Packaging has a lot to do: It is a vessel for information, a protective layer, it is the format that must comply with the demands of delivery and storage. And, increasingly, it also needs to satisfy the same ethical concerns as the product it envelops.
As consumers have become concerned with buying products that are responsible, sustainable, local, they are rightly extending their attention to the packaging such carefully chosen purchases arrive in. It should be an anathema for a customer to buy a piece of wooden furniture, created from sustainable natural materials, designed, promoted and bought for its longevity, only to accept its’ arrival swathed in sheets of polythene foam.
Sustainable, clever, futureproof packaging solutions – especially for products related to the design industries – are emerging. They are the result of a shift in both circumstance and thinking: Firstly, the direct-to-consumer way we shop today means that increasingly packaging is the responsibility of the brand itself. The middleman retailer, previously on hand to present a brand’s product to the customer, to wrap it, bag it and tie a bow around it, is fast disappearing. Instead, how the products arriving on your doorstep have been packaged is a direct reflection of the company who produced them. That demanded that brands go looking for solutions they are happy to take responsibility for. Many couldn’t find what they were looking for and so turned their own R&D and product-making skills onto the problem, instigating a catalyst in the story of sustainable packaging and a whole new generation of creative solutions. With these new and exciting alternatives, it is difficult to believe that just a few years ago a recycled cardboard box might have been deemed the most resourceful sustainable packaging solution.
A change in thinking has transformed the world of packaging too: No longer seen as the sticky problem or the afterthought, packaging is now recognised as offering a whole host of positive opportunities such as demonstrating brand values, originality and creative skill. Packaging has become a place for new materials to be tested and promoted, for systems to be challenged and creative design thinking to flourish.
There are a host of new directions for sustainable packaging, all with the circular life of a product in mind: Disposability is no longer enough, instead packaging should biodegrade entirely, be upcycled, or have a second use. Material invention is at the forefront of packaging innovation, mimicking the current preoccupations of the design industry itself. The old palette of plastic and paper has been replaced by purpose-made (or purpose-grown) materials that are entirely biodegradable: For example, Veuve Clicquot have recently used a purpose-made potato starch material to create packaging and Saltwater Brewery have won awards for their invention and use of an organic material made from the by-products of their barley and wheat. Replacing the ubiquitous 6 pack plastic rings, Saltwater’s invention breaks down when in contact with water and rather than endangering marine wildlife as the dangerous plastic rings do, this material actually feeds it. Then there is Ecovative; an American company developing an array of environmentally friendly materials that perform like plastics but are made from funghi – specifically their thread-like roots, known as mycelium. The material can be grown as needed and is compostable. As with several new materials, eco credentials are matched with the bonus of being able to easily create bespoke shapes for each product.
Some brands are taking a different tack: Packaging with a second use, and therefore added value, is one; in Rosenthal’s ‘Fragilitea’ project the protective material packaged around porcelain tableware was made from a composite of tea and paper, meaning the consumer could consume the packaging to brew a cup of tea. Mugler perfumes now provide a refill service for their perfume bottles, harking back to the original way perfumes were sold and reportedly saving 383 tons of waste a year doing so. Dell are using bamboo as a substitute for plastic in their packaging. They plant and harvest the rapidly renewable material local to the factories that make their computers.
Of course, many of these ideas are old, not new. Using local, naturally renewable, resources and creative ingenuity is where packaging began. Making packaging that could be re-used was its evolution. Disposability is only a recent phenomenon. In thinking about past solutions we are reminded of Hideyuki Oka’s seminal 1965 book ‘How to wrap five eggs’. In it Oka chronicles the genius of traditional Japanese methods of packaging. The book is filled with examples of packaging that not only function well – allowing goods to be handled, transported and protected – but also that demonstrates an inherent, and beautiful, relationship between the product and its envelope. In the foreword to ‘How to wrap five eggs’ Oka asks; “if the craftsmen and designers of old japan could create beauty with their materials, are we today to accept defeat when faced with our new materials and new way of life?” Let’s hope the answer is becoming a ‘no’.