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Vicki Strull

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    Chasing Arrows: Can Packaging Be Sustainable?


    Vicki Strull: Cory, thank you for having me on your podcast today and letting me ask you questions, too! Let’s jump right in. I’ve noticed that you ask every guest: Can packaging be sustainable? After 170 episodes and everything you’ve learned, what do you think?

    Cory Connors: I actually stopped asking that question because everyone basically said the same thing: ‘Yes, it can! We can make this happen!’ I only had one guest who said no. She is a brilliant person and a great friend, and she said, ‘It’s not possible. There are too many variables, too many obstacles, too many naysayers.’ I think it’s important that we’re honest with each other and share our views. Everyone else has been very, very positive.

    So let me ask you that same question, Vicki: Can packaging be sustainable?

    VS: Yes, I think it can. I’ve learned a lot in the past several years about how to make packaging sustainable and about the differences between a linear system and a circular system. I think it’s getting to that circular system that will get us out of this. But that requires participation from a lot of different people in a lot of different industries. So while I think it is a wicked problem, I do think sustainable packaging is achievable.

    CC: Very true. It’s not just going to be you and me, it’s going to be thousands of people – tens of thousands – working really hard for a long time to make this change happen.

    VS: I spend a lot of time thinking about whose responsibility it is to create these different changes. When it comes to sustainable packaging, whose responsibility do you think it is?

    CC: I think we’re all involved. We all need to work on it and take responsibility for our actions, whether that’s the consumer saying, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t buy this because it’s packaged horribly [from a sustainability perspective].’ Or the designer, like yourself, saying, ‘What if we didn’t have three layers of packaging? What if we had two?’ Or the brand that’s selling the product, maybe they need to say, ‘We’re not going to have these kinds of coatings or foils that can’t be recycled as easily. We’re going to make it look beautiful but do it differently.’ So the answer, in my opinion, is that all of us need to work together. And that includes the government; the municipalities need to say, ‘We’re going to make recycling easier. We’re going to give you the opportunity to re-use.’ The grocery stores are also going to have a huge impact, frankly. In the future, we’re going to bring our recycling back to the grocery stores, until curbside [recycling] can catch up with demand. So lots of people are involved with this. All of us need to work together. What do you think, Vicki? Who is responsible for sustainable packaging?

    VS: I think there’s a community, or I like to use the word ecosystem, that needs to be involved. As a designer, I think about the impact I can make within that ecosystem to accelerate change and the shift to sustainable packaging. It feels like designers can affect a lot of entities within that ecosystem: shoppers because we design with shoppers in mind. The brands, because as our clients, we strategize with them on sustainable materials, embellishments and other design options for their packaging. Designers can affect the converters because we work with them to produce and manufacture the packaging. And we can affect the suppliers and the OEMs – the people that produce the materials or adhesives or embellishments because they are looking for partners to connect their innovative materials to the brands. In particular, I am connected with many of these suppliers, because I do a lot of design with haptics [touch].

    So I can impact all of those entities within the ecosystem because the designer is central to all of them. For instance, if I want to do a laminate, a certain finish or a haptic element, I have a direct line to the supplier, and they can advise me. But they may not have a direct line to the brand or the shoppers, so they need designers to collaborate with them. The collaboration goes as far as the material recovery facilities (MRFs) because I need to understand what is curbside recyclable and what is industrial recyclable; what is backyard compostable and what is industrial compostable; what has to go to another facility and what is going to the landfill. Bringing it back to the shopper, part of my job as a designer is to help brands educate their shoppers so they understand the importance of sustainability, change their behaviors, and learn what they can do to have their own impact.

    CC: Oh, important; so true. We talk a lot on the podcast about lifecycle, from the very beginning. How do we harvest the raw materials? Are we using post-consumer recycled material? Are we using virgin materials? Sometimes virgin materials are more sustainable because they’re stronger and you can use less. It’s a common misconception that if it’s made from recycled material, it must be more sustainable. Well, most of the time, but not always. It’s really important to say that and talk about making small changes.

    VS: I think post-consumer waste is another place where we can educate shoppers because there is another myth that using as much post-consumer waste as possible means the packaging is more sustainable. But you’re right, that’s not always true. With paperboard, if a brand needs a bright white board, it’s actually better to use virgin fiber than a board made from post-consumer waste because it takes too much energy to get the paperboard white enough. Plus, the fiber in the recycled paperboard may not be strong enough. A lot of recycled board goes into manufacturing other types of materials— chipboard, newsprint or even those cores that go inside toilet paper rolls. That’s all recycled material, but that may not be what my luxury perfume carton is made out of.

    I try to use as much paperboard in packaging as possible because paperboard is the most recycled material – typically around 68 to 70 percent, whereas plastic may be recycled only 8 percent of the time. Many paper mills have flow loops built into their manufacturing processes to minimize waste. They’re using renewable energy and wood, which, as you mentioned, is a renewable resource. They are planting new trees and managing the forests. So it’s a complicated issue, but I think that’s part of how we need to educate consumers and everyone within the ecosystem.

    CC: Well said. I spent the first five years of my career at Weyerhaeuser and we talked about forestry all the time. I worked at a corrugated mill making boxes and learned about sustainably managed forests, how we were planting 10 trees for every single one we cut, and how those are absorbing carbon. These are great things that are helping the planet. OK, my turn to ask you a question. Tell me about a project you did that you felt had a positive impact on the sustainability of a company’s packaging.

    VS: Recently, I did some packaging and labels for a specialty food company. I think every designer and converter can relate to this: the client says, ‘We need it now.’ But they don’t actually need it now, they want it yesterday. Right? They are that anxious for it. However, if you want a very sustainable package, you actually need time to test different materials and different coatings and different embellishments, in order to see if you can get the shelf impact that you need and then balance that with sustainability. So, in this case, I designed the labels, which had to be produced overseas. The client couldn’t take the time [to explore sustainability], even though I wanted them to. They wanted metallics on the labels, so we did some metallics. And it worked great on the shelf.

    Afterward, I came back to the client and said, ‘OK, now that you are on the shelf, in round two, you actually do need to make these labels more sustainable.’ Because that was part of their brand story, in terms of being all-organic and good for the environment and healthy for people. So now that we had the time, we prototyped six or eight ideas in order to get a similar design with a similar shelf impact. We prototyped labels that are 100 percent recyclable. These are the practicalities of what can happen in real-time. Not all brands will allow their designer or their converter or others in the ecosystem to take the time and give them the best sustainability solution. They’re balancing getting the product on the shelf; they’re balancing the economics and the sustainability of their business, not just sustainability for the environment. So I think it goes back to that ecosystem and everyone working together.

    CC: That’s a valuable point. Brands are taking calculated risks. They have to say, ‘Are we going to be more sustainable?

    Are we going to try these changes?’ And what I’m seeing, with small brands and big brands, is, ‘Let’s try this product and see how that works. Do our consumers appreciate the difference?’ Oftentimes they’ll even get more sales. Millennials are 67 percent more likely to buy something if it’s packaged sustainably. This is important to consider.

    CC: Are you finding the same thing when you’re working with brands?

    VS: I am. A client will try one product, and they’ll pilot it in a particular country or city to see how it works. And not everything is going to work. Johnny Walker launched a paperboard bottle, and I was talking to a friend of mine who drinks that, and he said, ‘Yeah, I can’t do it. It tastes different.’ It also goes back to our perception of quality as it relates to the packaging itself, which is why you have to be so balanced with your packaging choices. When we’re talking about the environment, it keeps getting elevated on the list of priorities. And that’s really important. It’s part of the impact you’re having in the market as an influencer, Cory. It’s also part of the impact of other designers who are talking about sustainability, because we do have a voice, and we can impact the brands that we’re working with.

    CC: Well, thank you. I’m glad you highlighted this process and the occasional failures. Maybe the brand wants to do some studies in advance of trying something new; reach out to some target audience members, the top 5 percent of their customers and say, ‘Hey, would you drink this out of a paper bottle?’ There’s nothing sustainable about going out of business, and that’s important for brands to remember; that maybe the risk isn’t worth it.

    To listen to the full episode, visit or search for “Sustainable Packaging with Cory Connors” wherever you stream your favorite podcasts.