‘Does your packaging reflect your brand values?’ – that’s the big question being asked by my latest guest in the Content Pathway interview series.
At a time when curiosity is high and change is needed, in a packaging industry that is under bombardment from anti-plastic campaigns and movements for greater sustainability, what is life actually like for those on that side of the ‘war on plastic’ and can they provide the desired solutions?
I’m here to find out.
Hello Tracy, it’s a pleasure to have you here for an interview. First things first, can you tell me about your background and the journey that led you into sustainable packaging design?
I’ve always loved packaging because it combines graphic and structural design – two areas that I excelled in during my school years and have always been passionate about. I graduated in 2001 with a BA (Hons) in Sustainable Product Design at Falmouth University and focused my final year projects and dissertation on sustainable packaging. After university I spent 12 years working with national and global brands as a Packaging Engineer and Packaging Technologist in the medical device, skincare and fragrance sectors – this time was very technical and the work gave me a solid technical foundation for my expertise. After that, I headed up the technical team at a leading brand and packaging design agency as a Technical Project Director, where I gained valuable perspective about brands. All throughout this time I’ve visited packaging manufacture and recycling sites to understand the full lifecycle of different types of packaging.
This multi-faceted experience means I understand all key aspects related to packaging – brand creation, structural design, materials, manufacture, and sustainability.
For most people to start a business, they have a real pain point or lightbulb moment. Do you remember yours?
Mine was built up frustration over years of having an uphill struggle trying to sell ‘doing the right thing’. I could not do that while being part of someone else’s business. That’s why I set up Root – to use my knowledge and passion to improve the world through responsible packaging design.
I wanted to realise my own dream rather than be part of someone else’s – there is nothing more fulfilling.
You set up Root back in 2013. What was it like at the start of the mission, compared to now? Have you seen a big increase in demand?
It was tough in the first 3 years – some big brands were not looking for support – they assumed they had it covered within their business – but many didn’t. There also simply was not the demand – it was only really start-ups driven by doing good or large brands who were working towards meeting public commitments or reporting targets. Demand is definitely increasing, due to media pressure and the incredible surge in changes to law and regulations all over the world. It’s still not a simple project conversion for new clients because every client has different needs. We usually have an exploratory collaborative session first to identify the challenges, which is followed up by a proposal of how I can best support each client.
I’m one of those people who take ages to do my weekly shopping because I like to make sure that the things I’m buying are packaged in recyclable materials. Is this good practice, or is there a better method?
Buy less. One of the things I loved about Sweden is the awareness of consumerism. Whether we use less material, recycled materials or renewable materials it all needs large amounts of energy to be made, collected, cleaned and remade – it does not make sense.
Our general level of consumption of products and packaging is unsustainable.
Questioning what is making you ‘need’ something – over and above the essentials – is a really good process to go through. Cutting down on meat, using renewable energy and flying less will have huge benefits on CO2 levels, so I’d be looking at these points first, then asking myself how I can use refillable or reusable packaging.
What’s the ethos behind ‘Design for life’?
Design for Life is my unique approach that underpins all projects at Root and is crucial to the Packaging Analysis work I do. It’s been developed using my 20 years experience in sustainable design and is influenced by a contrasting combination of design, academic, and science-based life-cycle methodologies. I consider the wealth of different approaches and define the best approach for a project because we know it’s not a ‘one size fits all approach’.
One key benefit is that clients get tangible, actionable results – not a vague strategy that looks good on a website but that means nothing to a consumer.
My clients want tailored support from an expert, not a standard product or approach that’s churned out to everyone. For example, I do offer life cycle analysis, but whilst this is really appropriate in the early stages of analysis – it’s often not accurate enough and there are much more holistic and real ways to reduce packaging’s impact before you invest in LCA’s.
I see that you also visit universities to give lectures on design. What’s the vital knowledge that you’re trying to impart on these young minds?
The concepts of ‘Anti-Disposability’ and ‘Responsibility’. Brands, designers and manufacturers are stuck in a disposable way of living, designing and making packaging. The influential designers of tomorrow will be those ones who challenge the norm and innovate in business models rather than those who tow the line and don’t push back. Everyone in the value chain needs to take responsibility for their role in designing, making, and consuming, and ask whether what they are doing is really the right thing for people and planet.
Agreed! I’m also a huge believer in CSR, and that the biggest companies should be the ones to change their packaging and inspire the SMEs. Would you agree with that? Right now it seems to me that it is smaller companies who make a more concerted effort.
While it’s undeniable that businesses must take responsibility for the impact of their business on social and environmental issues, how it’s done today is, in many ways pretty dysfunctional. There are many businesses talking the talk, but there are fewer that are walking the walk – even with today’s surge in awareness.
I’ve seen so much time, energy, and investment go into policies that are not actionable or accurate but are enough to keep consumers thinking that it’s ‘all in hand’. This is particularly the case for luxury brands – consumers just expect that packaging is sustainable when in the vast majority of cases it is not.
Did you see my interview recently with Guy Jeremiah, inventor of Ohyo? He’s made a squashable reusable water bottle. My question is, are your customers more concerned about recyclability or reusability?
Yes, it’s a great piece! We understand recyclability, but we’re not quite there on reuse because of the tension we assume it has on convenience because of having to carry something for a longer period of time.
Studies suggest that the use of things like refillable water bottles and coffee cups are on the increase, which is great. For other daily essentials, however, we seem to have hit a wall. I use tupperware most days for my food because it means I can eat what I want when I want it. I also save a fortune!
The UK has one of the highest ‘on the go’ habits and the result is incredible amounts of contaminated packaging that can’t be recycled. Lots of it is incinerated or industrially composted because it’s too expensive to sort and recycle. If we shifted to using reusable lunch packaging then the reduction in non-recyclable packaging would be significant.
There’s a movement now for ‘packaging free’, with small supermarkets popping up to totally avoid plastics and cardboard, for example. Is this seen as a threat to your work?
No, not at all, if anything, it’s the opposite. Everything still needs some kind of packaging, whether it’s a single-use sachet of a refill tin back at home. In reality, my work is to help clients define the most effective ‘product delivery system’ and this is great because it brings me back to the start of my career in sustainable product design, and away from throwaway packaging.
The ‘war on plastic’ is in full swing. What are your feelings about this, and do you think humanity can find a peaceful alternative?
It’s a great media storm, for sure. While I don’t agree with many of the campaign group’s comms strategies, it’s undeniable that it has created mainstream media and consumer appeal, which has been excellent. The poor design and management of plastic is the cause of it being the environmental nightmare that it has become. It’s why metal and glass are at the moment not being focused on, because in general, it’s structurally simple, technically simple to recycle and recycled at pretty good levels.
Society and business need to decouple growth from the use of fossil fuels, this will result in many environmental and societal improvements.
What would you like to achieve with Root over the next five years?
My goal is to strengthen and build the Root team further, to enable me to positively influence more people and reduce the impact of more businesses. It’s also to roll out the Root Cause program I have developed to teach children at school about how to use less and recycle more packaging because I believe that the key to real change is in embedding positive behaviour at a young age.
Thank you so much Tracy!
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