Packaging is a feature that’s meant to do more than keeping a product safe or making transportation easy. Packaging is considered as an effective advertising tool. Today packaging has become part of products’ design. Packaging is art.
But packaging is also waste. Some brands, widely found selling in tech products and gadgets, work tirelessly to create the emotional connection that comes with opening a package. For instance, when we purchase a new phone there will be layers and layers until we get to the actual product. This is the art of psychology, and a lot of trash comes with it.
When I’ve interviewed founders of different eco + social enterprises, as many challenges as they face, most often they found the sourcing of packaging really complicated. It becomes a big task to find plastic-free options or to be able to trace the supply chain and make sure it’s ethically sourced. Another hurdle is to come up with circular ideas, this is a way in which the end-customer could (and would) repurpose it. And eventually, when you find the ideal packaging option, it requires a huge budget for the MOQs.
So could we reinvent packaging and create from it an “Art with a Cause”?
There are many brands in the space doing an excellent job. Recently I cherished when Josh Bowden, founder of noissue said: “sustainable packaging isn’t about fancy new technologies; it comes down to mindfulness—both for businesses and their consumers”.
He’s the co-founder of noissue, a sustainable packaging company and noticed the challenge many small brands faced to find affordable branded, customizable options that were also eco-friendly. After all, the concept behind this company is quite simple: paper tissue, paper stickers, paper tape and compostable mailers. The design can be created right on their website as they have a Canva-type interface to get as creative as wished – literally to get your sheet(s) together!
Now let’s work out something ingenious: what are the different ways we could use branded packaging to create a positive impact?
1. Create a conversation with your packaging
Who Gives a Crap is a perfect example of this: not only are they a social enterprise on a mission to build toilets around the world, but they also happen to wrap their toilet paper with reusable paper tissue. And branding aside, the packaging is part of their huge success between people striving to have their bums cleaned without flushing trees down the toilet.
The tissue paper wrapping the rolls has exciting messages that explain why 50% of profits are donated to build toilets around the world. Other fun ones: “Give yourself a pat on the bum” or “Good for your bum. Great for the world”.
Truth is that toilet paper was never a popular topic at the dinner table. Most commonly regarded as a product of shame, quietly intimate (no one likes to be seen around carrying toilet tissues!), and also not even an item that has much intentionality in the purchasing decision. With this brand and its funky and spontaneous packaging, toilet paper has become a more open conversation piece. People aren’t just proud of using Who Gives a Crap: they give it away to their friends, they showcase them in their bathrooms and take pictures for Instagram (guilty!). That’s the revolution of a brand that has made impactful art with its packaging.
2. Make your packaging reusable
There is a better road for packaging, and I find the circular model works out pretty well. Do you think Who Gives a Crap wants you to throw the tissue away? ‘Course not! They want you to wrap presents with it (again, triggering a conversation), to send love letters, to make your shopping list, to create confetti for events (avoiding those glittery plastic monstrosities whenever possible).
But if you want to take reusable to the next level, you will find some brands that could not make their packaging more circular. The case study that comes to mind is Plaine Products a brand which has created a take-back program that is winning in the zero-waste world. Whether you are into shampoo, conditioner, body wash, body lotion, hand wash, face moisturizer, face wash… they have an online subscription model which allows you to refill the aluminum bottles once empty – and the company pays for the shipping! There are not many brands selling bathroom products with such circular options, which leads me to the next point.
3. Make from your packaging your competitive advantage
Let’s take the beauty industry: 142 billion units of plastic packaging in 2018 and most of it ended up -guess where? In landfill.
There are random people making extraordinary efforts with their everyday goods, but the challenge in the beauty space is that there’s a long list of things that will narrow down your options: all-natural, vegan, cruelty-free, fair trade ingredients, no toxins, being effective, long-lasting… give back, social enterprise etc! And then, there’s Coconut Matter which ticks all these boxes. And on top of it they add on a very specific one: 100% biodegradable packaging.
Taking into account that nearly all beauty packaging—99%—is thrown out after just one use, coming up with an environmentally-friendly option truly becomes a huge competitive advantage for a business.
4. Make your products cheaper thanks to your minimalist packaging
There will always be some solemn people who won’t let brands appeal to them with their packaging. First they know that as soon as the package is opened, it goes to rubbish. Second, they don’t want to pay more for a box that cannot even be recycled. Third, they may find it an unnecessary and almost inconvenient fluff!
A great example of a brand that is born with minimalist packaging in mind is Nimble Tech for Good. Their whole business is about creating ethical tech products presented in humble packaging with the goal to put a full stop to stupid retail packaging waste. While doing this, the brand educates its customers that packaging in tech products is not just difficult to recycle (many layers of different materials) but adds up to +20% to the final price of the product. Their innovative packaging is made out of 100% recycled scrap paper with no harmful inks or dyes, making it 100% biodegradable.
5. Compostable packaging is trending for conscious consumers
Compostable packaging that wraps your products is definitely an option. But what about mailing satchels? These are a mandatory element for smaller parcels and the reason why they were originally made out of plastic is that it provides certain protection, durability and is water-resistant.
We find in the eco-space that many social entrepreneurs sell products that are carefully packaged, yet they are frustrated when, after the effort they made to keep it as green as possible,the courier company wraps it all in plastic. What to do in those cases? The answer is compostable satchels.
Compostable satchels are shipping bags that later become food for plants. You will find a range of options, in the case of noissue they are made out of corn-based biopolymers and will break down in a compost heap within 6 months. It’s still waterproof, you can write on it, stick labels on it (even print on it), it stretches out and is durable. For sure there is no better way as a brand to show your customers that you care about your environmental impact! Best thing? Customers are loving it so much that they are posting on their social media showcasing a good example of brands caring for a better world!
6. eCommerce packaging doesn’t have to be waste/d
Most ethical and eco-conscious brands find that eCommerce is what can make them a sustainable (aka viable) business. However, a lot of critiques comes with online sales and the waste that we generate when shipping the products, the main reasons being the packaging and the carbon footprint of the logistics.
If you are a small business, most likely online sales will be your main source of income – and therefore there is the potential to become more mindful and innovative in the way you select your packaging. Thinking of biodegradable, compostable and circular options as mentioned earlier is the way to go.
Some other small brands have started to become truly original with their packaging, making their customers feel that they are seen and valued. So what if you create a unique piece of art with your packaging that your customer will worship? What kind of message are you sending along with your orders? How are you spreading the values that you hold dear? Creating brilliant packaging is a fantastic way to let your customer know exactly what you stand for.
Here’s a good example of how thanking your customers for their purchase is one of those small things that can go the extra mile with making them feel appreciated and happy.
This packaging is a great example of on-point branding and an element of inspiration using paper origami lamps. Having your custom packaging complement your product range helps to keep your design cohesive and pleasing to the eye and giving an added value to your customers with just your packaging is something truly unique in the space.
What to look for to make sure our packaging is creating a positive impact?
This is where it can become tricky because it’s hard to find the perfect packaging. As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard says “There’s no such thing as sustainability.” If you run a business you will always have an impact.
But brands can definitely become better at it. So what are the core areas in which businesses could make a more positive impact?
- FSC Certified. Since we all can agree that plastic is no longer an ok option, paper comes up as an interesting alternative (as it is also light, important to reduce costs and carbon footprint). However! It is NOT OK to cut trees and contribute to deforestation for the sake of your packaging. A Forest Stewardship Council certification will guarantee that the sourcing is environmentally-friendly, socially responsible and economically viable. FSC is an organization that works to promote the practice of sustainable forestry worldwide.
- Eco-friendly inks. Quite difficult to have it all, especially with something that seems insignificant. Traditional inks are petroleum-based, which for obvious reasons is not sustainable nor healthy; but another interesting fact is that petroleum-based inks make any paper more difficult to recycle. Alternative inks include those made out of soybeans, which is an environmentally-friendly and plant-based option and makes the paper easier to recycle (just takes a little more to dry but as a bonus, provides more accurate colors!)
- Suppliers with a give-back program. This is where it gets exciting… what if we could equal the average of trees used for our naughty packaging and having trees planted instead? There are endless options for B2B to partner up with charities or non-profits focused on a specific cause, so having such a program leaves packaging suppliers with almost no excuse!
- Carbon footprint. There will always be a footprint, but how can you reduce it? Packaging comes down to details and suppliers should understand the needs of all-size businesses. Choosing a supplier that has headquarters around the world will have your packaging delivered in a shorter period of time and drastically reduce the transportation costs with all the CO2 emissions that come with it!
It may be challenging to find it all, and the whole reason why I mentioned noissue a few times is that they actually do tick all the boxes. There are options, so please beautiful good brands out in the world: do your research!
When it comes to packaging there is only room for innovation… Because sometimes the biggest challenges make us create the best piece of art.
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Maxime Dücker is the co-founder of Ourgoodbrands.com - an entertainment platform that exists to empower consumers to make better purchase decisions through valuable & honest information, tools and resources that come in the form of social impact brands & sustainable lifestyles. Maxime also runs her impact agency supporting social enterprises with their marketing.