19/04/2021 Anna Sutherland and Andrew Capper

Branding and Sustainability Agency, Echo, discuss the true cost of being green

The true cost of sustainable materials lies not in innovation but in changing consumer perceptions

Brands must move beyond the misconception that plastic is unequivocally bad and paper is unequivocally good and start investing in a more nuanced approach to alternative materials if they’re to hit sustainability targets.

By considering the bigger picture – where materials are sourced, how much energy goes into producing them, how they are transported and what happens at end of life – brands can make genuine and effective steps towards a more sustainable future. A circular approach must be adopted so that materials remain in the ‘system’; for a compostable material polluting the recycling stream or going straight to incineration is pointless and negates all the gains made in the rest of the life cycle.

Investing in sustainable materials today is paramount to securing consumer loyalty; it makes both commercial and ecological sense. Today’s consumers are far more sustainable – from sending millions of non-recyclable crisp packets back to Walkers to demanding via social media that beauty brands like Glossier use more sustainable packaging for their products. Lego are even replacing their single-use plastic bags with recyclable, sustainably sourced paper bags after receiving complaints from children.

Never has the consumer been more empowered to invoke positive change when it comes to sustainability. Brands must seize this opportunity if they want to stay relevant.

Breaking Category Codes:

Each category tends to have its own material language: cereals use cardboard, eggs are in pulp, shampoos are blow-moulded plastic. There is a constant balancing act to manage brand perception versus existing infrastructure versus what is actually more sustainable.

Some brands are braver, breaking traditional category formats and creating more attention around the products that elevate it to a new space. P&G’s paperboard deodorant tube is a case in point, which uses 90% recycled content with a corn-derived starch inside to make it grease and waterproof. By switching just 10% of their current deodorant packages to recycled paper, it will eliminate up to 680 tonnes of plastic waste per year.

It is challenging to entice consumers to adopt and accept these new formats, but it can be achieved through sensitive design. Desirability over worthiness is what brings consumers along for the journey.

Readdressing ‘desirability’ and ‘premiumness’ is something the  alcoholic drinks sector must consider if they’re to marry an aspirational product with sustainability. The thing is that heavy, thick-based glass bottles and long necks are part of the premium aesthetic of spirits. The weighty material signifies substance, strength; a product built to last when compared to the light-weightedness of more sustainable vessels used to contain liquor.

Can a pulp bottle engender the same sense of luxury as its more cumbersome and ornate incumbent? It’s a hard sell, and part of the job of design therefore is to redefine what constitutes a premium look and feel that is relevant to today.

Johnnie Walker, Absolute and Carlsberg have all launched concepts, but it remains to be seen if they will gain traction. One way of engaging consumers through considered design is to find a new aesthetic language that celebrates the alternative material rather than trying to recreate the existing bottle design.

As a supremely lightweight and robust material with the most established recycling infrastructure, aluminium is a relatively untapped alternative. Just because we’re used to seeing shampoo and shower gel in blow-moulded plastic bottles, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see more brands, like KanKan’s aluminium personal care range, reinvent category codes based on sustainability considerations. The possibilities here are exciting.


But while it takes 95% less energy to make a can from recycled rather than virgin aluminium, the material alone is never the end of the story. Brands must consider where in the world their aluminium is smelted, given that Norwegian hydroelectric-produced aluminium is far more environmentally friendly than one produced from Indian coal.

Hidden Costs and Perception:

The biggest barriers to switching materials are not science or technology-based; it’s actually the cost of addressing perception. The Heineken card can collator, for example, took £22 million and 3 years to develop, demonstrating that even seemingly simple products require a huge amount of time and money to evolve sustainably. Yet it’s essential these categories do change in order to stay relevant.

The only issue is that, while it takes considerable effort and money for a brand to change its packaging solutions, to the consumer, these changes are all but ‘invisible’. For example, using reycyled PET (rPET), which produces 50% less carbon emissions than its virgin counterpart, it creates a further communications issue to raise consumer awareness.

Evian negotiated this problem well with its “bottle made from bottles” campaign, which educated customers on their commitment to using 100% rPET by 2025.

Innovations in Materials:

Sustainable materials are being developed all the time, often from waste or unusual renewable sources. While it might seem like a no-brainer to adopt these, it often creates challenges to the wider supply chain.

Bioplastics are sophisticated and able to be produced at scale. They have strong circular stories and are often made from bi-products of other food crops like sugarcane, as seen in Bulldog’s new polyethylene packaging. But there is resistance to the widespread use of biodegradable materials. Bioplastics like PLA can be a contaminant for traditional recycling systems and difficult to separate. Contamination of PET results in weaker material unfit for purpose and the whole batch is discarded. As many brands and manufacturers try to reduce their plastic footprint by using biodegradable plastics, the risk of mixing with conventional plastics increases, potentially driving up the cost of recycled materials.

Luxury wellness brand Haeckles strikingly exemplifies how to implement innovative sustainable solutions with success. The packaging for its glass candles is mycelium shell with a card wrap stuffed with seeds, meaning that the whole packaging can be planted. This goes beyond recycling and beyond biodegradable by actually contributing to the soil quality, demonstrating that brands can produce desirable packaging with a strong design aesthetic whilst still benefiting the environment.

Seventh Generation, who led the way in sustainable packaging advancements with their pulp laundry bottle back in 2011, have taken the idea of sustainable materials one step further. Their new Zero Plastic Homecare range helps eliminate plastic by using non-liquid products that don’t require plastic packaging as a barrier. Their “dry locked” products include powdered kitchen cleaner that activates when wet, alongside powdered toilet cleaners and laundry tablets, all sold in recycled steel cans; an infinitely recyclable material. By rethinking the product formulas and how the consumer uses the products, the brand could revolutionise the packaging and make huge C02 savings on its transportation and distribution.


Every material innovation creates a new set of issues. There are massive trade-offs when switching materials and each decision comes at some cost. The answer lies in balancing existing brand perception with progressive sustainability priorities, to ensure that a brand remains both future-facing and relevant to its consumers.

We need everyone to stop thinking of packaging as only the physical iteration of a brand and ask what is the infrastructure that goes into creating, recovering and processing it at the end of its life. It’s time to start talking about circular packaging, rather than sustainable packaging. Let’s look beyond just the material – it’s a whole system and product rethink that can bring about the most impactful change.

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