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Unless you specifically design packaging, you probably don’t think too much about how the items you’re buying are packaged (that is, until you are asked to open a toy for an impatient child). But we are in the early days of a new US administration dedicated to erasing environmental protections, rolling back regulations, withdrawing from international trade pacts and possibly dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) altogether. And we can do something about it by joining green practices and design through consumer packaging. We need to practice conscious consumerism today by looking not only at our products, but also at the carbon footprint of the product’s packaging and delivery to our store shelves—or to our doorsteps. 

Once labeled “eco” or “green” packaging, the term has morphed into “environmental” packaging or, as Lisa Mathews, strategist and head of packaging at Redfern, New South Wales, Australia–based design firm Frost*collective, has termed it, “mindful” packaging. 

That’s probably a good thing, as the legalization of marijuana in many states has given “green packaging” a whole new meaning. However, that emerging market also has produced an array of smart, savvy and environmentally responsible packaging systems. After all, cannabis is a product of Mother Nature, so it makes sense to mindfully package it.

Designed by cofounders Liz Rudner and Jamel Ramiro, the packaging for paleocentric cannabis-infused edibles brand MoonMan’s Mistress uses recyclable materials and a biodegradable bag on the interior. Rudner and Ramiro commissioned a US printer for their packaging to ensure that environmental guidelines would be met. Jamel Ramiro/Liz Rudner, designers; MoonMan’s Mistress, client.

“Our goal was to build an authentic brand that reflected our beliefs on sustainability,” explains Liz Rudner, cofounder, with Jamel Ramiro, of MoonMan’s Mistress, an award-winning, artisanal, paleocentric edibles company. “From locally sourcing high-quality ingredients to developing partnerships with beyond-organic growers to working with a printer that believes in reducing, reusing and recycling, [we] are truly transparent in [our] efforts to be sustainable producers. Ultimately, our bodies and our planet are not scalable or replaceable. Therefore, it’s our mission to be the brand that lives and breathes health consciousness and environmental responsibility.”

Many growers have taken up that same mission. “When Clarity Farms, a Washington State third-tier grower, decided to update its package, it contacted me,” relates Robynne Raye of Seattle’s award-winning Modern Dog. “I decided that the current packaging and die cut were almost perfect. I can’t take credit for [the] brilliant original package, which used no plastic or glue …. I could not think of a better design using fewer materials—a genuine concern on the part of the client. So I updated the readability of the typography and omitted the foil embossing, which enabled the package to make it to the recycling bin.”

In keeping with the less is more motto of environmental design, Raye concludes: “I believe [my job as a designer] is to make it work better, and it doesn’t always mean I need to reinvent the wheel.” 

Several generally accepted factors make packaging more environmentally friendly: recyclable content of materials, reduction of plastic and overall reduction of materials. Many small companies use postconsumer recycled paper, plant-based inks with minimal packaging and refillable glass bottles to hold products. Consumers are driving the demand for more sustainable practices and can bring pressure to bear on companies to walk the green walk. The challenge of such a walk is to design, produce and distribute a product that has the smallest possible carbon footprint and meets reliability standards, as well as package it appropriately and make it appealing to consumers. 

Of course, from a designer’s perspective, the packaging also needs to distinguish itself from that of its direct competitors. Branding often begins at the packaging, where a product’s aesthetic appeal may speed it off the shelves or out of the online store. This is probably truer for high-end beauty products than for any other market; if customers spend upward of $100 on a bottle of perfume, they want it presented in an elegant, prestigious package. But there are inventive ways to combat waste while keeping packaging luxurious. For example, the Body Shop, founded by Anita Roddick, pioneered refillable packaging—shampoos and lotions in plastic bottles that can be refilled time and again. As part of its mission to “Enrich Our Planet,” the Body Shop has committed on its website to, among other things, “develop and deliver three new sustainable packaging innovations” and “ensure that 70 percent of our total product packaging does not contain fossil fuels” by 2020.

A more holistic approach considers the production and manufacturing processes of the product as well as how it is packaged. Jamie Matusow, editor of Beauty Packaging magazine, wrote in April 2014: “While some brands and suppliers focus on components made of eco-friendly materials, there is also a growing emphasis on clean production methods and efficient manufacturing processes.” 

Subplot Design Inc.’s packaging for Level Ground Trading Ltd. is made of Canadian Forest Stewardship–certified wood pulp and biodegradable adhesive, plastic and NatureFlex film. Printed by Genpak, the packaging can be composted by consumers after use. Subplot Design Inc., design firm; Level Ground Trading Ltd., client.

There are plenty of resources for designers who want to tackle the issue of environmentally sound packaging. UPS has established the Eco Responsible Packaging Program to recognize customers who are committed to helping the environment through the use of sustainable packaging. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (sustainablepackaging.org) is a project by GreenBlue, a Charlottesville, Virginia–based nonprofit that equips businesses with the science and resources to make products more sustainable. Through its work, the nonprofit aims to “build packaging systems that encourage economic prosperity and a sustainable flow of materials.” The book Eco Packaging Now (Images Publishing Shanghai), edited by Tony Ibbotson and Peng Chong, presents a range of innovative approaches—more than 100 ideas from all over the world—many of them using regionally sourced materials.

Then there are designers and design studios. Frost*collective has launched a new packaging division called Jack (jack3.com.au), which is devoted to its philosophy of mindful packaging. That philosophy, as Mathews writes in her January 2017 article in Marketing online magazine (marketingmag.com.au), includes “less must become more. Packaging creativity must shift from lovely images to thoroughly lovely experiences.

“Let’s stop looking for miracle materials that will save the day,” she continues in her article, “do more with what we’ve got and design with purpose: removing the superfluous, keeping the essential, providing only what is necessary to deliver a great branded experience.” 

“Sustainability, of course, is the present buzzword,” says Matthew Clark, founder and creative director of Vancouver, British Columbia–based brand design firm Subplot Design Inc. “Its ambiguity has given rise to all sorts of criticism about ‘greenwashing.’ For instance, sustainability allows us to use virgin wood products as long as they come from Forest Stewardship Council–certified or other managed forests. While that may seem contradictory, sustainability looks at supply chain, the energy required to produce materials, shipping, waste, etc. Although often overly vague and complex, sustainability is certainly a better way to envision the process.”

Subplot proved that sustainability can look good when it created a 100 percent compostable and biodegradable packaging solution for Victoria, British Columbia–based Level Ground Trading Ltd., a direct, fair-trade, organic brand offering a diverse range of coffees sourced from small African and South American farms. Last year, it took another step in reducing its carbon footprint by launching a compostable coffee package using Canadian Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood pulp.

Pet food brand Petcurean wanted to put sustainability at the forefront of its GATHER product line. With help from Subplot Design Inc., the pet food brand used Braskem’s green polyethylene to create USDA-certified bio-based bags. Pete Pallett, writer; Peel Plastics, fabricator; Subplot Design Inc., design firm; Petcurean Pet Nutrition, client. 

Stacey Toews, cofounder and communications catalyst for Level Ground Trading, explains the organization’s big-picture approach. “The big idea is that we want integrity across all of our actions,” she says. “So it’s one thing to source thoughtfully grown products—i.e., organic/biodynamic farmed products from small-scale communities where everyone is working to uphold healthy practices for their personal health, soil, water. But we want to extend that thoughtfulness into our behavior in North America—including packaging, facility waste and staff commuting—while bringing the products to market.”

No one is better equipped with perspective on mindful design than Eva Anderson, creative director at the MAXIMUS Center of Health Literacy, who built her entire thesis at Rhode Island School of Design around the environmental impact of graphic design in the late 1980s. With Vida Ogarelec—a fellow graduate student then in her second year at the Academy of Art College—Anderson created ECO, a quarterly newsletter that won an EPA Environmental Merit Award and inspired designers and educators for more than a decade. “Twenty or so years after I completed the thesis, I taught a senior–level class at my alma mater,” Anderson recalls. “I gave the students a packaging project and asked them to include environmental considerations into their solutions. Some went green wholeheartedly. Some just went along because they had to. And some fought it. Today, I understand that change oftentimes happens in nearly invisible ways, but I still fervently believe that designers have a responsibility to develop and produce materials with social and environmental considerations.”

Houston-based designer Lana Rigsby of Rigsby Hull has been quoted as saying, “Begin with the end in mind.” That’s the mindset that will be needed when thinking about tomorrow’s production and packaging going forward. “With the new [US] administration working hard to defang the EPA and generally loosen constraints safe-guarding the environment, it is now more important than ever for designers to assume responsibility for the things they produce,” Rigsby says. “Smart use of media has become nothing less than a moral imperative.” 

There has never been a better time for designers to step up and create design that not only works to sell the product, but also works to save the environment. ca

Matthew Clark offers a useful checklist that Subplot employs. “For our clients, we examine and discuss the full effects of packaging solutions and are honest with these varying dimensions of what it means to produce ‘environmentally sound packaging,’” he says.

• First of all, is the product inside worthy? It should be. Don’t greenwash, or package, a sow’s ear in a silk purse.

• Reduce first. Use less, spend less, build less. Don’t overdesign or overpackage. 

• Use sustainable sources for all materials. And don’t fool yourself with carbon credits or other fake metrics.

• Use environmentally friendly processes. It does no good to use postconsumer paper if it was created with chlorine bleach, contains heavy metals, and is printed with toxic inks and foils.

• Set up secondary uses for packaging that is not compostable. Make it a keepsake or a necessity—but not another reusable shopping bag, please!

• Compost wherever possible. Recycle when necessary. Try not to add to the landfill at all.

After fourteen years as the founding managing editor of Communication Arts, Anne Telford moved to the position of editor-at-large when she relocated to her hometown, La Jolla, CA. An avid traveler, she expanded CA’s international coverage and developed the magazine’s Fresh section. Anne received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin where she indulged her taste for Tex-Mex food, independent film and the blues. Her first job in journalism was as an assistant editor at Texas Monthly. Anne was a founding board member of the Illustration Conference and is a current board member of Watershed Media, an organization that produces action-oriented, visually dynamic communication projects to influence the transition to a green society. Anne is a published poet and photographer with credits ranging from Émigré, Blur and Step Inside Design magazines, to the Portland Oregonian, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Allworth Press and Chronicle Books, among others.

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