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    Part 2: Chasing Arrows: Can packaging be sustainable?


    In this Q&A, branding and design columnist, Vicki Strull, sits down with the host of the podcast Sustainable Packaging with
    Cory Connors. Below is an excerpt of their conversation

    Vicki Strull: Cory, you’ve interviewed so many people on your podcast, what are some of the innovations you’ve heard about that are so staggering you believe they are going to make a huge impact in sustainable packaging?

    Cory Conners: There are some creative things going on in making spirits packaging more sustainable like Colourform, who are doing molded pulp instead of several layers of boxes for very high-end liquors and champagne brands. It’s exciting. They’re taking molded pulp and making it beautiful – like a second skin for the bottle. Whereas it used to be there was foam and then an inner box and then a shipper box. The molded pulp packaging eliminates three layers. Imagine that impact over hundreds of thousands of bottles. And the consumers love it. They keep the molded pulp, they think it looks beautiful on the bottle. So they’re adapting to it. Things like that are changing the game and we’re really looking at packaging differently and saying, ‘Hey, do we really need two boxes here? Could we just do one?’

    VS: Let’s talk about brands testing different packaging and understanding how consumers will respond. I believe that when we prototype, we can really start to know how people will respond to a design. Prototyping is part of the ‘design thinking’ movement, where there is a methodology: concept, create, prototype, iterate, prototype again until the packaging or product is ready to be manufactured. When brands prototype and test, they can begin to understand and analyze the discrepancy between what people say they will do, which is pay more for something that is sustainable, and what they actually do, which does not typically match what they say. If we can prototype more, we can understand that gap better.

    CC: Very accurate. I liken it to political polling. When somebody calls you and says, ‘Who are you going to vote for?’ We’ve learned that not everyone is honest about what they say and what they do in the voting booth. I think that’s true with some consumers saying, ‘Of course, I’d spend more for sustainability.’ But will they really? Are they actually on board for this? I’ve also seen that it can increase sales. It can add value to consumers’ minds, like you and me. And if we buy it and like it and talk about it because it’s exciting, it can increase brand awareness and loyalty.

    VS: To that point, when we produce sustainable packaging, sometimes it’s more expensive. Cory, who should absorb that extra expense? The manufacturers? The innovators? The suppliers? Is it the brand’s responsibility to absorb some of the extra costs? Or does it always come back to the shopper?

    CC: That’s a touchy question because a lot of us are on strict incomes and a lot of people are struggling with the changes. The answer is, it depends. I know that’s frustrating, everybody hates that answer. But often times, the government is going to have to step in with some additional discounts for the manufacturers – maybe – grants for businesses that are being more sustainable. But it often does fall on the consumer.

    I know a lot of brands are really struggling and a lot of suppliers are very tight right now. We’ve absorbed lots of cost increases over the last several years. The market has been absolutely erratic with the most cost changes I’ve ever seen in my two and a half decades in the business. I mean, to have a 30 percent cost delta from the last time something was ordered – that’s hard to absorb. I can assure you that the supplier can’t absorb it, we’d be cost oversell, assuming the margins are reasonable. So yes, it often falls on the consumer, which is a challenge. This is why it’s on us as designers and suppliers to provide alternatives that aren’t always more expensive. What are your thoughts on who’s responsible for the cost increases, Vicki?

    VS: I agree that it’s complicated. I think it’s incumbent upon the suppliers to come up with the material innovations because they know those materials so well. And it’s incumbent on the converters to understand how to use those innovations and make them work within their cost structure. It’s also incumbent upon the innovator to help converters work those innovations into their workflow and business model. Because if you have an innovation but the converter can’t make it work within their cost structure, then they can’t offer it to the brand, and the brand can’t offer it to the consumer. Or if they can offer it, but it changes their margins, then their business becomes less sustainable and the converter can’t absorb that updated cost. Now, if you let the cost increase trickle to the shopper, then the product may become too expensive and the shopper may not purchase it, so sales won’t meet the forecasts and the product may not be sustainable. Again, I think it goes back to the ecosystem of everyone working together to make real change.

    CC: Totally agree, 100 percent. All of it has to sell through. It has to last as long on the shelf, for instance. We can’t let the performance of the packaging suffer for sustainability. Very important. Vicki, there was one word you used earlier in this discussion that I am very interested in learning more about. You mentioned haptics. I am blown away that you’re even thinking about haptics in packaging. Can you explain what that means and how you use haptics in design?

    VS: Absolutely. I love talking about haptics, I’ve written articles on haptics, and I’ve done presentations on haptics! I learned the word haptics from one of the suppliers I work with – Sappi. Sappi makes paperboard and commercial papers. They came out with a piece 10 years ago called ‘The Neuroscience of Touch’, which talks about the importance of haptics in corporate communications and commercial print. As a packaging designer, I’m looking at haptics in terms of how we interact with packaging because of haptics. Activating our sense of touch on packaging enhances both the retail environment and the unboxing experience. When you think about shelf appeal, haptics on packaging can entice someone to reach out and touch a product. As we look at haptics related to consumer behavior, we know that touching something triggers psychological ownership – a phenomenon where we subconsciously start to believe we own something just by touching it. That can trigger the ‘endowment effect,’ which means we value the item more. Haptics are key in making packaging appealing to shoppers. And that’s just on the shelf; when you start talking about it in an unboxing experience, those haptics and whatever those textures – whether it’s embossed, a metallic, spot UV, a die cut, or a tip-on — they all affect our perception of the product inside, which then goes back to the business goals of the brand. Maybe they can charge more for it; maybe people think it’s higher quality.

    I’ve done it in both directions; one, where a brand wants to charge more for something and we add haptics to make that price justified for a premium or luxury product and help them raise the price. I’ve also done the reverse where brands have come to me and said, ‘Here’s our design so far. Can you help us with this? Our price point is $79.’ And I have said, ‘If your price point is $79 for that product, you don’t have packaging that fits a $79 price point.’ Haptics are really amazing in terms of consumer engagement.

    CC: I have a customer – Shun Cutlery – Kai USA; they craft knives in Japan. Their boxes have this amazing soft touch feel that we make for them at Landsberg Orora, and it is a big selling factor. People pick them up and say, ‘Ooh, this is really neat. I really like this. This feels cool.’ First, they see that it’s beautiful, and then second, they love that tactile feel. So I can definitely concur with what you’re saying.

    VS: Yes! Anytime I do a haptic embellishment, that’s exactly the response we’re looking for: hold it longer. And when you start to think about this idea of psychological ownership and the endowment effect, once you’re holding it longer, you start to think that it belongs to you, and then it’s more likely that you purchase it and it goes home with you. The other thing from what you just described, in those few seconds when they say, ‘Ooh, it must be nice,’ the packaging has suddenly changed the perception of the quality of the product inside. Pretty amazing.

    CC: Absolutely, yes. Some of the items that brands are selling in these boxes cost hundreds of dollars and it’s important to provide the right package to the consumer; one that’s valuable and that’s worth their money. Not just the item inside, but the packaging itself needs to inherently have value. Many of these items are gifts and they want to be able to give them with pride to friends and family and associates. They want the packaging to say, ‘You’re worth it.’

    VS: And to bring that back to sustainability, when you add that soft-touch, it’s incumbent upon us to find a soft-touch coating that is environmentally friendly. That’s been hard because these are laminates and now you’re getting into layered materials; you’re adding something. Or if it is litho laminated or has adhesives, it can be harder to recycle or it can make the packaging not recyclable at all. This is where we need a lot of innovation.

    CC: Well said. I interviewed some paper manufacturers recently, and they were talking about the exact same thing. What if we could make it feel like this without coating, with the right chemistry, and without an additional layer. Some of these high-end boxes have a plastic layer that people don’t know about. They’re not always totally recyclable. And we need to be honest with each other about that.

    VS: I do have one question that I’m curious about. Can you talk about the single-stream recycling system that we have in the US and compare or contrast it with what’s happening in Japan, where they don’t have single stream? They have a bento-box-like system, where people put their glass in one section and their aluminum in another, and their paperboard and their plastic into different sections. Do you think that single-stream recycling has hurt the sustainability of the materials in the United States, or do you think it’s helped because it has made it easier for people to recycle?

    CC: Oh, wow. Great question. The answer I think is both. It has hurt some areas and it has helped some areas. I’ve read so many stories about this. I think it was in New Jersey where they tried to demand that people recycle. ‘You must recycle.’ And people said, ‘No; we never have before. You can’t make us do anything.’ Now, in particular [the state] said, ‘You must take your corrugated and tie it up with string and make it easy for [recycling].’ NO. It has to be easier for the consumer. Where I live in Oregon, it’s very easy to recycle. You put it in your blue bin and it gets recycled. And they’re expanding that often. We’re going to be able to recycle soft plastics like low-density polyethylenes. And polystyrenes. We’ll be able to recycle those in the next couple of years, which is very exciting. And they’re doing that successfully in Canada as well. So the answer is, it can be very, very good for the numbers. It can also not impact them at all because if we’re not changing the behavior of people and encouraging them – sometimes financially – to recycle. Companies like D6 in Texas, have a new program where they’ll pay you for every thermoform tray that you bring into Sam’s Club. Wow. People want to do that, right? So I think you’re going to see a lot of changes over the next several years with extended producer responsibility and different recycling laws that are taking place.

    VS: This has been just an absolute pleasure and I wanted to thank you very much. I learn a lot every time I listen to your podcast, and I learned more in today’s conversation as well.

    CC: Thank you, Vicki. I appreciate your wisdom, your friendship and partnership in this!

    This is Part 2 in a Q&A series with Vicki and Cory. To read part one, read Issue 1 of Labels & Labeling or click here.

    The mission of Cory’s podcast is to help make the planet more sustainable by educating, informing and engaging packaging professionals and consumers. To listen to the full episode, visit or search for “Sustainable Packaging with Cory Connors” on Apple or wherever you stream your favorite podcasts.