Driving Sustainable Innovation in Packaging: How to navigate through the sustainable materials minefield.

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Packaging expert and founder of Medoola, Neil Shackleton, highlights the struggles of large Consumer Product Groups when it comes to sustainable packaging innovation. Should they meet claims or create them?

‘How do we reduce or even eliminate packaging to save the environment?’ is at the forefront of sustainable conversations right now. 

It’s a question that every major CPG has been musing over for quite a few years, but it’s only in recent years that we’ve seen businesses take action.

We see strategic direction set by brand owners, retailers and even government bodies alike.

Claims tend to focus on sustainable materials, such as

‘by 2025, we will cut/reduce/eliminate our use of material X’.

But what lies underneath these claims?

The challenge to design and develop sustainable packaging innovation fast. The timer is set, and the pressure is on for marketing, packaging, operational and supply chain teams.  

It’s much easier to build from scratch than renovate a packaging process. There aren’t ready-made transferrable solutions available for multinational CPG brands with historical and complex packaging processes in place. They have a difficult challenge ahead, and that is why emerging brands seem so agile in their sustainable packaging innovation in comparison. 

Therefore, the time pressure creates a mandatory deadline, but contradictingly,  rushes a process that cannot be rushed. Recent collaborations have proved that the simple replacement of a material will be enough to meet the claim in the pursuit of new solutions. Re-usable, compostable, biodegradable packaging materials do that efficiently, but still firmly places the end-of-life responsibility with consumers and local authorities.

“It meets the claim, but does it solve the bigger problem of eliminating or reducing packaging? Is it really sustainable packaging innovation?”

Instead, the question teams should ask themselves is how to navigate past the sustainable materials minefield. The option to innovate and then create fully defendable claims offers a more sustained approach that leads to strategic solutions. That could be an end-of-life innovation or a design change that will provide a better overall environmental footprint. It’s that transformational moment.

And CPGs are facilitating these innovation sessions which drive excitement and passion. However, it is infrequent for an excellent sustainable packaging idea to go past the ideation stage. Why? It stops when the priority is to meet the claim, and not to innovate and create the claim. 

There is no finger-pointing here. The issue lies in the fact that sustainability is an incredibly emotive subject, and often the emotion in claim-making can rank higher than cleverly crafted packaging innovation. It’s also still a grey area. For example, single-use materials are yet to have a global standardised definition. In our current world, we can deplore a single-use material for its use in food packaging, but then accept the same single-use material in medical packaging. The lines are blurred. 

Consumer brands must recognise that all materials have a sustainable story to tell of some description, which is a liberating mindset. It means there is no one size fits all solution. What is right for one business may be entirely wrong for a competitor, and it’s why moving the innovation function to drive new claims can provide more focus and less risk overall. 

Innovating to create claims means businesses have to identify precisely where they are now and make a benchmark to measure new solutions against it. That removes the emotive element and through consistent measurement allows the building of new solutions with fully validated and defendable claims. Claims that will begin to have far more resonance with consumers as their understanding of sustainability increases. 

So the questions I ask you to consider: Will your packaging innovation plans meet the current claims under discussion? Or will you get in front and create new claims with a new sustainable future?  

About Neil Shackleton

Neil Shackleton is the founder of Medoola, a sustainable packaging and supply chain consultancy delivering sustainable direction to clients around the world. This approach combines the individual expertise of packaging professionals from across the globe to successfully deliver innovation, optimisation and sustainability to clients in the FMCG and Pharma sectors. 

With over 25 years working on a myriad of projects around the world, Neil continues to challenge brand owners to reassess packaging and supply chain process, design, innovation and entire product life cycles to deliver optimised innovative results that drive tangible sustainable reduction

A Fellow of the Packaging Society, Neil has a true passion for packaging that is prevalent in his work with many leading brands.

Connect with Neil on LinkedIn.

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Written by Neil Shackleton