It is a challenging time for packaging specialists and brand owners: the desire for sustainable consumption is growing, but at the same time the products should also be safe and comfortable. Packaging Europe asked Uwe Melichar (epda President, Melichar Bros.) and Christian Prill (Partner Brand Strategy at Factor) what brand owners, designers, and packaging specialists should do now.

PE: Rem Koolhaas wrote the bon mot ‘If less is more, maybe nothing is everything’. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world without packaging – with nude products?

CP: Many people question their own consumption today and would like to reconcile their actions with reasonable goals, such as fewer CO2 emissions. A few years ago, this resulted in new retail formats such as 'Package Free Stores' (New York), 'Helu' and 'Bulk Market' (London), 'Original Unverpackt' (Berlin) or 'Ome Farm' (Tokyo). Since Corona, however, we have seen that in addition to the desire for sustainability, a high level of security for people is even more important. That is also an ethical value, other than comfort. Seen in this way, nude products have become less likely again. I see opportunities for brands above all in the focus on innovative developments. This is the best way to achieve sustainability and security together. But that's a long way.

UM: Interestingly, coffee-to-go cups have been popular again since Corona. They are anything but sustainable. First of all, such packaging forms emerged because people have become increasingly mobile. They then prevailed mainly because they were paired with time optimization and habits, for example at breakfast in the subway. Other product categories have followed suit. Minis are followed by snack bits, everything even smaller, available at any time, everything individually packed, everything convenient. However, these forms of packaging now have a high need for security, which at least currently puts the desire for sustainability in second place. We can only make progress with innovative approaches if we want to become more sustainable.

PE: They both address the importance of innovation. What are the greatest opportunities here?

UM: Packaging and the materials from which it is made are subject to evolution and are getting better, more sustainable, and more digitally communicative. This is a great opportunity. For example, the material manufacturers are working flat-out to develop plastic substitutes made from wood fibers – liquid wood/lignin, Sulapac, new cellophane foils, etc. Digitally communicative means that packaging can be identified in the waste stream and for the recycling process.

CP: The effort to innovate seems more correct to me than to forego consumption. There is always such skepticism about the future, but that does not meet the needs of most people. The crux lies in communication: communicating these services to a wide audience is important for brand owners and packaging professionals. This is currently a very big acceptance problem. A lot of intelligent education is necessary here.

PE: What should this communication be like?

CP: I think the best communication is that which is an integral part of the brand presence. Who is not happy about the unboxing experience with the new iPhone when the lid slides up with this unique "pfft"? That also shows that the shape of a brand is indivisible. The division into a substantial, useful product and an aesthetically oriented shell with no real benefit is misleading. Ideally, packaging as well as brand design contribute to a brand shape that allows the product and its casing to merge into one unit.

"Consumers need more information about materials and more instructions and help with recycling."

UM: Yes, but that does not contradict the desire and the urgent requirement for more environmentally friendly alternatives. Apple also has to rethink packaging. And consumers need more information about materials and more instructions and help with recycling. 'Plastic bad, paper good' is too simplistic.

PE: Now ‘purpose’ is the big buzzword. What does that mean for brands and packaging?

UM: Purpose is the new brand ethics. The search for more meaning and sustainability is also right for packaging brand owners in packaging. As I said before: There are enough starting points, for example, to do without unnecessary packaging elements or to optimize the necessary product casings by reducing material thicknesses and using alternative materials. ‘Avoid, diminish, change’ are the catchwords – in particular the diminution in connection with light engineering, i.e. a new design or statics, as well as the use of hybrid solutions that cleverly combine materials, offering extremely promising approaches in structural packaging.

CP: Purpose, meaning more sustainability and an overarching sense for the brands, is correct for now. I find it difficult when brands completely move away from their actual identity – such as the German discounter Penny, which distributes drinks and condoms at festivals under the headline ‘Purpose’. Wouldn't it make more sense to simply be a good discounter and to communicate that too?

PE: Uptrading and increasingly special offers in almost every product segment have determined the markets in recent years. How do you see this development?

CP: Brands continue to differentiate markets. They arrange social spaces. In this respect, primary packaging is a catalyst for delimitation and connection. Some are in their brand, but others are not. This is a major achievement of the brands through positioning, branding, and packaging.

To do this, they must also be clearly positioned in the uptrading niche. Coffee, tea, and chips are segments in which this can currently be seen very clearly. And that creates added value for everyone. Yogi tea ‘natural defense’ creates greater added value and makes more sense compared to the loose chamomile flower. It's good for everyone.

UM: That is a good point because it is also important to communicate the added value of a product. In the right interplay with the product protection, the extension of the shelf life, and possibly a good dosage of the content, packaging can do a lot here. The right balance between safety, convenience, and sustainability is the key, and in some places, it makes perfect sense to do without packaging. But not dogmatically and not everywhere; sometimes less is actually more, sometimes less is simply wrong.

The experts

Christian Prill is a partner for Brand Strategy at epda member Factor ( His main concern is how brands can authentically serve the triad of needs of security, sustainability, and comfort from themselves.

Uwe Melichar is a packaging expert and president of epda. With his company Melichar Bros., he advises companies and develops tailor-made, sustainable packaging solutions.