In this article, Adam Ryan, head of Pentawards, traces the evolution of some key sustainable packaging trends.

Over the last 10 years, packaging has undergone a major sea-change. Where functionality has been king traditionally, the impact packaging is having on the planet is now fast becoming the most urgent issue.

Sustainability is now valued much more by consumers than has been in the past. Recent research from Getty Images, which surveyed 10,000 people globally, found that 81% of consumers see themselves as eco-friendly, yet only 50% claim to purchase products from eco-friendly brands. A further 68% could not name a single environmentally friendly brand.

For many, an eco-friendly way of life is very new to them. Consistent reports on the damage waste packaging and the use of harmful materials are doing to our planet have gone a long way towards educating consumers about making positive product choices.

There is therefore a shift in the way that we engage and select brands to purchase goods and services from, with packaging one of the great concerns for businesses and consumers. Nowadays these brands need to have an ethical message or a sustainable mission - whether that is the choice of packaging materials, or how products can and are disposed of.

A sustainable measurement

One of the greatest challenges for businesses is first, understanding how to make their models more sustainable, and second, how to measure their impact. How, for example, does a new design of packaging impact a business’s carbon footprint? What tools and methods exist to measure a very new consideration for businesses?

There are no quick wins with sustainability. This needs to be an ongoing and long-term approach. Brands and design agencies need to be honest and accept that it’s okay if they haven’t got it right yet. There is no point trying to pretend everything is green or circular before something truly significant has been implemented. The opportunity to change is available, and needed.

Evelio Mattos, host of Package Design Unboxd, has coined the new word “sustainabull”, which means: Unsubstantiated claims of sustainability or lack of. The term “greenwashing” also gets used a lot and is a really serious issue for a lot of businesses right now.

More brands are actually using sustainability as a huge marketing tool, due to the fact that more people actively care about sustainable credentials of products and packaging in general. A great example of this is Aguulp, who sent me a breaking news email, all focused around new packaging and actually apologising for a “packaging mishap”.

Perhaps their consumers were not happy about the current packaging, so they have been forced to update, and they are taking action to improve. It is this kind of action that can really show how brands are being held to account more actively than before.

Optimising infrastructure

If you consider a generic packaging industry supply chain, starting with the brand itself and incorporating all of the different contributors – from design agencies, manufacturers and warehousing, and distribution, to retail, consumer, and waste management – a piece of packaging has to pass through a lot of different hands-on its journey. Is it therefore possible to get all of the people from this chain together at the beginning of a project to discuss the full details? 

The only way packaging can be made more sustainable is by optimising the infrastructure in this way. After all, a designer may create something ground-breaking and sustainable, but how long does it take to create the machines or tools, or to understand how engineers would approach this new idea? Bigger organisations such as Coca-Cola that have the ability to create new infrastructures in this way have the opportunity to lead here.


Employing external perspectives

Traditionally the process of packaging design may have been very much an internal one. Utilising internal knowledge and understanding of a business to package a product in a way that meets all of the business goals, from tone of voice to visual guidelines and aesthetic.

Now though, there is a real need for that external influence. The environment and sustainability consultancies that have sprung up as a result of the shift in consumer habits are now on hand to provide the guidance and expertise that perhaps has been lacking internally for many years.

By tapping into this expertise, listening, and understanding, businesses can begin to imagine where sustainability fits into their existing model, and where the gaps for evolution and growth exist.

In addition to this, brands and design agencies have started investing in sustainable experts within their internal teams as well. It has arguably become as important – or if not more important - as having a digital, human resource, or realisation expert. This will bring creditability, education and commitment to implementing a sustainable approach.

Bringing sustainable luxury to life

The luxury market, in particular, has had a significant lack of truly sustainable packaging, and it remains a relatively untapped space from the eco-friendly perspective. Generally, heavier packaging in the form of fragrances, wine, spirits or fashion, is considered to be more expensive, and more luxurious.

But what if luxury was defined by how sustainable a product and its packaging are? We are now in a moment where this shift could become a reality. Brands and designers have started to explore lighter forms of packaging, or even, no packaging at all, targeting Millennials and Gen Z who are more aware of the implications of packaging waste.

These groups also make up 40% of all luxury spending, according to a recent report from Luxe Digital, which shows that brands and designers will need to provide products that meet their demands. This includes sustainability at the core, as well as new innovations and meaningful experiences.

Entries into last year’s Pentawards have been highlighting this change in luxury, such as the Air Co Vodka for example - a pioneer of the eco-luxury shift, and also the need for greater consideration of the impact specific packaging designs are having on the environment, and how businesses measure this.

In addition, we will likely see more frequent introductions of external experts to advise on packaging design from across the sustainability and environmental industry to support this shift to a sector that puts the planet first.

By cataloguing this shift in priority and consideration for the new era of business, sustainability can form a core function within the business model, and encourage more inventive and healthier methods of packaging for the years to come. To move forwards, not backwards.