Bottlenecks in the design industry

Why are we not seeing more environmentally considerate packaging designs?

Root founder, Tracy Sutton

In the second post from my Materials World interview, I look at the challenges that exist in the packaging industry around the integration of sustainability into design concepts and explore what can be done to change the process.

What are some of the challenges companies face when implementing sustainability into their packaging and brand?

There are three key challenges that prevent more environmentally considerate packaging hitting the supermarket shelves. The first is around gaps in education, the second is the briefing process that designers and brands use and final hurdle is getting manufacturers to recognise that they are out of touch with the portfolio of packaging that they offer.


Education surrounding sustainability needs to be improved within the design industry. There is a significant lack of education surrounding the environmental impact of packaging across the design and manufacturing sectors.

I graduated from Falmouth University with a Ba (hons) degree in Sustainable Product Design. To my knowledge it’s the only course that focuses the entire three years on the social, economic and environmental impact of design. Most other courses, i.e. Graphics or Communication Design have optional or small modules on sustainability. This fragmented, short term approach prevents students from getting the opportunity to really integrate ideas into day to day design practice.

Creatives who studied graphic design or communication design courses generally need technical and environmental guidance to help them realise their concepts in production. While most designers want to ‘do the right thing’ they are not provided with the tools or information to make the best decision. Without this support, fewer more sustainable innovations and concepts will get to market.

Shift in perception

We also need to see a shift in the perception of what so called ‘eco-design’ means for creative concepts. Considering a pack’s impact on the environment is not a restrictive bind as many people think. Support is needed to help creatives learn how to use 2D and 3D design strategies that provide creative opportunities. I have a great network of designers and agencies, most would like to design packaging with a lower impact, but they don’t often have access to the information and expertise they need to make well informed choices – therefore they choose to err on the side of caution and stick to what they know.

True sustainable design principles are those that lessen the environmental impact of a product, improve consumer desirability and sustain the product and pack on the shelves in todays competitive space. Gone are the days when consumers had to accept a functional or aesthetic compromise. Nowadays, when product and pack are considered holistically it’s possible to specify the appropriate format, the right technical material/s and suitable decoration techniques in a way that surprises and engages consumers senses.

Design brief

Arguably one of the bigger factors is the lack of direction towards environmental considerations from brands in design rosters and briefs. I can count the number of times that have I seen sustainability aspects in a design brief on two hands. Those projects where it has been a consideration have been some of the most exiting and innovative packaging projects I’ve worked on.

Brands rarely include environmental aspects in their design briefs because they believe their Sustainability Team have it covered. That’s often not the case. The Sustainability Team think the Packaging Team have it covered. But the brief comes from Marketing – not the Packaging Team. Sometimes environmental aspects are covered by QC or Legal because of the legal responsibilities and regulation that surrounds packaging design and waste management.

As you can see, good intent is lost in translation. Brands miss the opportunity for designers to engage with the subject and put forward more environmentally considerate designs. Creatives feel that their hands are tied and that they are not given the space to propose concepts that fall outside of the brief. Some, brave agencies and passional individuals are able to challenge this process but it does not happen very often.

The key to the success of this process is the introduction of Director-driven sustainability that is integrated into the business with a ‘top down’ approach. It’s managed and embraced by all teams to positively impact the planet and drive sales and the bottom line. All teams include it in the role and it’s something that does not slip through the net.

Do you think there is enough innovation in the packaging industry?

The word ‘innovation’ can be used too much these days. Brands are under pressure to innovate, but often need support to make it happen. Innovation is not compostable packaging, a new shape of packaging or a light-weighted pack – these are all things that have been done before. Innovation is significantly more than this – these incremental steps are important achievements, but they don’t necessarily benefit the consumer. They don’t fill consumers with surprise. More needs to be done to help nudge people out of the comfort zone that exists around this apparent ‘innovation’. The industry is somewhat complacent, working within the systems and processes that exist, so we lack real game changing technological or creative innovations that really engage with consumers.

What steps would you like to see taken in the industry over the next few years?

I’d like to see if we could find a real alternative to plastic that uses renewable resources and composts in a home environment. The emergence of bio-based plastics such PET made from renewable resources are great, but they still leave us with lots of plastic to clean and move around the recycling system. Scientists, polymer manufacturers and packaging converters are currently undergoing a lot of work to trial new compostable materials, and I’m looking forward to seeing and reading the results of these tests. I’d also like to see regulation for those claiming their products are compostable and biodegradable within the industry. Brands are being sold items such as coffee cups and lids that only compost in an industrial composting facility. There is no real infrastructure to collect industrially compostable packaging – the packaging goes to landfill, while the buyers think that it dissolves in the garden at home.

As published in Materials World April edition.

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