The world of sustainability can be complex. Whether it is trying to understand the difference between compostable vs biodegradable or carbon footprint vs renewable resources, the available information is often many pages long and difficult to grasp.
However, a London-based brand design agency has developed an innovative approach that allows both customers and creatives to easily navigate the sustainable design landscape. What are these elements, how are they used to create sustainable solutions and how can labels play a role?
Negotiating the sustainability minefield
“If you’re a small brand and you’re stepping into the realm of sustainability, where do you start? Just putting your foot forward can be a minefield. The idea was to make something that was easy to digest, clearly designed and incorporated the thinking across the entire supply chain,” begins Jenny Greenwood, Innovation and Sustainability Manager at Butterfly Cannon.
As head of the in-house sustainability team at Butterfly Cannon, an award-winning design agency that specialises in aspirational brands, Greenwood worked with her colleagues for almost a year on the challenge. They wanted to develop a simple step-by-step method that would dispel any confusion among both clients and their internal team when selecting the most sustainable design choice.
The result was the Conscious Design™ process that begins by clarifying a brand’s purpose, followed by a definition of its sustainability goals and finally understanding the context within which they are working. This is supported by their innovative ClimaticTable™, which has 28 sustainable design elements across four areas: Resources, Manufacturing, Distribution and Closing the Loop.
“Our Climatic Table™ makes no apology for its similarity to the iconic periodic table. Once coupled with our step-by-step Conscious Design™ Process, our clients and creatives get a clear roadmap on how to proceed in the most effectively sustainable way,” states Greenwood.
Outsized impact of labels on recyclability
A supporter of Butterfly Cannon’s Climatic Table™ is Robert Taylor, Sustainability Director at UPM Raflatac. “They communicated the multitude of elements in a really powerful way,” he says, “and their thinking is in line with what our team calls ‘sustainability with a 360° life cycle approach’. When you want to be more sustainable, you must identify the elements that have the highest impact and start the reduction journey with them.”
Using labels as an example, he says that the greatest impact comes from the sourcing and the choice of raw materials – the Resources element of the Climatic Table™. “Our manufacturing impact is relatively small but because a label is part of a package, what happens to the label at the end of its life is significant and defines a huge part of the impact. If we can close the loop and get label waste back into the system through, for example, our Rafcycle service, then that’s also important,” he adds.
Butterfly Cannon’s Climatic Table™ is part of its Conscious Design™ process.
As a physically small component of the package, labels are often overlooked during the design phase and while mapping out sustainable alternatives. Nevertheless, they can have an outsized impact on the recyclability of packaging if the wrong label is chosen, which is why UPM Raflatac continues to emphasise their importance.
In 2019, they launched a new spearhead product across Europe in the form of RAFNXT+, the world’s first label material verified by the Carbon Trust to help mitigate climate change. Sourced exclusively from well-managed FSC-certified forests, it uses fewer raw materials, less energy and water, and generates less waste during its life cycle compared to standard labels.
“What has been important for UPM is being able to verify that it’s credible, fact-based data on that package thanks to our work with the Carbon Trust, one of the world’s leading verification bodies that can confirm whether you're calculating according to its standards,” notes Taylor.
Last year, together with Greenwood, he was a jury member at the 2021 Pentawards, an annual competition that recognises global excellence in packaging design. “I would say that the majority of the sustainability claims made by the designers were totally unverified. The ones with verified claims stand out; they know what they’re talking about,” he adds.
“Verification requires money, time and effort, which is why companies like UPM are excelling thanks to their experts and investment over the last 20 years. For those just starting out, proving traceability or a footprint reduction is not that easy. One needs to ask if the claim stands up to scrutiny. You must have that third-party verification behind the data to avoid accusations of greenwashing or green marketing. Misleading claims can have legal consequences nowadays,” warns Taylor.
Shifting opinions towards recycled packaging
With packaging and its recyclability regularly making headlines and debated on social media, there is far more awareness around the issue than a decade ago. Where we once consumed and thoughtlessly dropped rubbish into a single bin, public attitudes are changing. There is more thought being given to how materials should be separated and recycled, as well as their aesthetics.
From a consumer point of view, opinions are shifting when it comes to the appearance of sustainable packaging. Taylor believes that products and packaging don’t have to look pure, white and bleached anymore because there is an educated, younger demographic who are buying products based more on perceived sustainability credentials.
“I have spoken to many designers and sustainability is absolutely one of the critical features now. There are dinosaurs who still think in the old way, but the change is happening – especially in many of the critical end-uses like wine and food. When it comes to luxury brands where look and feel are important, in the past they have been a bit further behind,” observes Taylor.
However, during his time judging the Pentawards, he did see several good examples from luxury brands, such as Air Co. Vodka, which aims to be the most sustainable alcohol brand in the world. It has a packaging programme that is 100%reusable and recyclable, plus it encourages the repurposing of its glass bottle for other purposes.
Elsewhere, fashion designer Thierry Mugler has been making recyclable and refillable perfume bottles since 1992, which is now being done by the likes of Armani and Gucci. Champagne house Maison Ruinart has also launched a second skin that envelops the bottle in a pulp paper sleeve without the need for additional fasteners or glue and is 100% recyclable, highlights Greenwood, adding that it is an amazing step. “This is a real game changer in the luxury category that shows how brands and consumers are changing mindsets,” she adds.
Small changes, positive impacts
The packaging industry’s pivotal role is often overlooked when it comes to finding eco-conscious packaging solutions. This is an area that Butterfly Cannon’s Conscious Design™ process aims to change by ensuring that the right people are involved and are always communicating.
“It shouldn’t only be a marketeer and creative director involved. You must include the whole supply chain and visit the production line to understand how they operate. How often do you hear, sadly too late, a line manager say. ‘If only you had made the label two centimetres shorter, we wouldn’t be having this issue,’” explains Greenwood.
She believes that there are small changes that can be made by everyone in the packaging industry that can make a massive impact, but it often comes down to making sure you're working hand in hand together: “From materials and resources, manufacturing, distribution to end of life, it should be all the way through rather than just thinking in silos, focusing only on your section of the job.”
Given time, this approach could make a positive impact and alleviate some of the negativity directed at the packaging industry. “Sustainability has always been in the background but was often overlooked due to cost or aesthetic which, to be fair, the design industry has contributed to in the past,” says Greenwood. “Today, however, sustainability is such a major consideration in everything we do that design has a massive role to play, now and in the future.”
When it comes to sustainability, Taylor’s final view is that we should be heading into the world of regenerative design: “Whether it’s the climate, circularity or biodiversity, we need to be putting products on the market that have a positive or net positive impact going forward. It’s no longer enough to be technically sustainable because we’ve taken so much out of the bank that something needs to be put back in.”
Photography: Getty Images
Illustration: Butterfly Cannon