Being responsible

Designing the future: balancing aesthetics and sustainability in packaging

April 23, 2024
8 minutes
Ferenc Boroczky
Founder and CEO of anet360

Every day, we interact with packaging — it wraps the products we buy, preserving them, maintaining their value, and minimizing waste. This role is paramount for perishable goods in the food, medicine, and cosmetics sectors, where effective packaging can make or break a product's marketability. Beyond mere protection, the design of packaging significantly influences consumer choices, enhancing product appeal and boosting sales.

However, the packaging industry is grappling with several formidable challenges today. Pollution from plastics, packaging-related waste, and deteriorating air, soil, and water quality, coupled with broader issues like climate change, present urgent concerns. These challenges are intensified by complexities in the value chain and consumer resistance, driven by the economic, social, and environmental demands of sustainable behaviors, which can deter companies from adopting greener packaging solutions.

As a designer with an environmental studies background and as a founder of a design-led technology company, I am intrigued by the evolving consumer expectations around packaging. I was wondering: how might the balance between sustainability and aesthetic appeal shift, particularly in terms of time, cost, and scalability? What are the implications for companies traditionally more focused on either sustainability or aesthetics? How must they adapt their strategies to stay competitive and respond to market demands? These are not easy questions to answer.

Let’s face it — we are often drawn to products not only by what they offer inside but also by how they look on the outside. Aesthetically pleasing packaging can command a higher price in the market, reflecting the intense competition among companies to captivate consumers. Yet, as consumers, we find ourselves increasingly demanding products that are not only visually appealing and effective but also environmentally friendly — a challenging balance to strike.

When I first encountered neuromarketing in 2016, it unveiled a significant shift in consumer decision-making. Decisions are no longer based solely on price and quality — attributes that have become less distinctive due to market saturation. Instead, consumers are gravitating towards products that resonate with their personal attributes.

Technologies like eye tracking and EEG sensors offer invaluable insights into consumer preferences, empowering companies to tailor their products more effectively, enhancing not just the quality but also the aesthetic appeal. As Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog design, once remarked, "Money buys but emotion sells." This insight has never felt more pertinent as we navigate the complex interplay of functionality, aesthetics, and sustainability in packaging.

This challenge brings to light the need for the R strategy: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. To better understand these challenges, we started a project with a leader in the European cleaning industry, known for its high-quality, high-performance hygiene products. We aimed to explore how our proprietary technologies could enhance their manufacturing and training processes, uncovering a portion of the broader challenges faced by the industry.

One critical issue is the significant environmental impact of plastic packaging. Research highlighted by Cambridge University Press notes that a staggering 39.1% of plastics used in the EU are dedicated to packaging, dwarfing other uses like building and construction. The United Nations General Assembly's Sustainable Development Goal 12 targets sustainable consumption and production patterns, aiming to minimize waste through circular economy strategies.

Currently, less than 10% of used resources follow a recycling path, with less than 50% of plastics recycled due to inadequate sorting—a significant challenge emphasized by the European Commission's report, which estimates that the EU generated approximately 188.7 kg of packaging waste per inhabitant in 2021.

Online shopping has become a staple of modern life, offering unmatched convenience, a vast array of choices, and often lower prices than traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Particularly during periods of high inflation, e-commerce becomes an essential way for many to manage their budgets more effectively. However, this convenience comes at a significant environmental cost.

For example, Amazon, the world's largest retailer, produced an estimated 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2021 alone. This figure represents an 18% increase from the previous year,

according to Oceana, a leading organization dedicated to ocean conservation. The sheer volume of this waste is staggering, enough to encircle the Earth over 800 times with air pillows used in packaging. This situation underscores the urgent need for more sustainable packaging solutions in the e-commerce sector.

Unsustainable packaging practices have far-reaching environmental, economic, and social implications. Mismanaged plastic waste, for example, has emerged as a global concern, affecting biodiversity, soil, waterways, and oceans, with plastics posing long-term environmental threats.

The economic implications of unsustainable packaging include costs associated with waste management and recycling, along with broader impacts like tourism loss due to environmental degradation. Socially, there is a growing demand for sustainable practices, influencing market trends and shaping consumer products. Companies face social pressure to reduce their environmental footprint, risking brand damage if they fail to address unsustainable practices.

In the latest accelerator program where we were invited to apply, one of the primary challenges identified was how to ensure quality control of the final product.

Companies seek innovative, sustainable, and environmentally friendly technologies that can be seamlessly integrated into existing facilities without significant disruption. The real challenge lies in implementing new technologies that align with current systems and processes, offering solutions that are both effective and minimally invasive.

To truly drive change in the packaging industry, companies must look beyond isolated problems, embracing the entire product development journey from idea generation through design, development, prototyping, testing, and production. While many companies navigate these stages, they often do so in isolation,with compartmentalized data and departments functioning independently. This approach, unfortunately, stifles innovation and impedes the holistic integration necessary for meaningful sustainability improvements.

Our proposed solution, tailored for both the leading European cleaning product manufacturer and the accelerator program, emphasizes a cohesive strategy. This strategy involves synthesizing insights and data from every stage of the product lifecycle — from initial design to final production. Our integrated approach not only fosters innovation but also ensures that sustainable practices are deeply embedded throughout the product lifecycle, thereby enhancing both environmental outcomes and consumer satisfaction.

By shifting from a segmented to a unified strategy, companies can uncover more innovative and effective solutions, leading to packaging that is not only aesthetically pleasing and functional but also truly sustainable.

It's not just about tackling identified problems — it's about reimagining the framework within which these problems are solved, ensuring that sustainability becomes a cornerstone of all packaging strategies. This approach not only meets the current demands of consumers but also sets a new standard in the packaging industry, promoting a shift towards more responsible production and consumption patterns.

In this way, we can truly "unpack" the future of packaging, making it a powerful tool for change, and driving the industry towards greater sustainability, efficiency, and overall consumer engagement. As we continue to innovate and integrate, the packaging of tomorrow could look vastly different from today — more sustainable, more efficient, and more aligned with the values of a global consumer base increasingly concerned with environmental impact and ethical considerations. , ,

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Ferenc Boroczky
Founder and CEO of anet360
With more than 15 years in design and technology focused on people, I've dedicated myself to growing a business that makes a real difference. I'm the Founder and CEO of Another Set of Eyes (anet), a company my wife and I built from scratch. We've come a long way without financial backing from investors, proving our resilience and innovation and developing a high-quality, yet user-friendly software solution. Our mission is to change how organizations gather and use important information, share insights, and train their teams.

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