The public is turning on plastic. Contrary to belief, the packaging industry
is not yet armed with all the answers, writes David ‘Bic’ Bicknell
The environmental sustainability of our current consumer model is rightfully under the spotlight and high on brand owners and FMCG retailers’ agendas. Scientific realities have fuelled high-profile exposés and vehement activism, and energised consumers into reducing their impact on an ailing environment. As a result, how we package, distribute and dispose of food and other consumer goods has never been under closer scrutiny.
So you’d think brand owners and the design community would relish opportunities to lead with innovation, change the market landscape and speed up progress in tackling the environmental issues at the heart of packaging, distribution and disposal. Truth is, we’re still a long way off, but it’s not due simply to ignorance or dismissal of the climate crisis…at least not among consumers. Yet while the vision of ‘no-plastic’ retail is noble, it does overlook the complexity and interdependence of processes that support mass consumerism, and plastics’ integral role in supply chains and shelf life.
As a lifelong designer of branded packaging that conveys emotive messaging and functional benefits to consumers’ brand experiences, I acknowledge and embrace the need to think – and act – very differently, but it will take time to identify and implement truly sustainable alternatives.
We must understand the alternatives to plastics before we adopt them.
Of course, we need to know, unambiguously, what packaging is made from, the carbon footprint of its mass production, and how to reuse/recycle/dispose of it responsibly. And we need to make informed decisions on its suitability for perishables long before people like me use them as vehicles for brand expression. This is all underway, but misunderstanding and contradiction remains around the impact of traditional packaging approaches and the sustainability of the new ones we’re falling over ourselves to find. This, combined with the UK’s inconsistent and ever-changing local council policies – and the lack of cohesive or suitably funded infrastructure – is perhaps why we’re not achieving meaningful change as fast as we’d like. The upshot is that brand owners, designers and consumers need definitive guidelines on what’s good or bad for the environment, and what we can do individually and collectively to mitigate harmful impact. That means dispelling myths, accepting accountability, and embedding unambiguous and universal terminology for manufacturers, distributors, consumers and waste management. We also need to fully research the alternatives to plastic so we’re not just creating an equivalent problem.
In some ways, the packaging industry itself is the weak link. Perhaps because they have conflicting interests, and influential ‘expert’ opinions based on research that they fund. A cynic (who, me?) might suggest that they’d much prefer to ‘keep on doing what we’re doing’ to maintain profit levels, or adopt the issue primarily as a promotional tool, replete with flimsy ‘we really care’ messaging.
For me, the packaging industry needs to redirect its influence and add gravitas to brand owners, designers and consumers’ demands for clearer information on which to act – and embrace stricter regulation to support it.
Of course, retailers are encouraging brands and the packaging industry to act, thanks to their own targets to reduce plastics in their supply chains. Consumers, meanwhile, are choosing more environmentally responsible products, and their money is talking. However, they need clearer information and guidance about the bigger issues if their money is to persuade the packaging industry to do more. As a designer working closely with brand owners, I can make a difference too, but it’s hard to advise clients on environmentally appropriate packaging while the packaging industry still proclaims to have all the answers. Understandably, brand owners are cautious. They want to do the right thing (and be seen doing it, obviously), but they need clarity and certainty when consumers are so quick to call them out for doing the wrong thing. I care about the environment, and I love packaging – and I don’t see these sentiments as mutually exclusive. When executed well, packaging not only enables efficient production and distribution of all the things we want and need; it also conveys emotive brand messaging and tactile pleasure. As we secure more environmentally sustainable approaches to packaging, people like me will embrace them, and continue creating memorable brand experiences.