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Making sustainability the heart of the design community

Designing packaging is a labour of love for all involved. Time, energy and passion is invested in every detail of a pack with the aim of delivering the desired brand experience for the consumer, protecting the product and optimising functionality whilst meeting cost targets. However, the recent shift in focus from government, the media and the public has pushed the sustainability credentials of a pack to the top of the agenda for brands and retailers. 

According to EU research over 80% of a product’s environmental impact can be influenced during the design stage. That’s a huge amount of responsibility so it’s critical design agencies embed a fully informed sustainable design approach into their work.


In many cases there are few or no sustainability considerations in a client’s design brief let alone requests to apply circular economy principles to your designs. But given the current focus on packaging’s impact on the environment, especially plastics, this is the moment in time to be making this an integral part of the brief. Seize the opportunity to get informed and make sustainability part of the new business discussion from the outset – put your stake in the ground and really make it matter, for you, your clients and the world at large.

An ever-growing number of national and global brands are making bold commitments about what they are going to achieve but are they trickling down into your briefs? You can inform yourself by doing the research on your clients’ commitments but also ask them to share their sustainable packaging strategies, ensure you understand them fully and work with them to achieve those targets.

The three key principles which underpin the concept of the Circular Economy must be at the core of every design brief:

  • • Design out waste and pollution
  • • Keep products and materials in use
  • • Regenerate natural systems

Your role in the broader packaging community


The public wave of anti-plastic sentiment continues to swell to the point where the industry is holding its breath, waiting for the tsunami to hit. And all this has not escaped the attention of those at the highest levels of government where the tsunami may come in the form of tax reforms (Producer Responsibility), taxation or bans of single-use plastics, the introduction of deposit return schemes. But we must hold back that wave by joining together and taking positive action. 

The design community does not have to stand alone in its efforts to prioritise sustainability – the wider community of players in the packaging supply chain is more energised than ever behind the topic of sustainability and working to achieve circular economy principles. Although the initial design stage can feel so far removed from the re-processors who are dealing with waste outputs, do not underestimate how critical a touchpoint design can be in driving those principles. 

Legacy ways of working has meant each part of that community has worked relatively discreetly, handing over to the next player in the supply chain to “do their bit”. We can no longer work in this way if we want to tackle the issues around packaging and especially single use plastics. For the design community that means understanding a product’s “end-of-life” before it’s even been born and proactively visiting manufacturers or materials recycling facilities to understand what really goes on. The wider supply chain can provide a wealth of knowledge and an abundance of resources.

Are you aware of the four targets in WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact? Did you know that brands, retailers & converters are obligated to pay a tax on the packaging they place on the market – known as the PRN system? If your awareness isn’t up to scratch, a good starting point is to get actively involved in the huge conversation that’s going on around you. The DBA’s recent event on how design can impact the sustainability agenda provided some great insights, and there’s much more out there that can help you sharpen your knowledge like the recent workshops at the British Plastics Federation focused on tackling marine litter.

There have been more events than ever in the past 12 months focused on packaging sustainability but how many have you been to? At the recent “Design for Sustainability” event at the BPF only one design agency was represented. Making sustainability a driving force of your agency, and helping clients shape their sustainable packaging strategies and design briefs through your expert insight, could be a real differentiator for your business.  

Drive genuine change


The issues we’re facing are complex and the dynamic nature of the industry means there are daily stories of new technologies and innovations making outlandish claims that their material is the answer to ocean plastics or eliminating litter. Or brands declaring they’re going “plastic-free” but replacing it with bio-based plastic (which, by the way, is still plastic and will still cause harm if a baby seal ingested it).  However things aren’t as simple as that.

As part of the UK Plastics Pact, WRAP has published a new fact sheet about plastic packaging: Understanding plastic packaging and the language we use to describe itAnd recently Plastics Recyclers Europe outlined clear advice surrounding the difference between something that is ‘recyclable’ (technically, everything is) and something that is actually recycled.  Recoup also has their “Recyclability by Design” guide.

Whilst these guides and factsheets are valuable resources, they often require their audience to have a sound understanding of packaging technology. But how many designers are also pack techs? How many can explain the difference between biodegradable vs. compostable (further split into home or industrially compostable) vs. oxo-degradable (a call for a ban on the latter is being championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation)? Did you know that a compostable straw or coffee cup will not disappear in a home compost bin? There’s an opportunity for the design community to reach out to the publishers of these guidelines to ask for what they really need to help them apply circular economy thinking to their work.

Now is the time to embed sustainable design thinking throughout your entire business, because these issues will only get more acute in the future. Why not start with a series of structured sessions or workshops from key industry thought-leaders? And then, with that approach embedded, enhance the team with specialist knowledge as required for specific projects. Engage in crucial industry meetings focused on innovation and influencing policy at the highest levels of government. And along the way stay informed of the issues, understand their complexity so we can be joined up and tackle them effectively.  Proactively work to build up an invaluable network of contacts within the industry to facilitate an holistic perspective of the total lifecycle of a product and familiarise yourself with some key industry organisations spearheading the conversation around sustainability. They include:

EMF – Ellen MacArthur Foundation

WRAP – The Waste and Resources Action Programme

Incpen – Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment

Recoup – RECycling of Used Plastics

BPF – British Plastics Federation

OPRL – On-Pack Recycling Label

FSA – Foodservice Packaging Association

Now it's your turn

We know circular economy thinking should be the driver for sustainable design.

And this is the moment in time to integrate this thinking into your work regardless of whether it’s in the client’s brief or not and to engage with the wider packaging community who are more focused than ever in tackling high-profile, emotive issues such as marine litter.

There’s an abundance of tools and resources out there to support you to do all of the above and the opportunity to get involved and ask for the guidance you require as designers at the start of the supply chain.

Don’t forget 80% of a product’s environmental impact can be influenced during the design stage. Design thinking is a powerful tool that can solve some really complex challenges and the design community are more than up to this challenge.

Despite the fact eco design has not been included in the UK Government’s “25 Year Environment Plan”, it has been included as a key pillar of the “EU Plastics Strategy” – an essential part of the “EU Circular Economy Package”.


The three key principles which underpin the concept of the Circular Economy must be at the core of every design brief:


  • • Design out waste and pollution
  • • Keep products and materials in use
  • • Regenerate natural systems


A design approach with these principles in mind will contribute to minimising the impact of packaging waste on our fragile environment.  With the global population set to grow from 7.6 to 9.8 billion by 2050, tackling issues such as increased volumes of waste requires a carefully considered, fully informed and completely aligned global response.


About: Paula Chin

Paula Chin has, over the last 10 years, worked on both sides of the fence in agencies and for businesses such as P&G, Sainsbury’s and M&S. Pret A Manger, where Paula has worked for the last two years, has an established in-house team of designers and other experts whose collective knowledge is not just brought to bear on their own products, services and environments, but increasingly in high-level conversations that influence policy around the circular economy.

About: Tracy Sutton

Tracy, Ba (Hons) FRSA, has over 15 years of experience working with established and global clients including Starbucks, Innocent and Pukka Herbs on strategic and technical projects to drive innovation into packaging.

With a strong background in sustainable design thinking she combines the science of sustainability and realities of recycling into tangible actions for your packaging projects by simplifying complex issues to create powerful strategies.

Tracy has been on the sustainability advisory board for a number of global brands and has written articles for publications including The Guardian, The Times, Packaging News and Packaging Europe.


Twitter: @tracesutton

Instagram: @rootinnovation

Image credits:

Photo by Tyler Nix | Unsplash

Photo by chuttersnap | Unsplash

Photo by Ben White | Unsplash


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