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Sustainable foresight

The “low-hanging” fruit of sustainable package design lies in the optimization of a package’s materials and its footprint.

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That’s according to Stuart Leslie, president of structural branding firm 4sight, Inc., which has been involved in the redesign of packaging for products such as Unilever’s Suave hair care line and Lebanon Seaboard’s Preen Weed Control—both of which realized greater cost efficiencies and higher sales through more sustainable package designs.

As Leslie tells Packaging World, since Wal-Mart announced its Packaging Scorecard and sustainability initiatives to the packaging community in 2006, 4sight’s clients have struggled to understand how to balance their profitability goals with their responsibilities toward more environmentally friendly packaging. “With sustainability, if you misinterpret how it applies to your product, you could find yourself creating something that’s not desirable for your consumer,” relates Leslie. “This can be a critical problem, considering that the consumer is not really that interested in sustainability yet.”

His firm has found that there are two elements of package design that can almost always be improved to provide greater sustainability:

*Material usage: Find the best material that gets the job done, Leslie says, and use as little of that material as possible. “That’s the first cornerstone,” he says. This includes understanding what is required for all packaging components, and how these components are used by the consumer. “Once we know the maximum performance that the consumer needs, we can work toward meeting that need in a way that reduces as much material as possible.” In addition to using less packaging material, Leslie also advises the use of recyclable materials, when possible.

*Efficiency of footprint: “This really comes down to how many packages you can fit on a pallet, so that you can get more products on the truck, so that you are driving fewer trucks down the road,” Leslie says. This requires optimizing the package design to fit exactly on the pallet so that the dimensions are determined from fully filling out the truck, including the height, the depth, and the width.

“Wal-Mart likes it because they can fit more products on the shelf,” he adds. “They figure, if they can fit more products on the shelf, that will increase their profitability. And, as long as you deliver solutions that are still in keeping with the consumer’s expectations, then it’s a win-win-win for everybody.”

After optimizing material usage and package footprint, sustainable benefits become harder to calculate using methods such as increased packaging line efficiencies, Leslie says. “We find that it is so much easier to focus on areas where you clearly save money and clearly make a product that’s more profitable,” he says.

As Leslie notes, while confusion may exist among his clients as to how to incorporate sustainability into their packaging, there is no lack of willingness to make the changes necessary. “They genuinely want to make a difference,” he says. “People are creatively, ambitiously looking for real solutions. They are not just saying, ‘Let’s meet the requirements of the scorecard,’ but rather, ‘Let’s rethink our product. Let’s change the formulation. Let’s really make a product that truly is more sustainable for the planet.’”

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