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Let's talk about merging revenue with sustainability / with Alan Thomas

Nearly everything comes in a package. Packaging serves numerous functions, from the purely practical to the economical and aesthetic. A well-designed package can help lower food waste by extending shelf-life, prevent contamination, market products in a visually appealing way and create brand recognition. Manufacturing a package uses ample amounts of resources and energy. But once a product makes its way off the shelf and gets unwrapped, package simply become waste. Is there a better way? Can we extend the packaging lifecycle and increase its value?

This time on “Let’s talk about it”, Michael sits down with Alan Thomas from Butterflies and Hurricanes, a packaging design and branding studio trying to make us rethink how we see packaging, to find the true meaning of sustainable design

Alan, you’re in the design sector of the packaging chain. How can design help us be more sustainable?

Not much packaging is used once it’s done fulfilling its original purpose of transporting a product to a customer. It is simply thrown away, occasionally recycled. After designing packaging for a while, we realized we were basically designing garbage and began looking for alternatives and ways to reduce the amount of packaging needed. It can mean shopping without packaging, using different materials and also assessing the lifecycle of those materials before and after use.

Are companies typically happy to learn about what you have to offer?

Some are and those are the ones we want to work for. Other companies are stuck in the traditional take-make-waste model.

What are the key aspects of the packaging you offer? What do you recommend to your clients?

We often present three versions to clients. First we present what they wanted when they first contacted us, then a version that’s more on the sustainable scale, and last we present a big package of ideas and methods they could use if they wanted to go fully sustainable with the whole company. It ranges from substituting material, for example paper for plastic, to developing dispensers, so that people can shop in reused or their own packaging. Sometimes it means designing packaging to reduce cognitive overload on shoppers. It’s about making packaging that is honest and transparent about both the content of the food and of the packaging itself. We may also present ways for packaging to be reused or designed for reuse- designed for its full life cycle.

In this field, one can easily see an emotionally driven response. For example, to me, over packaging is a no-brainer bad thing. However, when you meet with people who look at packaging from a scientific perspective, they enlighten you that packaging is not just a marketing ploy but also has an effect on, for example, food preservation. Often in the absence of it, we increase food waste and thereby food prices. It’s not necessarily obvious at first glance. That’s where I feel that the emotions have to be balanced with clear data and a rigorous scientific approach to the real costs and benefits. Does this come into your modes of thinking during the design process?

We’re a female-led and driven company, so we definitely bring the emotional side into it. But we also do research and make sure we can back up what we say. This is part of us being transparent. As far as balancing those two- we have everyone involved. Designers, project managers, and the research team and we are constantly looking for new solutions and new ways.

Is it difficult to find transparency?

It is difficult. Everyone on the planet experiences fear, especially when it comes to money and finance. There is often a fair amount of ignorance involved, which is where the fear comes from. In terms of looking at a product, we’re not just looking at its appearance on the shelf, but also the idea of a brand- the relationship with customers. We have to look at and be centric to the customers. Recently we’ve been looking at research on generation Z, which reveals interesting differences from previous generations. Because they’ve lived their entire lives on social media, they have no secrets and tend to be very courageous. They also tend to be very environmentally conscious, a bit less self-centered and more group centered than the generation before. And they’re social media capable so it takes just one smart person with a smart phone to destroy a brand if it’s lying. We have to consider this when considering brand relationship and bring genuine authenticity to the table.

Generation Z is demanding transparency…

Yes and they’re very clear about it. We also address greenwashing, which is the practice of companies presenting their products, either intentionally or unintentionally, as more environmentally friendly than they may actually be. One of our responsibilities as a leader in the field of sustainable branding is to make sure that companies are aware when they’re not being fully honest.  When a company is developing a product, they typically really believe in it. They believe it’s a good thing and cognitive bias can come in and hide the real truth of it to them. We work with companies on getting used to this idea of being transparent, which is often not that easy.

I think that transparency in respect to packaging and the most suitable materials can be difficult to deliver. It’s challenging to find the sweet spot between costs and benefits among individual materials. This series has revealed that in many cases it’s not an easy decision. For example, you mentioned using paper instead of plastic in packaging. We’ve discovered that paper is a more energy intensive material for production than plastic, perhaps three times the amount. That’s three times the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted during production. However, if you extend the lifecycle of that particular material, then the fact that plastic materials will be in our environment a lot longer has to come into the equation. Waste management becomes an integral aspect of that cost. It becomes difficult to be transparent and put a number to any of these things. Transparency is being demanded, but would you agree that companies need help to deliver it?

I believe so. One of the things that Butterflies and Hurricanes is about is helping companies understand what transparency really is. Transparency isn’t necessarily about having all of the information- it’s about being honest that you don’t have it. Coming out and saying as a company “Here’s what we are, here’s what we do. We do a number of things that are very good and we see that here are some things our company needs to change. Here is the difficulty we’re having, here’s our plan right now, here’s what we’re trying to do and here’s where we hope to be in X amount of time.” Transparency is about openness- that’s what’s demanded. Not giving that, not being able to say “We don’t exactly know but we’re trying to learn, here’s what we’re doing to find out, please go check” is seen, especially by the generation coming up, as taking away their choice. It’s also important to say that transparency works both ways. People may buy a product because it’s been shown to be very good for the planet and healthy and not have long-term cost, but also, the person may choose the product that’s not healthy. People buy cigarettes all the time, even though it’s right there on the pack “look what this is going to do to you”. Transparency is about choice- it’s a democratic thing. When you’re not being transparent with customers, especially with generation Z, you’re taking away their choice. And they’re going to see it that way. Sustainability is not an environmental move, it’s a business model. There are three circles of the Venn diagram- environment, society/people and finance. If you’re not able to stay financially solvent doing it, it’s not sustainable. There’s nothing anti-profit about it. It’s simply about giving people a real choice.

I want to return to Generation Z. They’re going to be the future consumers driving all these markets and in a bit more time they’re going to be the CEOs, leaders and influencers. Are you optimistic about that future regarding the way we use or abuse packaging now and generation Z?

I’m guardedly optimistic. In terms of Butterflies and Hurricanes, we realize that because sustainability has ties to the environment, it can be very heavy and people don’t always want to hear about it. We try to bring an element of fun into it. When companies do get involved, it brings in a social aspect and brings people back together. Those elements of businesses working in that direction are optimistic and I believe it will lead to transparency, because people feel good about it. We often find that when a company starts with one small thing, it feels so good that it motivates workers to keep going further. This is what we found at Butterflies. We started doing values based interviews- hiring people based on their values. When companies do this, employee retention and motivation go way up, because employees are aligned with the company’s purpose. These things I’m very optimistic about. When a company is truly sustainable and transparent about its shortcomings, people stay on and are happy to be working for a company that’s doing a lot of good stuff. For example, Unipetrol is doing many good things in municipalities, putting fish back in rivers, taking care of beehives, supporting NGOs and others. At the same time, it’s important not to distract from another thing that the company does, that everyone knows isn’t necessarily healthy for the planet and needs to change, in regards to fuels and so on. When they are open about that, people can make that choice and it is motivating for them. People who work at companies that are honest about their shortcomings often stay on more readily, instead of continuing to work for them because they need the job and feeling sick inside from it. It actually motivates the entire company to move in the right direction. Anything that doesn’t bring up both the brand’s shortcomings and their strong points will be seen as greenwashing. That’s the conversation we’re trying to have.

It sounds as if the future in your mind is a far more accountable future, where the Generation Z, who have a far more intimate relationship with transparency, are going to demand to see within the workings of all operations and make decisions based on values and a far more holistic approach.

I believe so. I wouldn’t say the accountability is so much on them as that they’re going to put it back on the generations before them. My father was in the oil industry for many years. They were heroes. They solved the energy crisis in the United States, but that’s all changed now. This upcoming generation is going to be holding that generation to account for messing up the air and messing up the water and the health effects that come as a result. There are no simple solutions, but there are solutions.

For example, I think it’s important to empower women within companies. The women that we talk to in lower and middle management get it immediately. It then goes upstairs to the guy in the suit and sometimes he just says “no”. But as those women move up in the companies, as I hope they will, having had these conversations will start to bear fruit. That’s why I’m optimistic. Throughout history, the world has been dominated by men. We’ve done and built many amazing and wonderful things, but we’ve also created a lot of problems. It’s time to balance that out. Let’s try something a little different and give women a chance to balance out that patriarchal, purely empirical, data-driven, ego-driven side with the more emotional side and keep them balanced in a nice ying-yang. When I look at that, and the progress women have made, that’s what gives me optimism.

On that optimistic and balanced conclusion, I thank you very much for coming along to “Let’s talk about it”. I wish you all the luck in finding new, creative solutions for a more sustainable packaging future.