How to Not Screw up Sustainable Packaging Design
3/3/2023 Design Article

How to Not Screw up Sustainable Packaging Design

The packaging consultants from the FuturePackLab in Hamburg know that the early design phase is crucial for the sustainability of a packaging. Where do companies often still make mistakes in their concepts and how can packaging become sustainable, smart and suitable for the mass market at the same time?

Geoffrey Hildebrand, Syster Tjarks, Martin Weick and Matthias Höppner at Fachpack. (from left) Geoffrey Hildebrand (Brand and Innovation Strategy), Syster Tjarks (Innovation and Sustainability), Marin Weick (Packaging Engineer) and Matthias Höppner (Sustainable Business Transformation) on stage at FACHPACK 2022.

The FuturePackLab has set out to develop future-proof packaging solutions together with its customers. According to Matthias Höppner, Sustainable Business Transformation, this means first and foremost: sustainable, smart and suitable for the mass market. However, the path that leads to this goal must be found anew for each product. In the so-called Collective, the company can draw on more than 50 packaging experts and thus assemble teams that can best meet the individual challenges of a design project. This includes Matthias Höppner, who together with Geoffrey Hildebrand (Brand and Innovation Strategy), Syster Tjarks (Innovation and Sustainability) and packaging engineer Marin Weick showed at FACHPACK 2022 how innovative approaches can best succeed and which wrong paths must be avoided.


Are Current Improvements Sufficient?

A lot is happening in the packaging industry right now, Geoffrey Hildebrand emphasised in his presentation: “Sustainability is a social driver. Almost all companies seem to be working to improve the sustainability of their products and packaging.” But is the overall progress enough and are the measures going in the right direction? The market research institute McKinsey has looked into this question and divided the companies' strategies into Low Hanging Fruits, Harder But Doable as well as System Level Change.

The low-hanging fruits, i.e. goals that can be implemented quickly, include weight reduction, material reduction, dispensing with unnecessary packaging, incremental further developments, material substitution and optimised sustainability narrative. According to the study, the focus of sustainability efforts is predominantly in this area. However, according to Hildebrand, the change can ultimately only succeed through groundbreaking sustainable innovations. For this to happen, companies and players in the industry must join forces to bring about a systemic change.

Furthermore, the packaging consultants from FuturPackLab have observed that mistakes made in the early design phase of a package have an impact on its entire life cycle and are difficult to correct. For packaging to become sustainable, this aspect must precede all design phases, which consist of research, strategy, creation, implementation and further development. "In this way, the idea of sustainability runs through all subsequent steps," says Hildebrand.


Light and Shadow: Practical Approaches

Syster Tjarks advises to distinguish between emotional and factual sustainability when developing packaging. "Natural materials in themselves stand for sustainability and one is quickly tempted to use them when switching to sustainable packaging," the expert explains. However, a look at the life cycle of the packaging quickly reveals pitfalls of such a decision. For materials like cork, wood or bamboo, there are no cycles in Europe and the packaging ends up in incineration after a single use. 

Using the 3-component cup consisting of plastic, a paper band and an aluminium lid, Martin Weick made it clear that well-intentioned ideas often fail in reality. Only 10 percent of consumers separate the materials after use. Thus, the goal of complete recyclability is lost. "A holistic development must include consumer behaviour. This is only possible if you think about consumer wishes and behaviour right from the start," says Weick.

However, various examples also illustrate how more sustainable packaging innovation can succeed along the process. What they all have in common is the approach of thinking outside traditional evaluation standards and rethinking questions. According to Tjarks, new technologies also offer solutions that were previously not possible. For example, embossing, which has so far mostly been used in the luxury segment, can eliminate the need for printing and labels. In addition, modern automation technology can help to better adapt packaging to the products, as MyMüsli together with Smurfit Kappa prove. 

Numerous other practical examples in the lecture illustrate where and how companies can start to realise groundbreaking, sustainable innovation. Quick wins are not enough, as the consultants emphasise.