Oct 11, 2021

How to communicate sustainability?

Christoph Waldau, CEO of Berndt+Partner Creality, identifies five ‘golden rules’ for communicating sustainability through packaging.
Elisabeth Skoda

Packaging can make a big difference when it comes to a consumer’s decision to purchase an item or not. For packaging to be able to play this role, however, it must not only be sustainable, it must also communicate its added value clearly and effectively. Christoph Waldau, CEO of Berndt+Partner Creality, examines the situation and names five ‘golden rules’.

As facilitator, packaging has protected goods for as long as we can remember. It makes products storable and transportable, facilitates trade and new products and is at the centre of advertising, marketing and communication. But packaging is not only a facilitator, it also makes a difference. As the driving force behind the market success of products, it decides the battle for the favour of consumers at the analogue and digital POS.

For packaging to be able to play this role, three central hurdles must be overcome. Firstly, the packaging must create the basis for the purchase decision by transferring the design of the brand identity. Secondly, the packaging must effectively communicate the values, stage the product and thus trigger the purchase decision, and thirdly, the packaging must confirm the purchase with a strong, functional and/or emotional added value and thus bind the consumer in the long term.

Two aspects of sustainability: functional versus emotional

The fact that the sustainability of packaging has become an important purchasing argument for consumers is proven by data from numerous recent studies and surveys. For consumers, the focus is less on functional and more on emotional added value. Consumers want to be part of something "good". They want to buy and consume with a clear conscience. Sustainable packaging can satisfy this need. It offers consumers an emotional added value that can become the key to purchasing and brand loyalty.

Brands, retailers and packaging manufacturers are aware of the importance of sustainability as a purchasing argument. However, they still too often take a purely functional view of the sustainability of their packaging, and the focus is exclusively on materials and constructions. What is neglected or even forgotten is to clearly communicate sustainability.

But this is fatal, because only when the added value is recognized and emotionally experienced can it play out its sales-promoting and image-building potential.

Both making a pack functionally sustainable and its sustainability stimuli emotionally tangible, is the challenge with every launch or relaunch of sustainable consumer packaging. This is where the five “golden rules” come into play.

1. Do good and talk about it!

This rule is as basic as it sounds. Two aspects should be taken into consideration. Firstly, it must be possible to develop packaging with really good, sustainable progress. And secondly: the progress must be clearly and memorably addressed and emotionally experienced.

Greenwashing can be costly. Today's consumers are not only much more sensitive to environmental issues, they are also more knowledgeable. And as a networked community, they learn quickly. Simply labelling a package green is does not create  market success. On the contrary, sustainability must be based on hard facts. And these must be communicated. In doing so, it is important to master the balancing act between technical and advertising aspects.

Packaging must find solutions to communicate the sustainable added value. In the simplest case, these can be disruptive factors that break out of the normal design routine and make it clear that something is different (and better). However, depending on the complexity of the sustainability message to be communicated, additional design areas should also be reserved and used.

As a media platform, packaging also offers a range of possibilities for communication and emotional charging in a digital age, through networking with smart devices and digital channels.

2. Be(come) a Recycling Hero!

Recyclability is the basis of the circular economy. It is no coincidence that politics also places recycling management at the centre of its plans and actions.

Recycling has a good reputation among consumers, and recyclable packs score points. Paper, glass and to some extent metal have an advantage here due to the existence of closed loops.

For the packaging material plastics, recycling is currently a great challenge - and at the same time the great opportunity to become "greener". A good example for the use of recycled material are the detergents products marked with the Green Frog symbol.  

Packs can receive a sustainability boost when the production and use of plastic is enhanced by socially positive factors. This is the case, for example, with the use of "Ocean Plastic" or "Social Plastic". Ocean Plastic uses, at least in part, plastic that was previously pullled out of the sea and processed into recycled material. Social Plastic is at home in regions with inadequate waste infrastructure. There, unwanted environmental plastic waste is collected and sent for recycling. In addition to the environmental aspect, the social aspect also plays a role for these “recycling heroes”, as it creates or maintains important sources of income for the local populations.

3. No plastic, no cry

Plastic is currently “bad boy” among packaging materials for consumers, regardless of actual life cycle assessment results. Accordingly, any pack that reduces, partially replaces or even completely substitutes plastic scores points.

Current examples of this sustainability strategy can be found in large numbers. They range from the bundling of containers using cardboard instead of plastic to beer bottles and lipsticks made of cardboard.

Depending on the previous packaging, the sustainability advantage achieved is already communicated by the fact that the changed packaging material or the missing plastic is massively conspicuous. The less the new added value differs from the old packaging, the greater the communicative performance of the new packaging must be.

4. Paper rules!

The renaissance of paper is striking – and unsurprising. For paper and cardboard, at least in Europe, the loop is largely closed. Compared to glass and metal, the material has weight advantages, which, in addition to the CO2 pollution caused by transport, leads to advantages in the current climate crisis discussion

It seems that there is little that can be done wrong with paper at the moment. Another advantage for the packaging material is that it usually communicates its sustainability values by itself. To support the message, the design principle of "eco ugly" is often used, following the logic that only brown paper really expresses and conveys sustainability.

The success of paper is currently running almost unchecked. Despite sometimes considerable technological hurdles relating to food safety or machine runability, paper is conquering areas that were previously the domain of plastics, such as confectionery, frozen food or microwaveable trays.

Paper from alternative raw materials such as grass is used as the "icing on the cake". These alternative materials can further increase the sustainability added value of paper, but at the same time require more of an communicative effort to convey its sustainability benefits.

5. Get rid of extra pounds!

In the eyes of consumers, packaging constitutes "sustainability calories" that should be avoided. Across materials, less is more. The less packaging is used, the greater the sustainability added value is. Product protection, convenience and sometimes also requirements by the marketing department set the limits of the diet.

Examples of more or less radical reductions in packaging costs can be found where popsicles in multi-packs are no longer individually packaged in plastic, but lie loose in cardboard chambers, up to the point where biscuits are offered completely unpackaged in a cardboard display.

To be continued...

The topic of sustainability and the communication of sustainable added value will remain with us for the foreseeable future. The last word has not yet been spoken on the subject of packaging materials. It is more likely that we are only at the beginning of the packaging materials discussion. It’s already becoming clear that the the actual life cycle assessment of packaging is becoming increasingly important for NGOs and in the consciousness of consumers.

However, a proper life cycle analysis takes into account a large number of factors ranging from energy consumption, raw material sources, volume and transport weights to climate impact and the protection of biodiversity and animal welfare. General sustainability statements then become more difficult. The complexity increases, partly because the sustainability of particular solutions can vary depending on the product and market.

When simple sustainability assessment of packaging materials and packaging gives way to a more complex view, the communicative demands on packaging naturally increase. In order to be able to communicate the added value of sustainability and convey it emotionally, holistic and interdisciplinary know-how is even more necessary. Creating sustainability benefits and communicating them at the point of purchase is only possible with a team of engineers, designers and branding professionals.

Elisabeth Skoda

Editor of Touchpoints magazine, writer for Packaging Europe magazine and design enthusiast!
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