Card Packaging Doesn’t Need to Cost the Earth
Every year without fail, the Royal Statistical Society in the U.K. releases its shortlist of the most arresting facts and figures of that year. In 2018, ranking above Kylie Jenner’s tweet that wiped $1.3 billion off the value of Snapchat and the fact that only 6.4% of executive directors within FTSE 250 companies are female, was the number 90.5%. That number represented the percentage of plastic waste that has never been recycled.
Today, more than 5 billion tons currently languishes in our oceans or in landfill and it will remain there for hundreds of years to come. In recent years the packaging industry has received a lot of negative press for single-use plastics and these numbers are sobering considering that packaging accounts for almost half of all plastic waste generated today. But with nearly 1 million plastic bottles sold around the world every minute, there is little sign of things slowing down.
For any company that has a physical product, no matter how small, packaging will have a part to play. Its role may be different within different industries. For banks and other fintechs, card carriers have become an invaluable asset, playing a central role in product delivery, brand identity, activation and marketing. But everything we make has some level of impact on the environment and the problems with packaging don’t just start and end with plastic.
Material provenance needs to be far better regulated, labelling and education around recycling is often inadequate or confusing affecting consumer engagement and recycling capabilities vary wildly between countries, local governments and their various contractors. All of which add up to a very big disconnect between the industry, consumers and local governments and their contractors when it comes to sustainable waste management.
So, there is much work to do and better standards to be set.
But negative press equals greater awareness. According to consumer research carried out in the U.K. and United States by CGS in 2020, 56% of the 2,000 shoppers questioned said that sustainability was important to their buying decisions. Not only that but 56% in the United States and 59% in the U.K. suggested that they would pay more for a sustainable product with 25% willing to pay up to 25% more.
These figures suggest that people are taking far more notice of their environmental footprint and that we may have reached an important tipping-point where sustainable design is not only good for the planet but also important for business. The study also highlighted that younger demographics are even more conscious of sustainability when it comes to their purchases, suggesting that its importance will only increase over time.
From my personal experience, even in the last year, brands are also beginning to ask the right questions and push harder for environmentally friendly solutions. So, something seems to be shifting and it feels like there is an opportunity to build on this momentum.
In recent years at Burgopak one of our core focusses has been on developing strategies that allow us to continue developing award-winning experiential packaging that also has a sensitivity to the environment at its core. We’ve learned a lot along the way and from smart design to careful material specification, the rest of this short article discusses ways to squeeze out every drop of value from your card carrier while ensuring that environmental impact is kept to a minimum. The ultimate goal being to improve efficiency, avoid unnecessary costs and to leverage those savings to supercharge your aesthetic.
Sustainability doesn’t work if it’s not sustainable
My point here is that no matter how good your intentions and how well intentioned your decisions, if profitability suffers then environmentally sensitive solutions will always struggle to maintain traction. It’s why we so often see niche, special edition “sustainable” projects from big companies that never quite make it to scale. They eat up the marketing spend to subsidize the bottom line but that can only last for so long and true sustainability is ultimately compromised.
The only way to achieve positive long-term environmental impact is through a holistic approach to sustainability. In this respect, there are always two departments within any organization that need to be fully aligned on a solution to make it stick—the brand/marketing team and purchasing. In short, it must look amazing and deliver on brand intentions and it must be cost competitive. If a solution arrives at this intersection and is also environmentally sensitive, then you have hit the sweet spot. At this point it is very difficult to argue against as it falls into the “no-brainer” category. And ultimately, it’s better to make something that is 50% better and can be maintained than something that is 90% better that will get squashed after the initial run.
Efficiency (reduce, optimize, save)
Efficient is just one of those things that no matter the context or application is always good. Efficient design or more accurately “designing-in” efficiency is perhaps the best example of where investing in the skills, experience and expertise of a specialist can yield huge cost savings as well as environmental benefits.
There are countless examples within packaging design where efficiency ticks both the economic and ecological boxes:
- Dietool optimization, where careful attention is paid to the size and design of the net to ensure as many packs as possible can be fitted onto a single print-sheet.
- Design optimization, where the design is assessed to remove as many manufacturing processes as possible and generally make it more efficient to produce.
- Palletization, where calculations are done to improve the number of packs that can be fitted into a shipper box and the number of shipper boxes to be fitted onto a pallet.
- Supply-chain optimization, where considerations around the design, target cost, volume, shipping location and materials help to determine the most appropriate manufacturing location.
- Postal consideration, where packaging is designed to dovetail with the constraints of specific postal systems and to leverage the lowest possible postage costs.
The final point is often overlooked but is an example where huge savings can be made. Burgopak recently completed a project for a brand in the United States that was focused entirely on leveraging cost savings while trying to maintain the look and feel of their original packaging. The result was still a great looking piece of packaging, but it cost roughly $2 less per unit. Not only that but by squeezing the design into the “letter” category with USPS (the previous design was sent as a package) a further $2 was shaved off the cost. The net result was a $4 million saving on their first order.
The additional benefit to the redesign was the amount of material it saved. The final packaging weighed just 24g (0.85oz), approximately 50% less than the original. This of course means that half the amount of raw materials was used, creating the beginnings of a strong environmental narrative.
Material Choice – Less Right is More
From an environmental perspective making and using less stuff is obviously better. It’s very difficult to argue with that logic. But perhaps an even more important consideration is whether you are using the right materials in the first place. It’s important to consider not only the potential of certain materials but also real-world uses and behaviors. Again, plastic serves as a good example, as in many cases it is completely recyclable. Yet as we have seen from the RSS data, in 2018 only 9% had actually ever been recycled and according to Sian Sutherland of “A Plastic Planet” this number is dropping. So, my advice would be to hope for the best, but design for the worst possible outcome.
But even with something like paper-based packaging, which has very good recycling rates (around 70-80% in the United States and U.K.) there are still areas that require diligence. Perhaps the most important being to ensure that virgin fibers come from sustainably managed forests that are ideally covered by an Forest Stewardship Council or Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification mark. This will ensure that you are not unknowingly contributing to habitat destruction, illegal logging and deforestation. Recycled paper is also a potentially good option, but recycled fibers are often mixed with virgin fibers to ensure a quality product so again check for the certification marks.
When considering the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of paper-based packaging it is comforting to note that even if the packaging is not recycled and ends up at landfill it will compost or biodegrade over a relatively short amount of time (a few months to a few years). But this does depend on what you add to the paper in the way of coatings, adhesives and finishes so it is worth doing your homework.
Selecting water-based or vegetable-based options is generally a good place to start. Try to avoid plastic laminates where possible, limit foiling to below 60% on a single side and use spot UV sparingly. For further guidance it is worth taking a look at an excellent document created by the Waste and Resources Action Plan (WRAP), called Design Tips for Recycling Paper and Card Packaging. It offers sage advice in a clear, concise and easy to follow document.
For all materials, a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) should also be readily available containing relevant information relating to health, safety and the environment. This may be available online, otherwise check with your supplier.
Go Beyond the Badge
Taking material selection a step further, researching individual business practices and sustainability objectives can help you to find the right partner and unlock some pretty big, pretty quick wins toward your own goals.
For example, did you know that some paper mills actually manage their own forests? Not only that but they often plant more trees than they harvest (some up to four times the amount). One such partner, Holmen Iggesund, owns 1.3 million hectares of forests in Sweden and they manage the whole process from harvesting seeds in their orchards to planting in excess of 30 million seedlings each year in their nurseries. Their forests provide not only a renewable and sustainable solution for building materials and paperboard but also act as a huge carbon sink, absorbing up to 10% of Sweden’s total carbon output, converting it into breathable oxygen.
Their mills are run on bio energy created from the waste from tree harvesting, wood processing and their integrated sawmills and they hold a platinum medal from EcoVadis for sustainability, putting them in the top 1% of the 75,000 organizations they audit.
Stories like theirs play a vital role in moving the industry forward. But they also allow us to work in the knowledge that the things we create exist sympathetically with the environment from which they came and that the forests will enjoy a continued legacy as will their invaluable contribution to the well-being of our planet.
Nail the Details
Beyond ensuring you are using the right materials and that you are using them as efficiently as possible is the question of magic. How can you inject joy, value, personality and functionality into a design without literally costing the earth?
Using packaging as a way to craft a meaningful brand touchpoint represents a valuable opportunity to connect with customers and create a positive, intuitive and friendly welcome to your products and services. However, that doesn't mean it necessarily relies on using lots of ultra-premium materials and all the finishes under the sun. Whether you are creating a high-impact, Instagram friendly marketing weapon or a simple, well executed design that utilizes carefully considered materials and finishes, it’s the details that are often the most important and are often the things that create the greatest impact.
Using a tear-strip to tell a story, creating features that mirror your logo, or even finding ways to make your packaging useful after its initial job is done don’t necessarily require any additional materials or cost to be added but they create those moments for a customer where they say, “hey, that’s smart.” And ultimately that’s what you want people to feel and remember; that you are doing great things, not because you can afford to throw loads of money at it, but because you are smart and creative with your ideas and resources.
The Future – An Opportunity
I’ll close this short article the way it began; there is work to be done. But with the right approach, innovation and sustainability can comfortably coexist. One does not have to come at the detriment of the other. In fact, I believe we are moving closer and closer to a time where sustainability is considered synonymous and inextricably linked with the notion of “good design.” Being wasteful and using unsustainable materials will soon feel very outdated.
So, we must view sustainability as an opportunity for designers to flex their creative muscles, for purchasing departments to find symbiosis between economy and ecology and for businesses to leverage positive stories, marketing and education around their great work. Through these narratives we will continue to learn, share and collectively move the whole industry forward.
About the Author: Dane Whitehurst is the creative director at Burgopak and heads up the company’s award-winning design team. As a packaging designer, he has worked with many of the world’s biggest brands and has helped some of the most innovative fintechs and start-ups to launch new products through a holistic approach to packaging design. Dane is a visiting lecturer at Ravensbourne College and the RCA in London and speaks internationally on the subject of packaging design. He is credited with a host of international patents and design awards and his work has been featured in galleries and museums including The MoMA, New York and The Design Museum, London. Dane graduated from Central Saint Martins, London in 2005 with a master's degree in industrial design.