Insights 08/11/2021 Megan Rae

How is packaging ESG driving premiumisation in Brand Design?

Almost all packaging has a knock-on effect for the environment. Sometimes it is unavoidable, however by adopting Environmental, Social and Governance factors (ESG), brands can reduce their carbon footprint where they are able. More brands are turning to paper as their new packaging alternative in the hopes of achieving this goal. When sourced correctly, paper has been found to be one of the most sustainable materials for packaging.

Yet, this has created a new dilemma for brands. How do we ensure that our clients prosper from good packaging design that maintains premium value for the consumer, whilst still doing good for the planet? When the word “premium” comes to mind, we have been conditioned to picture the finest spirits in elegant glass bottles on the highest supermarket shelf. When we think of paper we may picture convenience packaging – an empty McDonalds bag floating across the road like tumbleweed. Of course, how we view a material is dependent on the context, but the key to making a material such as paper feel premium is also through design. A smart design that communicates a story and a sustainable message can elevate the uniqueness and premium nature of a brand in the eyes of the consumer.

Why paper over plastic? 

You will likely be familiar with the ever-raging war on plastic, with many retailers opting to swap out their plastic bags for paper alternatives. This leads many to the assumption of the following: plastic equals bad, paper equals good – although the reality is a far less binary conclusion.

Practically, there will always be carbon emissions for brands, no matter how hard we try. Like plastics, paper has the potential to produce negative effects on the environment. The manufacturing process of paper can still release toxins such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. However, when the right sustainable system is in place, from forest to paper mill, it can be one of the best materials to benefit a circular economy. Paper is recyclable, biodegradable, and most importantly, made from renewable material. It is no longer just about reduce, reuse, recycle; it is about renewable resources and responsibility to planetary wellbeing. A quick change to an obscure sustainable material cannot happen overnight, therefore, often the best choice a brand can make for their product is switching to paper.

Carbon offsetting schemes

If corporations wish to use paper, they need to ensure an ethical supply chain and participation in Carbon Offset schemes is one way to certify that paper is ethically sourced. This process of carbon balancing prevents or absorbs the carbon impacts of a product or service from affecting the atmosphere. It is true that such schemes have faced criticism in the past, using them to essentially “greenwash” their company – allowing consumers to pay for planting 12 trees a month, as a simple “quick fix” to the climate emergency, and shifting the responsibility on to the consumer. Yet, you don’t just let an old wound heal and then pick at the stitches ­– the focus needs to be on preventing the injury in the first place.

The World Land Trust are a key player in the world of sustainability, credibly backed by Sir David Attenborough. They highlight that their schemes take care of the diversity in virgin forests, preserving them from turning into tree farms, animal farms or new cities. They actively stop the release of carbon and uphold a duty of care to the wildlife – it is so much more than merely replacing a tree that was cut down. Over 179,500 tonnes of CO2 have been balanced, which is the equivalent of taking 50,600 cars off the road for a year. It is promising to see that more than 2,000 brands have taken positive action by using Carbon Balanced Paper and as the struggle to save the planet continues, this number is predicted to rapidly increase.

Why should brands invest in ESG?

Whilst Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is all very well and good for understanding the will and milestones of a company, a business that adopts and communicates Environmental, Social and Governance factors (ESG) allows their CO2 reduction efforts to be measurable by all. Consumers and investors are increasingly interested in the welfare of the planet and are more likely to support brands that are proactive in making a positive change, 78% to be exact. Therefore, it is in the interest of brands to be transparent with their paper sourcing – this is where Forest Certifications are helpful, as they ensure renewable material is farmed sustainably and responsibly, which is important to carbon management, as well as biodiversity. Sustainable credentials will give a backstory to the brand, creating new values to a product – the consumer may not want to buy a spirit in pulp packaging but may be more inclined if they’re aware that supporting the brand protects orangutans in the Amazonian rainforest. 

How can brand design communicate ESG?

Echo’s work with English Tea Shop was centred around communicating a sustainable and ethical business model, where we celebrated their brand transparency of – ‘From Farm to Cup’. This was incorporated into cartonboard packaging that would unfold to reveal the brands sustainable narrative. Here, the focal point is the transparency of the supply chain, not just the packaging material itself. Another consideration is clear, on-pack messaging, creating a package design that not only incorporates a sustainable production process, but also a clear message that mitigates the need for small, ambiguous and confusing symbols.

When working with Smarties to move to 100% paper packaging, we utilised the available paper and card materials, and opened the door to creating a brand saturated in richness and versality, thus expanding the Smarties toy range further than ever before. The resulting switch to paper was a product with an even more enticing offer.

The world is rapidly changing, with brand new materials replacing the old in an effort to be more sustainable – check out Andy Capper’s Lobster Plastic Bag speculative work! A simple jump to these exotic materials is not always doable, but paper can be considered the viable option. Then premium values can be maintained through careful design and the integration of the sustainable back story.