Circular economy and print innovation; the perfect combination for a sustainable brand

Root founder, Tracy Sutton

Ask someone what they think sustainable design is and they will probably mention recycling. In fact, when people hear I’m a sustainable packaging design consultant one of the first things they say is ‘I always recycle my packaging’. Recycling is certainly an important action but by purely thinking about what happens at the end of life, we miss out on creative and environmental gains at the beginning of the design process. Figures from RSA highlight that 80% of a product’s environmental impact was set out at the design stage. If we take a step back from recycling and resist the temptation to focus on the end of life we can create a more holistic review of the entire manufacture process and product lifecycle together. This strategic approach brings much more exiting creative, brand and environmental opportunities than simple recycling.

I recently had the opportunity to consider a sustainable design strategy for my own business cards. Although recycling played a part in the end result it certainly was not the priority. A lot of energy, technology and craftsmanship was going to be spent producing the 3 different cards so my strategy analysed the entire supply chain from material extraction, material processing right through to print.

I learnt about applying methodologies like ‘life-cycle analysis’ when I studied Sustainable Product Design, however that felt a little complex for what I wanted to achieve. Instead, I took core design principles from the more appropriate Circular Economy approach and defined a sustainable design strategy for the project.

Material selection

At the beginning of the process I worked closely with my design partner Buddy who developed a concept that I felt represented the values that I base my work upon; revealing opportunities to be creative, innovative and sustainable. We wanted to shake off the old stuff brown kraft aesthetic of sustainable design and ensure that desirability was paramount to the cards, not secondary.

We identified 4 wonderful materials from a selection of Antalis papers, each of the materials had a unique texture or emboss we wanted to celebrate and they also held impressive environmental credentials that include:

– 3 of the 4 materials were made here in the UK

– 1 material uses re-engineered potato starch

– 2 materials are made from 100% recycled content

– 1 material contains upcycled paper pulp

– all materials are FSC accredited

Root Innnovation Card Image


We developed a design that uses as little ink as possible and specified digital print as the perfect choice for the print on the front of the cards. Digital print has a lower impact than other print methods like lithographic print, it requires significantly less set up waste, especially for low quantities. Laser cutting was chosen to create the clean-cut window on the top layer of card, we wanted to die cut the detail but it was not possible to achieve the tight corners in the font. I’m looking at refining the design to allow for die cutting the next run of cards because I know this uses more energy than die cutting. I set out to digitally print the white detail on the reverse of the card, however after proofing this with 3 and 5 passes of white ink we did not meet the desired the premium aesthetic.

We chose to foil block this detail and the results were fantastic. The amount of foil used is so small that it will not cause a problem in the recycling of the cards, even so, we specified a brass die from Dreyer Kliche that will last for 3 times the amount of impressions compared to the traditional magnesium, this means we’ve used 1/3 of the amount of metal that typically is used which is great. The materials were duplexed together using a latex-free adhesive then trimmed and delivered straight to my studio.


I wanted the cards to be made by a local printer to minimise the distribution footprint for these small but mighty cards. After a little research I found a printer based less than 20miles away from the studio and worked with them to proof the different finishes on the four materials before the main production run to ensure we didn’t have any technical surprises.

If you’re lucky enough to have one of these cards then you will agree that the end result is very pleasing to touch. The most important thing for these business cards is the bigger picture: the story behind their creation enables me to inspire designers and engage people with the desirability of sustainable design – this is a much bigger positive impact than simple printing them on recycled material.

Recommended Posts
Contact Root

If you would like to explore how we could work together, or to request further details about my work, please fill in the details and I will be in touch promptly.

Not readable? Change text.