If improving sustainability is identified as a genuine corporate priority and is aligned with the company’s core values, it will require careful planning with a healthy dose of discipline and commitment to get there and bring consumers along. This is a long game, not a short-term solution or a quick fix.

This all adds up to the bottom line. Innovators who can figure out how to live at the intersection of sustainability, convenience, affordability and profitability are going to win the race.