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Making sustainability tangible

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It’s official. Sustainability has entered the mainstream and become a key concern for many FMCG businesses, and quite rightly so. Public enemy number one is plastic, thanks in part to Blue Planet II. We expect to find more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, according to the Ellen McArthur foundation. There are massive garbage patches in our oceans, of which the most famous – the Great Pacific Garbage patch – is estimated to be at least the size of Texas.

July of last year saw the release of the findings from the first global analysis of all the mass-produced plastics ever manufactured. As of 2015, we had generated approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste, around 9% of which was recycled and 12% was incinerated. This means a whopping 79% ended up in landfills or the natural environment. The study estimates that roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050 if current production and waste management trends continue.

All of this is driving the demand for more ‘responsible’ products and packaging. Yet we are often misinformed about what is actually sustainable. The growing perception is that plastic packaging is bad, yet this is not always the case. Plastic requires less energy than most materials to manufacture and ship, offers exceptional performance in most cases and is recyclable at the end of its life. Conversely, the ‘paper’ takeaway cups from which we drink our coffee every day are perceived to be recyclable, yet the majority are not.

Sustainability relies as much on product sourcing, clean production processes, ’disposal’ infrastructures and people’s behaviour related to consumption as it does on the material choice. This lack of understanding has become a barrier for many brands to address sustainability head on. They are paralysed by the fear of doing the wrong thing and alienating their consumers. And here lies the problem: what is the right thing to do? Another barrier is cost. Supply chains have been honed over the years to work efficiently with the current choice of materials and formats. Changes to these come at a price. Although some progressive consumers are prepared to pay more, questions still remain about whether mainstream consumers are willing to pay the premium for sustainable alternatives.

The tipping point might not be that far off though. Three out of four Millennials in a global Nielsen study indicated they would pay more for sustainable propositions – and this was three years ago. A similar proportion of Generation Z respondents indicated the same, prompting Grace Farraj, SVP of Public Development & Sustainability at Nielsen, to conclude that those “brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share but build loyalty among the powerspending Millennials of tomorrow”.

Simon Boas Hoffmeyer, VP of sustainability at Carlsberg, suggests a way to navigate the cost issue is to focus on quality. He states that while “we don’t completely see that consumers would pay more, we do see that they want to pay more for high quality and different experiences.” He believes that “in the future, if something is sustainable, it will be seen as high quality”.

While this might not quite be the case yet, it will certainly be so in the near future. We are already seeing evidence to support this through an increasing number of innovative new products and services that have been conceived with sustainability in mind yet offer more premium experiences. They can be summarised as follows:


From excess to resourcefulness

We used to think positively about having more. Today we think of doing more with less. One way to approach sustainability is to utilise the materials we have already created, either by upcycling waste or recycling old packaging.

Premium brands are demonstrating a spirit of resourcefulness through products that either give back, reuse or extend life, while progressive supermarkets are beginning to take a stand against excessive packaging and remove plastic from their shelves.

In the fashion world, Stella McCartney claims the future of fashion is circular. Hermes diffusion brand Petit H have made products from off cuts while Nudie Jeans encourage their consumers to keep their jeans for longer by offering free repairs and suggestions on customising them as they wear and tear.

Within FMCG, Coca Cola and Heinz have been developing their bio-plastic ‘plant bottles’ for several years now. Method, Head & Shoulders and Fairy have all recently launched bottles made from varying proportions of ocean plastic.

While these packaging initiatives are a welcome start, I can’t help but feel they don’t go far enough. In most cases the packs look like traditional oil-based plastics and require a label to tell us they are sustainable. We have to be careful with mixing different materials when recycling, as this can cause significant problems – the infrastructure isn’t there yet to worry about that for us.

All of which presents an opportunity for FMCG brands to educate and guide their consumers through the creation of sustainable codes. Some brands are beginning to do this and are defining a new visual language of sustainability.

The packaging for the world’s first sustainable rum by Fitzroy showcases upcycling – the utilisation of waste materials to create something useful – at its best. The beautiful marble-like caps are actually made from discarded Coca-Cola labels. Carlsberg have developed the Green Fibre bottle made from sustainable wood fibre in partnership with EcoXpac. They spotted the need to offer a sustainable packaging alternative within their portfolio to reflect the evolving preferences of their consumers. The distinctive bottle is scheduled for consumer testing this year.

Paperboy offers a new take on the traditional glass wine bottle. A compressed recycled paper outer, printed with natural inks, and a recyclable sleeve on the inside to retain the wine, they can be separated to enable recycling and solve the problem we mentioned earlier regarding coffee cups and negating the barrier layer that renders the packaging un-recyclable. Furthermore, the ‘bottles’ use only 15% of the energy required to produce regular glass bottles and weigh less when empty saving energy on shipping.

From single use products to sustainable service ecosystems

As our lifestyles change so do our needs and expectations. With the shift to more fluid lives and the blurring of boundaries between, for example, personal and private, home and work, casual and formal, we are seeking greater value from the products and services we consume, in the process redefining our relationship with them.

We are familiar with the digital ecosystems that allow us to use products and services seamlessly, often through multiple touch points and interfaces. From Amazon to Spotify, their approach is the same: the delivery of experiences shaped around the individual, offering convenience at every step to remove friction.

Forward-thinking brands are applying this same philosophy to FMCG to create sustainable service ecosystems, leveraging waste reduction to deliver better experiences that fit around consumers’ lifestyles rather than the other way around.

Splosh enables consumers to buy concentrated laundry and cleaning product refills online. Bottles are retained and re-used while the refills come through the post and can be posted back empty free of charge so that they can be re-used. “The problem of plastic waste cannot be solved while we still buy from supermarkets,” says founder Angus Grahame. “We believe the move to the circular economy is about massive new business model opportunity rather than tweaking decades old systems.”

Living in today’s world should not be at the expense of tomorrow’s planet. Honour’s Keep Good skincare range uses eco-friendly materials, combining aluminum ‘keeper’ razors and canisters designed for longevity with recyclable ‘refills’ made from sugar cane. This brand has managed to reduce waste whilst building heirloom-quality pieces that are unforgettable and therefore indispensable.

We are seeing more and more of these ‘keeper and refill’ systems, from home care and personal care to cosmetics and perfumery. In each case the keeper adds value to the experience where it matters – in-use through optimised functionality and ergonomics, and in-situ with desirable aesthetics that can be left out and displayed rather than hidden away.

From purchase and ownership to access and participation

Influenced by sustainably-minded, socio-cultural shifts, like the sharing economy and city bike rental schemes, brands are offering products and services that move away from requiring purchase to enabling access.

BMW’s Drive Now scheme allows people to drive a BMW without having to own one; payment of a monthly subscription gives people access to any BMW or Mini so that they can pick up the right car for any given need. Certainly a sustainable choice for infrequent drivers.

Meanwhile, Rent The Runway are cutting down waste in fashion by allowing shoppers to borrow instead of buy – and always having something new to wear. The bags they use to send and return the garments are reusable so only the label has to be reprinted.

One of the big sustainability issues is the takeaway coffee cup. They require a barrier layer so most are not recyclable. “Paper waste is the dirty secret of the coffee retail business” according to Good To Go coffee shop brand founder Jim Munson. The Brooklyn-based chain is tackling the problem through its pilot scheme of re-usable coffee cups: consumers receive their coffee in a cup that can be dropped off at a different store once finished to receive a credit for next time. The cups are washed and put back into the system.

The same goes for food delivery brand Tyme in the U.S. Unlike most food delivery services, all their meals come packed in a reusable jar. Consumers simply return it to Tyme and receive a discount on their next order.

These are all examples of closed loop systems that embrace re-usability. The Dutch have been doing this for years with beer. Bottles are borrowed rather than bought with deposits paid back on their return. We used to do the same in the UK with milk.

In conclusion, it is no longer enough for brands to talk about their approach and activities around sustainability through comms and on-label messaging. It has to be tangible for it to be credible.

Pack structures are fundamental to successfully communicating and delivering a brand’s sustainability ethos, and essential elements in embodying their purpose and values. They are physical brand assets, whose role should extend beyond simply preserving, distributing and selling products on shelf to become brand beacons that shine light on the way forward and add meaning, utility and delight to people’s experiences.

And this is where 3D structure can help. We are helping our clients create and shape more sustainable visions for the future. We are using design to rethink the conventional approach to packaging, solve problems, and create compelling innovative solutions.


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