9th May 2013

Packaging is rubbish…

By David Harding-Brown

Overpackaged stuff from supermarkets drives us mad. You know, when you pick up some broccoli and it’s covered in plastic? Or you open a box of biscuits and end up knee-deep in bits of cartons, trays and cardboard? Why do they do it? Of course, some manufacturers and retailers find smarter solutions than others in how they present their products to you, but it’s difficult to make a convincing argument that products are deliberately over-packaged just for the sake of it – packaging and distribution costs are a substantial part of the production costs for FMCG products, so it only makes sense for producers to restrict the complexity and keep costs to a minimum.

Equally, consumer anger is also prompted by inadequate packaging. The primary function of packaging is widely accepted as ‘to contain, protect and preserve the product inside’. Making the package attractive enough to purchase is both an art and a science, but either way a bonus, and gives us the chance to influence consumer purchasing behaviour and encourage brand loyalty. Unwrapping a product that has been damaged or spoilt is likely to produce fierce reactions from the consumer, who will properly question why the manufacturer can’t get it right – so, it seems that either too much or too little packaging is a waste, in some way.


However, the problem of food waste is a far more serious issue than the few excess sheets of printed carboard and plastic heading for the recycling bin. The recent IME report reiterated that between 30% and 50% of food bought in developed countries is thrown away by the purchaser. Despite the industry utilising in-depth knowledge and focus on consumer buying habits, trends and usage, up to half of what the purchaser thinks they need is completely wasted, through combinations of impulse purchase, overstocking or being comfortable with a ‘throwaway’ culture.

Much of the food we buy is kept past its use-by date, or we simply cook too much food for our needs. The waste food sent to landfill in this way has a devastating effect on greenhouse gas production, with the resulting methane emissions having an impact over 20 times greater than carbon dioxide towards climate change.

Should we simply distribute food unpackaged? In South East Asian countries, losses of the rice crop can range from 37–80% of the entire production, due to bad storage, harvesting or distribution. This figure reduces in more mature economies, but difficulties in managing the practical issues of how to process the raw material safely through the supply chain to the consumer remains a massive obstacle to combating the wastage we see. Overall, it’s estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach.


So do we have to make a choice between too much or too little packaging, or is there a sensible middle ground? What’s acceptable is very subjective, of course, but it always has to be fit for purpose. The consumer may be unaware that a deceptively simple pack may in fact have gone through a long and complicated development process to launch into market, and there may be compelling reasons that prevent any change in size, format, materials and specification to make the packaging appear less intricate.

As Brand designers, we work closely with Brand owners and manufacturers to exploit any opportunity to shape packaging in a way that reflects the increasingly important sustainability and environmental agendas. Our obligation is to design in a precise, smart, cost-effective way, but still make it creatively dynamic. Sure, some of today’s packaging will just be tomorrow’s rubbish in landfill, but without it we’re never going to meet the ambitious recycling targets set for the next few years, or make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

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