How Does Premium Packaging Fit With Sustainability Efforts?

By Rasmus Vestergaard
Published 04/09/2022
Category: Interview
Featuring: Bold Scandinavia | Goods | Grow

Whisky, perfume, electronics, skincare. Often, such premium items are wrapped up in expressive, unique, sculptural and luxurious packaging. Typically and traditionally, this choice of packaging doesn’t fit with sustainability. But times are changing, and demands are growing.

As Rabobank senior analyst Jim Watson said to FoodNavigator, “brands have to balance environmental ambitions with the need to maintain premium aesthetics and feel.” But how? Is it possible to maintain a premium feel while being thoughtful about one’s environmental footprint? Could one even say they depend on and benefit each other?

I reached out to three designers, two industrial designers and one graphic designer, to get their perspectives on the matter.

Hajar Sadequi, Industrial Designer at Grow, and Sean Collins, Senior Industrial Designer at Goods, bring a structural and branding perspective to the table, while Louise Hvenegaard, Packaging Design Lead at Bold Scandinavia, shares some of her consumer and brand insights.

A Unanimous Answer

No, Hajar, Louise and Sean responded to whether premium brand packaging conflict with sustainability.

Sean Collins

At the end of the day, you can have the best ingredients but make a poor dish, or if you are skilled, you can make a great one from basics.”

Sean Collins, Senior Industrial Designer at Goods

But innovating packaging is demanding and requires effort, so often, brands choose the familiar road for premium packaging. “It is easy to over-package, simply because you can afford it, and for a long time, premium packaging has equalled a lot of layering and volume”, Hajar adds.

So it might be time to broaden our understanding of what premium packaging means. It is much more than just material finishes, as Sean Collins comments. “These other elements, like unboxing, communication, tolerances, build quality, thoroughness, attention to detail, in combination with emerging materials is the future of premium through our eyes.”

“Creating sustainable packaging, in general, is a tricky thing”, says Louise, “So, I don’t think that sustainability conflicts with a premium look and feel, but I do think we need to distinguish between perceived sustainability and actually being sustainable.”

Shifting Perception

Almost daily, journalists report on new sustainable materials and innovative designs. This constant development expands our knowledge, ultimately shifting our perception of sustainability. What was once perceived as sustainable is now no longer.

Louise Hvenegaard

“I think that the idea of sustainability is shifting tremendously; luxury is no longer gold and flashy things; it’s uniqueness, nature and time.”

Louise Hvenegaard, Packaging Design Lead at Bold Scandinavia

Aesop positioned itself as a more caring and sustainable brand when it broke with the category’s traditional and heavy use of materials and gold foils. The skincare brand went with a two-coloured print, brown and natural-looking bottles and containers and the brilliant twist, as Louise puts it, was the linen bag instead of boxes and tissue paper for the gifting.

“When it launched, it seemed like the perfect disruption and the most luxurious thing to receive. It felt natural and down-to-earth. Almost old-fashioned, but in the most perfect authentic way. I think over time, both Aesop and we as consumers know a little better that fabric might be an even worse polluter than plastic, but at the time, it had the desired effect of positioning them as a caring and sustainable brand. So to that point, I think we are improving in terms of perceptions shifting from the consumer perspective, but there is still room for improvement in terms of creating actually sustainable solutions.”

Seizing the Opportunity

Premium brands have the ability and position to push the innovation and use of sustainable materials. They can facilitate the development of new materials and techniques and then launch them on the market. This bridge is “a crucial step for innovation to eventually reach a broader audience and make it more accessible”, says Hajar Sadequi.

“Sustainable materials can mean a lot of different things, and it is important to match the right material with the right purpose and product. For sustainable packaging design, the end of life is just as important as shelf appeal, usability and other traditional factors. Due to the nature of premium packaging, it is easier to work with all of these aspects. Especially when it comes to circular solutions and long-life reusable packaging”, adds Hajar.

Hajar Sadequi

“Premium brands have the resources to work with innovation and to be leaders in the shift towards new more sustainable solutions.”

Hajar Sadequi, Industrial Designer at Grow

“By designing for reuse and/or a circular system, one can use high-value materials that might have a higher initial carbon footprint, but that allows for a longer life cycle. These high-value materials, such as glass, wood, leather and metal, are not only great looking and durable but are also beneficial to creating emotional bonds for brand loyalty. This can be good to keep in mind when designing for a reusable packaging system.”

Hajar continues, “As more regulations come in place and with the increasing demand for sustainable packaging, brands that aren’t up to date will look outdated and potentially lose some of their premium statuses.”

To Louise, it is important for brands to exist in a purposeful way and mirror consumers’ values, “not only for when purchasing something for ourselves but especially for when we buy gifting items.”

To seize the opportunity, brands need to look at their own values and build an unboxing experience from there, Sean adds.

“If you can’t hide behind the glamorous and glossy materials of traditional premium packaging, what values are you left to work with? What really matters for your brand? Or for your consumer? These days people often feel better receiving less, so how can we shift investments into strategic parts of a packaging experience? What emotion do you want to convey to your consumers? How can your packaging convey the care you placed into the design of their new product? How can you surprise or engage through the theatre of unboxing flows?”

Hajar recommends brands design packaging and choose materials for the people and systems in the target market. “Which recycling streams are available in the region or country, and how will current associations to materials affect consumer wants and needs?”

“And always educate your consumers on how to dispose of the packaging in the right way after using it”, adds Louise. “Because even though it is biodegradable, if it ends up in the wrong bin, we are just as far as we were, to begin with.”

Hajar concludes, “Working with sustainable packaging is an opportunity to do something completely new. A source of inspiration, not as a limitation.”

Further Reading: Three Examples

If you’re curious about how to do this, the three designers share below a project they found inspiring in how premium packaging can become more sustainable.

Sean highlights Sony and their new packaging suite, which among others, helped reduce plastic content by 90%. Read more at Sony’s website: https://electronics.sony.com/eco/packaging

Hajar mentions Chanel, who has, among other things, replaced fossil-based plastics with bio-based alternatives; “without compromising on their iconic design or premium look”. Read more at Chanel’s website: https://www.chanel.com/lt/skincare/n1-de-chanel/sustainability/

Louise thinks of Johan Bülow, who maintains their look and feel through recycled plastics and weight-reduced packaging. Read more at Johan Bülow’s website: https://lakridsbybulow.dk/baeredygtighed

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