How You Can Avoid Greenwashing by Designing With Intent

As a packaging designer and nature lover, I dream of the day when material science and manufacturing can deliver on not only the promise of zero environmental impact, but also high performance, premium finish, and low costs. Many breakthroughs have begun to deliver on this promise: PaperFoam, RPET, and PLA to name a few. However, many of these materials still cannot compete on performance—and especially not on price. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the commodity materials market has been flooded with new eastern manufacturers, thus increasing the global supply and significantly lowering costs. In addition, the light-weighting movement in the plastics bottling industry and single stream recycling both test the long-term financial viability of the material recycling industry, as they collect on volume and are compensated by weight.

The viability of true sustainability is a rather complex economic challenge, and the ugly truth is that few consumers, brand owners, or municipalities are willing to pay the premium price for cutting edge sustainable packaging solutions. True solutions will come through systematic thinking that requires the material supplier, manufacturer, retailer, consumer, and the municipality to share in the premium costs and labor required to design, collect, and recycle packaged materials. Over time, sustainable materials will become more available and thus less costly—but what to do now? If you feel stuck and have given up on sustainable solutions, there is hope and you don’t have to look too far.  

First of all, stop looking for space-aged materials that will save the day.

There are more advanced and more sustainable materials, but chances are they are not available for mass production today and the costs are prohibitive due to their scale. Keep the future of bio-science engineering in your back pocket as it will be the ultimate solution once truly green materials can be produced at volume and at competitive costs. Glass, Metal, Non-Laminated Papers, PET, and HDPE have proven recovery and recycling programs in most major municipalities and should be considered highly sustainable commodity packaging materials.

Secondly, do more with commodity materials that are already available.

How can you use less of the material? How can your packaging be more efficient during distribution and storage? How can you combine materials in a way that is easy to separate and differentiate, thus preserving their recyclability? How can you eliminate unwanted laminate materials and glues that transform a highly recyclable material into waste? There are many questions you can ask to begin improving sustainability through design alone without changing the materials.

Lastly, and most importantly: design with intent.

Sustainable guidelines and goals must be a part of your creative brief and evaluation criteria for success. Sustainable packaging does not happen by chance and actually requires significantly more effort and focus to achieve. Most often, sustainable design will challenge the supply chain and current manufacturing processes, in turn making it a more difficult case for return on investment. It is important to look holistically at the packaging life cycle the the aid Life Cycle Analysis tools. COMPASS developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is an excellent resource to start with. This tool can clearly communicate savings and efficiencies along each step of the lifecycle that can be offset by an increase or deficiency in another. Life cycle analyses tools must be part of your objectives and evaluation criteria to clearly measure results.

10 principles to design sustainable packaging with intent:

  1. Start with commodity materials that are commonly recycled at major municipalities: #1 PET, #2 HDPE, Aluminum, Glass, Paper, Paperboards.

  2. Design the package from a single material. Single material packages are easier to identify and separate during recycling.

  3. Focus on the product-to-package ratio. The package should be as small as possible while still protecting the product and providing adequate branding real estate.

  4. Design for assembly at the point of manufacture. Think through the assembly steps, as well as the use of hand labor versus automation. The more efficient the better.

  5. Avoid gluing and laminations. Laminations and glue make it impossible to separate materials for recycling, and can negatively impact what would be an environmentally friendly package.

  6. Design for distribution. Design primary, secondary and tertiary package from the beginning, looking to optimize all package dimensions for pallet efficiency.

  7. Eliminate secondary and tertiary packaging when possible. Look for opportunities to make the primary package more robust, as well as combining functions of shipper and POP displays.

  8. Design for disassembly. The end user will ultimately be responsible for cleaning and separating the packaging components for end of life. Use of the How2Recycle label is helping to communicate what to do.

  9. Clearly mark the materials on the packaging components. Design in-mold recycle codes or labeling to let consumer know what the material is.

  10. Use Life Cycle Assessment. Only in understanding the entire supply chain do you fully understand the sustainable savings. Improvements in distribution could greatly offset a more premium material selection or increase in manufacturing complexity.

I hope for a brighter future when designing for sustainability can become a much more simple and straightforward methodology. Until the materials of the future significantly come down in costs, let’s keep designing with intent.

Get inspired with some of our favorite sustainable packaging designs.


Bryan Shova
Director of Industrial Design at Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope is a brand innovation and realization firm headquartered in Chicago. Bryan leads the industrial design team, which is responsible for brand-led product development and structural packaging. He emphasizes the use of consumer insight and prototyping as part of a strategic approach to design.

Over the last 13 years, Bryan has partnered with Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, World Kitchen, Chiquita, Bosch, MeadWestvaco, Fellowes, Hospira, Motorola and others. He is passionate about bettering the consumer¹s experience and uncovering opportunities for manufacturing efficiency.

A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, Bryan believes in the importance of mentoring and stays actively involved with the Industrial Design Society of America. He resides in Chicago.