Why sustainability starts with clever design

20 November 2017

Why sustainability starts with clever design

Why sustainability starts with clever design

Sam Jones, Customer Sustainability Manager at DS Smith

Week after week, companies announce ambitious sustainability targets and their desire to reduce their carbon footprint. Many are exploring sustainably sourced and recyclable materials and considering how else they can reduce waste.

In particular, eco-friendly packaging is critical as it is often consumer facing and highly visible. As a key supplier of sustainable packaging solutions, we have seen time and again the difference thoughtful design can make to the supply chain and to overall carbon emissions. So what should businesses bear in mind as they review their packaging choices?


Material issues

First of all, it is important to consider what materials to use. Consumers and stakeholders expect packaging to be ethically sourced, traceable, recyclable and if virgin fibres are involved, they should come from sustainable forests. With a few exceptions, paper and board are usually 100 per cent recyclable and corrugated packaging is typically produced within c. 200km of its destination. Not only is corrugated packaging recyclable, it is recycled in practice. At 81 per cent, paper and board packaging is the most widely recycled material in Europe. DS Smith ensures materials are kept in the supply chain for as long as possible, and using our ‘box to box in 14 days’ process we make sure that used paper and carboard is recycled back into production in as little as two weeks.


Packaging that lasts

From here, the next consideration is design. Intelligent packaging solutions can be designed to prevent damage and ultimately waste by holding products in place while in transit without the need for huge amounts of excess packaging. This is especially relevant in the context of the significant growth of e-commerce, with more complex supply chains and higher return rate of goods.

Our research shows there are up to 50 touchpoints in the average e-commerce supply chain resulting in numerous opportunities for products to get spoiled. That’s why we have developed DISCS, an industry first which tests whether packages can survive the bumps and scrapes of the average e-commerce supply chain. Named after the different types of testing (Drop Impact Shock Crush Shake), the system consists of five pieces of equipment, each replicating a part of the product journey and therefore providing real world testing.

Finding the balance between protecting packaging and limiting the amount of materials used is a constant source of concern for businesses but the new DISCS technology enables us to scientifically assess our customers’ requirements and get this balance right.


One size does not fit all

It is not just about ensuring that packaging can weather the journey. Companies also need to use the latest technology to design packaging that actually fits the products, reducing product movement and void space and not requiring reams of packing filler or polystyrene balls. Opening a parcel and being showered with excess packaging or receiving an enormous box to transport a small item goes down very badly with consumers who are now much more environmentally alert. Also shipping air is a waste of resources.

While this is a huge challenge for businesses because of the sheer number of different product combinations that may need transporting, it is the way forward for any business serious about sustainability. One size does not fit all. For this reason, we have pioneered a new technological solution called Made2fit, which enables the creation of right size packaging.

Creating a right size pack lowers costs for e-retailers by reducing both operational and shipping costs: saving storage space, cutting labour costs and order administration, and significantly cutting assembly and packing times.


Understanding the chain reaction

It is also important to review packaging design in light of the supply chain as a whole. Brand owners need to explore how their packaging is processed and managed after use as well as the impact their packaging makes on shelf.  Tracing material and energy usage all the way from design to production through to end use and recycling and trying to keep materials in supply cycles for as long as possible can provide valuable insight. This sort of supply cycle thinking is our way of shaping the circular economy and transforming supply chains to focus on more cyclical resource systems.

In addition, incremental changes to packaging design can reverberate through a supply chain, improving operational efficiencies, reducing waste and cutting emissions. We saw this in action recently when we suggested a company shave 5mm off their standard secondary pack. When this was multiplied by the amount of space saved per pallet, and hence pallets per lorry, this 5mm change equated to 20 fewer lorries on the roads per year, and consequently an annual reduction in the customer’s carbon footprint by 100 tonnes – alongside substantial cost savings.

We were proud of this 5mm change and it is tangible proof that sustainability, innovation and profit go hand in hand. Better and more efficient packaging equates to less waste, cost-savings and an important competitive advantage.

We believe companies can use smart design to stand out in terms of sustainability and that this matters to consumers. Informed packaging decisions can improve the sustainable credentials of a brand, strengthen customer loyalty and stakeholder relationships and ultimately impact the bottom line.


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