How can designers be truly sustainable (and truly persuasive with clients)?
While sadly, we're no longer in the EU here in the UK; all those countries that do sit within that have to work towards a specific goal, when it comes to packaging: by 2030 all plastic packaging within the region will need to be recyclable or reusable.
That's less than a decade, and while in these scenarios it's often more straightforward to point at the higher-ups when it comes to facilitating change, at the metaphorical coalface in this particular situation sit designers. Creativity and climate-crisis averting credentials have never been more interlinked than now.
One company that's got that sustainability goal front and centre of the mind is Avery Dennison, a materials science and manufacturing company specialising in the design and manufacture of labelling and other such materials.
Great packaging design is something that can make or break a brand (and it always looks great sitting together like a big, typographically nerdy tombola at the D&AD Festival). But aside from making people buy something, this outer layer has other tricky tasks to perform that are less pretty, more legally minded and/or morally strident.
Good labelling, when it comes to recycling, is about clearly communicating to the consumer around planet-friendly issues, such as sustainable ingredient sourcing and how to recycle after use. Crucially, they must be both all mouth and all trousers, by doing all that communicating while minimising environmental impact through the use of recycled content and by enabling recyclability in future.
Rebecca Worth, creative manager at Avery Dennison, knows more than a thing or two about all this, so we had a chat with her about balancing beauty and sustainability; the problem with brands paying lip-service to things while actually doing bugger all; and why she's so nuts for that little green and white arrow symbol.
A lot of people have suggested that since the pandemic, people's focus on the climate crisis has waned – what do you think?
I think the pandemic has influenced people's capacity to focus on the climate crisis. With little warning, and for the first time in some of our lives, the fulfilment of our most basic needs was disrupted – from our physiological needs like food and loo paper to our safety needs like financial stability, physical and mental wellbeing, and our need for belonging, found in social interactions.
Naturally, our attention was diverted because human instinct addresses needs according to their immediacy. Hallmarks of the pandemic like the temporary suspension of reusable packaging, mass-distribution of disposable protective equipment, and restrictions on public protest, all prioritised the more immediate need for physical health over the "less urgent" need to combat climate change.
What this reveals is that sustainable choices tend to be a form of self-fulfilment – made from a position of privilege once all basic needs have been met. This is problematic. The scale and complexity of the climate crisis necessitate that we shift our perception to treat it as an immediate threat. Fortuitously, the pandemic has made us all aware of how deeply interdependent we are, and how critical mass cooperation is.
How did you get into sustainable design?
I studied a Bachelor of Design at the Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, Australia, and worked first in editorial and then branding before completing my MA in Graphic Media Design at the London College of Communication. I chose to undertake this specific Masters, part-time, as it focused on "critical making through critical thinking" at a time when I was seeking this in my own work.
I began freelancing for Avery Dennison toward the end of the course, and it slowly evolved into a permanent position, first within the global team, and now managing creative for the European team. A key driver of business at Avery Dennison is our responsibility to the environment, and these values are really lived out through our operations – so it feels empowering to have both my personal and professional values aligned.
How do you go about researching potential new packaging materials to test for their viability in designs?
Designing for sustainability is more technical than you would imagine. Materials need to be considered holistically and not in isolation. The first place to start is to examine the product you are packaging: Is it a liquid or a solid? Does it need to be squeezed? Does it contain chemicals? How will it be transported or handled? Is the product premium or economic? Etc. These questions will help to determine an ideal substrate. For example, glass minimises chemical migration but can be heavy and fragile. HDPE endures squeeze but can tend to look a bit cheap.
Once you've determined your vessel, you can move on to other packaging elements, like labelling materials, for a whole new set of questions: Are you looking for a label with distinct aesthetic characteristics? Are there specific application requirements, like withstanding extreme temperatures or being water-resistant, suitable for small diameters or rough substrates? What about print performance, do you need vibrant colour reproduction or biodegradable inks, did you want to emboss or die-cut a custom shape? How will the consumer recycle the materials after use? Can you facilitate this process by making it mono-material, easily separable, compostable, non-contaminating? There is a lot of information to wade through. Utilise knowledgeable connections, like suppliers and printers, to your best advantage.
Are there certain laws designers have to adhere to in terms of their sustainability credentials?
Yes, and the European Union is really leading the way in setting down umbrella legislation like the Single-Use Plastics Directive and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. Then there are more regional processes and infrastructure that individual countries have put into place. The recycling process in the Netherlands, for example, is different than in Spain (making designing for recyclability somewhat complicated).
Avery Dennison's sustainable product portfolio is made up of label materials that fall into one or more of the following categories:
1. Enables recycling, reuse or compostability
2. Contains recycled content
3. Reduction in the use of materials
4. Responsibly sourced materials
As such, we're working toward enabling regenerative practices wherever possible through the supply chain.
What, if any, additional laws do you think should be in place to make the industry less damaging to the planet?
There are considerable regulations governing the information on a food label regarding storage and consumption. However, there are no standards when it comes to communicating the afterlife of packaging. Environmental health ultimately impacts human health, so I find this somewhat bewildering. As a consumer in the UK, I found Recycle Now's recycling symbols extremely practical (though these are not a legal requirement).
The system is clear, consistent and specific, with instructions indicating packaging elements (tray, bottle, lid, sleeve, film etc.), the substrate (card, plastic, glass, etc.), required action (rinse, remove, separate, etc.) and recycling availability (widely recycled, check local recycling, not yet recycled, etc.). The EU is currently in the process of harmonising a similar system.
I think most people will happily recycle if it doesn't require much effort. Having a universally recognised, legally obligated, sign system creates a path of least resistance to make recycling a no-brainer action in our day to day lives.
What advice would you give to designers around making work that's both beautiful and sustainable?
Beauty is subjective, but for me, it's understanding the materials you are working with and being led by them. Sustainable materials have their own unique characteristic: they might contain impurities from the recycling process or visible fibres from fruit pulp. Rather than slapping planes of ink to cover up these qualities, an intuitive and beautiful design solution will find ways to emphasise these unique attributes.
Counter-intuitive as it sounds, being limited as a designer, whether by a brief or by the use of sustainable materials, often aids creativity.
How open do you think most clients are to going with more sustainable, but potentially more costly design and packaging solutions? Is there anything designers can do to help talk them round when it comes to that?
I think most clients are keen to appear sustainable, but perhaps not all clients realise what this means in practice. There is an element of lip-service at play. There is a commitment to being a sustainable brand, it can be a more costly exercise from materials, to labels, to manufacturing, and even just the time required to rethink old ways of doing. But as sustainability increasingly becomes a more urgent issue for consumers, brands are seeing the financial benefit to embedding sustainable business practices. It's a long-term proposition. We are keen to talk directly with brand owners who are ready to make this shift.
Sustainable packaging is not necessarily synonymous with additional expense. There is no point in having packaging that is sustainable, and then slapping a cheap label on it that makes it hard – or even impossible – to recycle. The shift toward full-scale regeneration has to be an all or nothing approach.
What advice would you give to students or recent grads who might be looking to get into a similar role to you?
More roles are being created around sustainable packaging solutions specifically and sustainability more generally, within brands and businesses, which obviously creates a lot of opportunities. But sustainable design solutions can and should be implemented by designers of all types.
Most often, designers are responsible for recommending suitable materials to their clients, so make regenerative materials and holistic thinking part of your practice. As you build out your knowledge and portfolio with sustainable design, you will find yourself more eligible for a specialised role.