Sustainability: Are you Asking the Right Questions?

Sustainability: Are you Asking the Right Questions?

As a consultant in sustainable branding and packaging, oftentimes I’m asked “What is the most sustainable packaging for X?” And, if like me, (I’ve been doing this for around twenty years), you’ve been doing this a while, then you know there’s no straightforward answer to that question. 

And, for this notion to really make sense, we have to understand the context in which we exist: branding and packaging industry, inside the larger production and consumption system, inside the environment, on the planet. And while this is a massive simplification, hopefully you see there are many factors to consider when looking at sustainability— specifically the complex connection between packaging and the environment.

Diving down into more specifics, like inside consumer goods categories, like beauty and personal care, considerations around what makes a product or package sustainable in this context is very specific and perhaps very different than another category, like food or healthcare.

 For example, in beauty, even if a package is recyclable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be recycled, as oftentimes, the packaging is quite small and many municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) have trouble keeping the packaging from literally falling through the cracks. And a huge challenge of this category is getting to fully recyclable packaging because of the complexity required, the volatility of formulas and so on. So the solutions in this category are quite challenging, but those of us used to being creative in our problem solving endeavors know there are solutions out there— we just have to look. 

 Take for example, Small Wonder— the primary packaging (that holds the product) is carefully designed to be durable (used many times), recycled and to be refilled. But, this brand takes it one step further, beyond refilling, this haircare brand understands the sustainable issues surrounding using and transporting water, which is why the formula is a powder. After all, you’re in the shower, there’s water there— why not use that? No consumer behavior or routine change; no wild, gimmicky anything.

 All of this to say that solving for sustainability in packaging is about looking as holistically as possible. What is the whole context? What are the distant connections that may not impact our decisions now, but probably will in the near future? What are game-changing ideas that move the brand, the category and perhaps the entirety of the consumer landscape forward? Where is it possible to solve for the frustrating tension between sustainability and convenience? 

 If you’re a brand looking for the next sustainable packaging solution, remember, your product lives inside a greater ecosystem, and in order to solve for sustainability, we have to start there. You have to solve for more than just a new material, or attempt more than some kind of modular, gimmicky tacked-on solution. And, if you’re a consumer, looking for a way to live more sustainably through the brands you purchase, look for the brands that meet you where you are; the brands that take responsibility for what they put into your hands, and don’t blame you for the environmental problems.

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