All wrapped up: how to future-proof packaging

Tracy Sutton
All wrapped up HERO

All over the world, shores and riverbanks are littered with washed-up packaging produced by international converters. Brands are being faced with highly visible evidence that although a pack may be ‘recyclable’, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s ‘recycled’. Significant investments and commitments are being made by national and multinational brands as the industry assesses what can be done to redesign packaging to ensure that it really does end up in a recycling stream rather than in our seas.


A traditional approach to design more responsible packaging is to explore a material swap, moving to one that’s ‘widely recycled’. While this can have a positive impact at a country, or potentially continent, level for some key materials, for a global brand, it’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.

For example, a material swap doesn’t address the public’s growing phobia toward plastic. While I understand some of the reasons behind a ‘plastic-free’ supermarket, this material-specific campaign does nothing to reduce litter or consumption of single-use packaging. The ‘plastic-free’ movement demonises an incredibly valuable material, and the emotion behind it prevents us getting to the real point: the use of exhaustible versus renewable resources.

Playing it safe

Some brands, retailers and converters are finding it a challenge to move away from using a high-value, finite resource for low-value applications. Consequently, they’re doing everything they can to keep manufacturing, packing and selling the same products, using the same factories, supply chain and infrastructure. While I applaud the hard work, commitment and initiatives being implemented by the industry to design for recycling, as well as increase actual recycling rates, I don’t believe we’re thinking sufficiently outside the box.

When was the last time that a serious contender for a new format of packaging was launched? Take haircare. We still assume shampoo needs to go in a 200ml single-use plastic bottle. We could look at a new shape to get more on a pallet, lightweight it to lower its carbon footprint, add PCR (post-consumer resin), or use smart technology to mould the bottle in a way that uses less plastic. Ultimately, it’s still a 200ml single-use plastic bottle that consumers adhere little value to – although, made from a finite material, it’s very valuable indeed.

Any brand not meeting the ‘widely recycled’ expectation will be left behind in the competition to be a responsible leader in the FMCG sector

Incremental changes are easier, quicker and cheaper for brands to action than rethinking the way that they get their products to the consumer. Brands want to still offer the same products to a consumer whose lifestyle and expectations around the environment are changing.

The opportunity of design thinking

When design thinking is applied to a new product development (NPD) project, it enables brands to think holistically, developing product and pack together. Putting consumer experience at the heart of the brief, this approach defines whether brands should be looking at a waste hierarchy, circular economy or cradle-to-cradle packaging methodology. Design thinking can be the difference between a concept that’s game-changing rather than novelty; between your brand littering the oceans or being a prized possession in a consumer’s life. Also known as ‘inclusive design’, it incorporates human problems, technical challenges, and environmental and social aspects such as designing for consumers with different mental and physical capabilities.

Due to the higher costs associated with them, sustainable products can quite often be seen as a luxury purchase and, therefore, less accessible. The brands that commit to changes in this sphere need to make sustainability feel as easy as possible, less of a luxury and more of a norm.

Design for refill – the traditional method

Examples of traditional refill systems exist worldwide whereby the initial purchase of a bottle is followed by a more cost-effective refill pouch. A wealth of brands offer this system across haircare, skincare (Yves Rocher) and home cleaning products such as Method, Milo and Jif. One of the big challenges for these models, however, is that refill packs are neither collected, nor economically viable, for recycling.

Jif products

© Root

Prior to such packaging options, many of us enjoyed the return-and-refill systems brought to us by the milkman. These beverage-specific, glass packs are still a core product delivery system in many parts of the world for brands including Coca-Cola and Pepsi. In Bolivia, a few years ago, I couldn’t buy a bottle of Coke unless I had an empty to return.

Pepsi and Coca Cola

© Root

The anti-disposable movement and designing for Gen Z

Belgium, Germany and Italy are among many European countries that offer water fountains in their cities so the public can refill a bottle. The Refill app is also very successful, with over 900 stations in the UK and hundreds rolling out across Europe.
Coca-Cola piloted their Freestyle refillable bottle system in the UK with Reading University, after identifying that the consumers of tomorrow have new expectations around brand experience and environmental impact. The concept of the world’s biggest beverage brand moving towards a new product delivery system is one step closer to reality.

PepsiCo launched an interesting coffee-pod-style concept, Drinkfinity. I encourage progressive steps like these to test consumer engagement for a model that benefits from a significant reduction of material and water use.The Reload fragrance refill pack is popular in the Netherlands. Users benefit from convenience, more frequent changes in fragrance and a lower packaging use over a lifetime. They can also personalise the sleeve of the pack, much like with a mobile phone.

The Reload fragrance refill pack is popular in the Netherlands. Users benefit from convenience, more frequent changes in fragrance and a lower packaging use over a lifetime. They can also personalise the sleeve of the pack, much like with a mobile phone.

Reload products

© Root

Thierry Mugler’s game-changing Alien refill stations remain a strong in-store fixture that stands out against competitors who only offer single-use, often non-recyclable packaging options for fragrance.

Although different design rules apply when ‘designing for reuse’, we must remember that all of these items still need to be designed for recycling – something I fear brands are forgetting about. We must avoid new mounds of inseparable refillable items that have no recycling infrastructure

A sustainable way forward

Looking at the basics … fossil fuels are exhaustible. Is it responsible to use a finite material to wrap and package products for a single use? Or should they be preserved and protected for more essential uses such as medical applications or products with a positive social or health impact? If we’re to continue using finite materials for our convenience, brands need to consider a creative way to deliver products to their consumers.

Any brand not meeting the ‘widely recycled’ expectation will be left behind in the competition to be a responsible leader in the FMCG sector. Over and above this essential requirement, the way to innovate is to apply design thinking to your NPD process, considering product and packaging development in tandem.

To future-proof their packaging, brands must avoid short-term trends. They need to think long term, and carefully consider so-called innovative materials. The secret to being a sustainable brand is to be a responsible brand. Those who invest in a Packaging Strategy can carefully balance the needs of brand longevity, environmental protection and economic growth in a responsible way.