Circular economy drives packaging innovation

Root founder, Tracy Sutton

A huge amount of time, effort and resources has gone into the development of the Circular Economy by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Their strategic design approach aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest value in continual material flows within a biological or technical system.

Most of the work behind the theory is academic but there are many creative ways to translate the science into practical packaging design. In the early days of the Circular Economy the focus was on consumer goods – packaging didn’t really get the attention it deserved. The imbedded value in packaging was not seen as significant or worth chasing when larger gains could be made from focusing on the design of the goods themselves.

Kingfisher, Coca Cola and Unilever are some of the brands who have signed up as members of the Circular Economy 100 – a global platform of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that brings together leading companies and innovators to ‘accelerate the transition to a circular economy’. These brands along with many others, recognise the economic opportunity of sustainability and are looking for ways to streamline their processes and minimise waste throughout their packaging supply chain. When brands review their packaging, they question whether they can remove unnecessary packaging without impacting shelf life and explore whether they could use a better, lighter-weight material. A positive by-product of the technical investigation into packaging specifications can often provide content for a compelling consumer-facing brand story, therefore it’s a ‘win win’ scenario for brands.


From linear to circular waste management

Lush Cosmetics are doing some excellent packaging work in the area of Circular Economy. At Lush, Gabbi Loedolff says: “We are working to introduce as many closed loops as possible”. Alongside selling a number or products in reusable packaging they run a ‘bring back’ scheme, where for every five empty black Lush pots customers return to the shops, they receive a free face mask.  These returned pots then feed back into their post consumer PP (polypropylene) stream. They have recently opened a Green Hub recycling facility that is now up and running on site in Poole. Lush have made the decision to tackle its waste stream step by step, starting with black PP pots first, then turning their attention to recycling PET packaging.


Circular economy and packaging innovation

Genuine packaging innovation can stem from the integration of sustainability into the design process. Method have a simple and effective packaging strategy that includes three key circular economy principles; the use of recycled content, design for recyclability and the use of product refills. The teardrop bottle for their dish and hand soap design optimises product and packaging design together. The shape of the bottle is not only ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing but the structural design forces the last portion of the product to the bottom so it does not get wasted in any tight corners.

The bottom line

Smart brands realise that the circular economy offers not only a rich vein of product innovation, but they recognise the economic benefits. A few years ago, the head of procurement of one of the UK’s major retailers also said to me; “we used to call it cost saving, but now we call it ‘sustainability” – he was right – contrary to popular belief, sustainability and cost saving go hand in hand. An example of this is from Method.  Their packaging design strategy inspired the introduction of Ocean Plastic into the packaging of their Dish and Hand soap and resulted in a 27% sales uplift. Brands that are integrating circular economy principles into their packaging and supply chains are reaping both brand and business rewards.

Image courtesy of

Brand value in waste

The Ocean Plastic project mentioned above also plays a big role in Ecover’s packaging – the brand continues to be heavily involved in the collection of sea plastic to produce it’s recycled Ocean Bottles. To date, Ecover has collected 10 tonnes of sea plastic that been used to produce 15,000 Ocean Bottles since the project launched in early 2014. The brand’s focus for this year is to find more partners to help manage the waste collection process – the key objective for 2015 is to work towards its goal of tripling the volume of ocean plastic collected last year. The Circular Economy can undoubtedly inspire and drive packaging innovation for FMCG brands. Some of todays leading household names including Ecover, Lush and Method recognise both the economic and brand value of utilising so called ‘waste’. Sustainable design approaches like the Circular Economy, Cradle 2 Cradle and Life Cycle Analysis are more than academic theory. They are powerful, creative tools being used by big brands to reduce their environmental foot print, add brand value and increase profits. I’m looking forward to hearing success stories from more of todays leading brands at this year’s RWM event. These positive stories will encourage other brands to consider integrating Circular Economy principles into their products and packaging for a positive impact on both brand and the bottom line.

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