Produce sustainable packaging


A Cornflakes box, bubble wrap, a milk bottle and even our very own skin are all forms of packaging. We come into contact with so much packaging everyday that we no longer think about what it is there for or even if it is necessary. It serves its purpose and is then discarded, but in this day and age is this really the right attitude to have? In a world where the effects of our own greed and ignorance is showing the shocking effects of destruction on the very planet we call home, shouldn't we be paying more attention to the little things we can do to prevent this from happening and help support the companies out there that are supplying us with the answers.

Lazy and wasteful package design can found encasing too many of the products we consume. With a future in graphic design before me I feel it is important for new designers to be aware of the impact their potential work may have on the planet and learn ways in which to reduce the effect they have on the planet. In this dissertation I plan to explore the concept of sustainability and why it's important for designers to make the move towards it. I will explore the current use of sustainability in package design through the use of case studies and will look to how other companies can make the change towards sustainability. I also want to explore the idea of lazy design and see if by changing to a more sustainable attitude can this change the way designers approach design and its function.

Some of the areas I plan to cover are; Why is there a need for sustainable design? What is sustainable design and how does it affect designers? What changes can graphic designer make to move towards sustainability? And Can designing with a sustainable attitude help eradicate lazy and wasteful design. By researching this topic and educating myself at this stage in my career I believe it will have a positive effect on the work I product and cut out to any harmful effects I may have to the environment as a result. As the idea of sustainable design is a relatively new concept it is not as well known as it should be and I feel now is a vital time to start pushing the message and educate consumers and designers to not only the environmental but also the social advantages to sustainability.

What is Package design and why is it important?

Packaging has three main reasons for being produced and is based around a concept of the three P's, to Protect, Preserve and promote the product inside the packaging. Companies use packaging to get their products to you without damage or contamination. Without it the sale of many products would be almost impossible. Packaging is also in many ways an experience, a way of telling a story. Without it many products would become meaningless. Think about how much packaging influences you when you are stood in front of that supermarket shelf, if that packaging wasn't there how would you tell the products apart? How would you make your choice? Packaging as you can see can be much more than just a container or a form of protection for a product. Packaging helps sell a product to the customer at the most at the vital point of purchase. On average a product has just 3seconds to attract the buyer when sitting on the shelf, that's not long when you are competing against hundreds of other brands so you have to get your image right.

The term 'brand' originates from the days when farmers used to brand their cattle to register ownership of their herd. Before long the brand began to represent not just the owner but their values and quality of their product (Sands 2009)

For many products the packaging is the canvas upon which to show their brand and its values to the world. Until recently the best packaging was the one had the most sparkle, with foil embossing, different textured paper and was stuck together with 5 different types of glue, looking back at this all singing all dancing approach we now realise how harmful these beautiful but wasteful techniques can be. It is now up to the designers to move past this and create not only beautiful skins for packaging but also rethink the effectiveness of their forms to minimise waste.

An introduction to Branding

In package design branding plays a crucial role in selling a product to the consumer. Over the past thirty years branding has become such a powerful force that companies now believe the branding of a product is more important that the product itself.

Firstly it is important to understand that there is a difference between the terms Branding and Advertising. Advertising is a means to call public attention to a particular item, idea or cause, while branding is a symbol of a company and its philosophies, it is a representation of the core principles and to some degree the personality of a company or product. It is the brand that is advertised as well as the product. Packaging has been a crucial way for companies to display their product and brand image.

Branding includes many different aspects from the name of a product through to the logo and colour scheme, it can also include the use of a personality to gain a positive rapport with a brand for example Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben' rice. By including human aspect to the brand it makes it easier for people to relate to and trust, it creates the illusion of dealing with a brand on a personal lvel instead of a multinational company.

Before the huge popularity of branding companies would make their money through the quality of their products. The most successful companies used to be the ones who had the most factories and the biggest workforce, now this couldn't be more different. Instead of a company creating their own product and adverting them companies now buy in products, the majority come from overseas and brand them. A company's value now sits in its branding and not the product itself like it used to be.

It is important to know about the use of branding as packaging is a primary vehicle for displaying the brand and advertising the product. From the understanding of the importance of branding you can now see how wasteful package design has evolved. Elaborate packaging has become a way to push a brands image on the shelves but now consumers are becoming more conscious of their environmental foot prints. This means it is now becoming important to build in the idea of sustainability into the brands core principles and the packaging must represent this.

What does sustainable mean and how does it apply to design?

The dictionary states that sustainable means;

  1. Capable of being sustained.
  2. Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment: sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable design means a product is designed with the environment in mind. With climate change and global warming becoming an increased threat. We need to try and combat our contributions to the problem. By making use of sustainable design it means we are making a conscious decision to fight waste, pollution and the overconsumption of the earth's natural resources. Ideally sustainable package design would mean that all materials and methods used in the production process would have no social or environmental impact and would use nature to its fullest advantage.

We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. Wendell Berry (Boylston 2009:31)

When mentioning sustainable design many people believe that it means the packaging will be an unattractive brown mishmash of recycled cardboard but this is really not the case. Instead of focusing on the usual graphical aspects of package design designers now have to push themselves to rethink the package design process as they know it and work with a sustainable attitude from the very beginning of a project. Sustainable design means delivering the best performance product for the least cost to not only the consumer but also the environment. The Product and its processes need to meet not only current human needs but also take into consideration the consequences for the future generations to come.

A brief History of sustainability

The development of civilisation has meant that for more than a million years, when humans first started using tools to change and develop their own surrounding we have been having a negative effect on the planet mother nature had intended for us. Our curious nature has lead us to developing the world around us to suit our own needs.

Man is the only species capable of generating waste -things that no other life on earth wants to have. Gunter Pauli - Industrial Ecologist? (Datschefski 2001:21)

As this quote shows that in our efforts to improve upon our own lifestyles we have somehow forgotten about the planet we live on and have grown used to abusing it for our own gain. The first signs of people realising we as a species were having a negative effect on the planet can be seen as far back as the 17th century when the first signs of the idea of sustainability were being realised. For example in medieval Europe there was so much air pollution from wood and coal fires that there are records of royalty moving from castle to castle to escape the heavy air pollution, Edward I even forbid coal to be burnt when parliament was in session. There were also laws passed to regulate the regions from Venice to England to protect certain forest land due to the huge demand on fire wood. Laws such as these show that people were beginning to understand the effect their demands were having on the environment and what changes they would have to make to sustain their quality of living.

In the 18th century onwards when the industrial revolution hit there was a massive change to the economy, with huge technological advances moving economies based mostly from farms into industries. These changes put huge demands on our natural resources of fossil fuels and resulted in a dramatic rise in pollution. From the early 18th century onwards we have seen signs of the exploitation of our planet with examples including Killer fogs, the extinction of certain species of animals and the holes in the ozone layer which have caused drastic environmental changes such as droughts, flooding and killer storms, all of which can be linked back to climate change. We have also seen our population growing rapidly from an estimated 1 billion in the beginning of the 1800's to an estimation of over 6 billion in 2000. The growth of the population has in itself had a huge impact on the earth's resources, this is furthered by life expectancies getting longer. Throughout the past few centuries laws have been passed and groups have been formed to fight for a change in attitudes to protect our planet but due to our own excuses such as recessions the planet seems to have sat on the back burner of government priorities. Today the governments and society are ready to make the changes with the popularity of a sustainable attitude rising and the idea of recycling becoming almost a fashion statement. Businesses are reaping huge rewards for moving their companies/brands towards the idea of becoming sustainable as we become more of the damage we are doing. You only have to look in the newspapers over the past couple years to see the devastation the effects that natural disasters are having, hopefully a move towards sustainability can help lower the effects we are seeing.

Why is sustainability important?

During my research I have heard a few different quote of how many planet earths it would take to sustain the way we are living now and the number ranges between three and ten depending where you live, when really the point is that we only one. Sustainability is a majorly important issue that will affect all of us. We can't continue to abuse the planet the way we are doing and not expect to see any repercussions, I believe we are going to feel the effects much more strongly in the years to come. It is such an important issue because it gives us the change to live the lives we have come accustom to living while avoiding any further damage to the planet it also gives us the chance to pass on the earth to future generations in a liveable state.

Does the package design industry really present an environmental problem?

Over 30 tonnes of waste are produced for every one tonne of product that reaches the consumer (Datschefski 2001:17)

The nature of packaging is that you throw it away, and as far as the ideology behind sustainability goes this is not acceptable. The life cycle of packaging is very short, once it has fulfilled its requirements like most products its short life is over before it began. The Packaging is produced, it sits on the supermarket shelves, advertises and protects its product the best it can, then when its journey is over and the product reaches its final destination the packaging is discarded as soon as it is removed. There are ways in which you can change this cycle of waste. You could for example make your packaging re-usable or using another more popular method create it with dual function. By making your packaging multifunctional it is attractive to customers as they feel they are receiving an added bonus, for example the company Celery Design Collaboration has recently worked designing new packaging for the lighting company Lemnis. As the light bulbs are new and ultra efficient and they wanted the packaging to reflect this new efficient quality. The multi functional aspect of the light bulbs packaging was that after use you can unfold it and it can be easily turned into a colourful and stylish lamp shade. This is not only bonus points for the company because they are doing their bit for the environment but they will also be remembered for the quirky extras you got when purchasing their products. To break the cycle companies need to insert another option into the equation by eradicating the option of simple waste disposal and create other options such as dual functionality to break peoples wasteful habits.

What can designers do to make a difference?

To become sustainable a designer needs to take into account a number of issues including materials, dematerialisation, design for disassembly, energy, life extension and transport. As you can see using recycled paper just won't cut it. Here are a few different methods that will aid a designer in becoming more sustainable:


When deciding upon the materials to be used in a project it is of course best to choose renewable or recycled/recyclable sources, you should also avoid using any toxic substances in the project including the use adhesives in the assembly of your packaging. Toxic substances don't just come from the inclusion of materials such as foil embossing on the packaging but also the type of ink you may print with. Celery design solutions had created a tool called '80% design solutions' with the aid of AIGA San Francisco and the Alameda Country Waste Management Authority and Recycling board. It compromises of a list of list of pantone colours that should be avoided to help prevent involving heavy metals entering into the design project. It was shocking to learnt that at least 20 percent of the Pantone Matching System should be avoided, leaving 80 percent left to choose from for a more environmentally friendly project.

Another point to take into consideration when thinking about materials to use is also how much of it will you be using, by using less you will not only reduce waste but also make it easier for the consumer to recycle.

Dematerialisation and Life extension.

Dematerialisation also involves some of the above points, one of these is light weighting. The effects of cutting down the size of your packaging may have more of an impact than you may imagine. For example, If you cut down the material used in your packaging this will directly affect the size and weight of the package, by having a smaller and lighter version you will be able to fit more onto one crate for shipment, this means you will be cutting down the amount of air miles and energy waste your product collects.

Another aspect of dematerialisation could mean that you design your product to be multifunctional. By making your packaging have dual usage it makes the customer less likely to disregard it. A sponge company called twist focused on the dual functionality when designing the packaging for their range of cleaning products. The company Twist was created with sustainability as one of their main focuses, so all of their products are made from sustainable resources and this theme carries into their package design. The interiors of each box of packaging contain a net and instructions in how to transform it into a neat little bird feeder. There is also no need to worry about any toxic inks on the transformed packaging as all the inks used for printing as soya based.

Another way you could extend your packaging's life without turning it into a bird feeder is by re-use. A very simple but also very effective way of cutting down on waste.

Design For Disassembly

For package design this mostly means making the product easy to take apart so it is easily recycled. You should be able to take the product apart and flatten it to make it convenient to store but it should also be easy to separate any materials that cannot be recycled together. If you make it too much hard work people will not do it.


Energy can be wasted in many ways, by looking at your production methods and minimising waste you should be able to cut energy usage. Looking at creating your own forms of renewable energy is also a possible option. There are a few different methods you could use for creating your own energy but one of the most popular methods around in Solar panelling.

Each day more solar energy falls to the earth that the total amount of energy the planets 6billion inhabitants would consume in 25 years. US department of energy (Boylston 2001:38-39)

As you can see if we tapped into this natural source of energy we would have potential for endless energy.


This is a major issue which is very much linked with food products at the moment but applies to all products that have to be shipped any amount of distance. It not only means the finished products but also all the materials and processes the product went through. To keep things as eco friendly as possible it is important to source materials locally wherever possible this not only helps you but it also helps your local economy.

Cradle to cradle, instead of cradle to grave.

We've often head that we're running out of resources. But there are still the same number of atoms around on the earth's surface 'we have simply converted atoms into molecules that are of no use to us' (Datschefski 2001:32)

The loss of even more of our natural resources can be avoided by using the simple cyclic process. By using organic materials that can be continuously recycled in a closed loop means there will never be any real waste as all the used products go back into creating new material. These cycles eliminate any toxic waste or poisons leaving the cycle, it also means that the quality of the recycled product will stay just the same as the quality of the products that went into creating it. This process is different from down cycling however as the end product will be of a lower grade material than that which started off life as. An example of the down cycling process is if you have a material such as plastic that has been printed on. when the dye goes into the recycling process it then combines with all the other plastics and discolours everything that it comes into contact with, this means the end product will be of lesser quality than the plastic it started life as. In the cyclic process this does not happen because the material and dyes would never be mixed.

Designers need to take this process into account when designing and should take note that by adding colours, adhesives, barrier coatings and labels makes the recycling process much harder.

Case studies.

Here I have researched a few different companies and the way they are incorporating the sustainable philosophy into their businesses.

Hewlett Packard

HP is a huge company with business enterprises spanning onehundred and seventy-eight countries worldwide. It would be easy to assume that such a big corporate brand wouldn't hold the idea of sustainability as of big importance, but you would be wrong. Over the past ten years HP have embraced the sustainable attitude for the packaging of their products. By making changes it has not only helped the environment but has helped save the company money too, one of these changes helped saved HP approximately '4 million in 2006 alone. The company run a competition throughout the organisation called the PEAC (Packaging Environmental Advisory Council) awards, this provides employees with the incentive to keep environmental standards at the forefront of their designs and also reinforces the message that waste reduction is a core principle that HP stands for.

Here are some of the changes HP has enforced over the past ten years:

Encouragement of recycling

Since 2004 Hp has given consumers the opportunity to post back their empty cartridge by supplying a prepaid envelope with the ink cartridge in the packaging. By supplying both the envelope and the cost for postage people are much more likely to take part in their recycling scheme which means the waste doesn't end up in a landfill site. This was proved to the organisation by the amount of people that have recycled their old ink cartridges since the changes have been made. Hp saw such a high difference that in one day they received more ink cartridges back to be recycled than they had previously had in one month. As we can learn from HP's recycling scheme many people need more of an incentive to help save the planet and by giving them simple tools and incorporating activities that can fit easily into their everyday routine you can see how much of a difference it can make.

Graphic Evolution

This is my favourite of all HP's methods of becoming more sustainable. The method is called Graphic evolution and is based on the concept of the consumers brand loyalty. When a new product is released into the market the designer's use expensive roll-out packaging, with eye-catching graphics, glossy paper and bright colours but when the product becomes familiar to the consumer and has fulfilled its performance credentials HP changes the designs of the packaging to one with less high-quality paper, less colours and less ink coverage, this means the packaging becomes much less damaging to the environment. As you can see to attract custom HP stick with their tried and tested methods of graphic design in newly released products, but in keeping with their move towards sustainable packaging change to a more environmentally friendly version as soon as it is viable to keep interest high in their products.

Materials and light weighting

HP has also shown how effective the changes of materials and light weighting can be. Hp has embraced changes such as moving from plastics for creating protective blister packaging for its ink cartridges to instead using paperboard while also reducing the size of the overall package and its booklet by up to half. By making these small changes in a big company it is easy to see huge improvements fast. For example these changes in size meant that it allowed up to 90percent more product per pallet, this in turn meant that it cut down the need for nearly 800 tractor trailers in one year. With the weight of the package reduced by 40 percent it means that HP consumes much less fuel in the transportation of its goods. With all these changes it meant that 662tonnes of waste packaging was avoided and in turn saved HP a mind blowing '4 million. This example can show businesses who believe it is too costly to improve and move to more sustainable processes just how much you can actually save by doing your bit to save the planet.

Starbucks Coffee

Much like Hewlett Packard Starbucks is a huge international company with over ten thousand stores, similarly they are also committed to minimising their ecological footprint. Through working with SPC (Sustainable Packaging Coalition) Starbucks have been inspired by the cradle to cradle principles this and can be seen through them embracement of sustainable packaging. Margret Papadakis, senior buyer for Starbucks' packaging division states

We have a responsibility to sustainably source and manage our materials, but it's very difficult for one company to address this issue alone' 'Our involvement with the SPC has aimed to educate and align with other major packaging buyers and our suppliers promote more sustainable practices.'

As you can see until more companies make the move to sourcing sustainable materials it can only do so much but as the message spreads and the big companies like Starbucks become involved this should help promote the cause and hold some influence over other companies. The more companies that become involved will help increase the amount of sustainable materials available which in turn means less damaging waste is reaching the landfill sites.

Starbucks case study shows the redesign of two packages from their Starbucks Staples range. From the redesign they managed to make 50-60% reductions in materials this then has a knock on effect on areas such as fuel consumption, post consumer-waste and also material extraction. To get these great results Starbucks started by reducing unnecessary layering on their packaging. Where there was packaging for no reason such as protection they removed it. They also eliminated the old style tray that was sourced from overseas, this alone had negative transportation effects as well as the bleached virgin paper coated with non-recyclable polylaminate. The materials they were sourcing also got an overhaul, instead of 16pt bleached virgin paperboard they moved to non bleached 100 percent post-consumer waste 14pt paperboard, all these small incremental changes add up to make a large amount of difference to the companies carbon footprint.

Chapter 3

Our attitudes need to change.

In the throwaway society we live in it was obvious for the amount we as a nation over consume on pretty much all products there was going to be an issue when it comes to the disposal of these items. Even though companies are reducing the amount of packaging and the waste that is created as a result, the government needs to be able to deal with the waste that is produced in a productive way. Figures from a DEFRA study in 2006 show just how inefficient we as a country are at dealing with waste compared to other countries such as Sweden and Germany. Sweden and the Netherlands on one hand have 20% of all their waste being recycled and what's left over gets incinerated to help towards powering the national grid, we on the other hand have a higher percent of recycling which is good with 27% but have only a shocking 10% of all waste being incinerated which means there is 60% of waste left over filling landfill sites, this 60% is responsible for 16.9million tonnes of waste. This amount is completely unacceptable and with companies making efforts to move towards sustainable design it is only right the waste that is left over be disposed of in a way that we can all benefit from.


Philippe Starck 'The veneration of progress for its own sake has resulted in a world where things take precedence over people' (Datschefski 2001:19)



  • Lewis, H. Gertsakis, J. (2001) Design + Environment 'a global guide to designing greener goods, Sheffield, Greenleaf Publishing.
  • Fuad-Luke, A (2004) New Edition The eco-design Handbook' a complete sourcebook for the home and office, London, Thames & Hudson.
  • Datshefski, E. (2001) The total beauty of sustainable products, Switzerland, RotoVision.
  • Hawken, P. Lovins, A. Lovins, p. (1999) Natural Capitalism- Creating the next industrial revolution, Boston, New York, London, Little, Brown and Company.
  • Boylston, S. (2009) Designing sustainable Packaging, London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
  • Journals & Magazines

  • Smith, D. April (2008) 'The future of green packaging', Computer Arts Projects, Packaging Design, issue 109, 31-39.
  • Horse, T. April (2008) 'Design for the future', Computer Arts Projects, Packaging Design, issue 109, 40-46.
  • Smith, D. April (2008) 'How to go green' Computer Arts Projects, Packaging Design, issue 109, 48-53
  • DVDs

  • Designing Packaging [DVD] Bristol: Classroom Video LTD.
  • Websites

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