What does sustainability mean to you? In recent years the term's currency has increased significantly, with a growing list of ideas, principles and initiatives being pulled together under its umbrella.
Sustainability is about carbon, energy, materials, resources, processes and ecology; but it is also to do with ethics, contracts, responsibility, fairness and localness.
Yet, alongside all these aspects, it is also about marketing and design, because businesses want to talk about sustainability and people want to see it in practice.
One of the most public battlegrounds over claims of unsustainable processes centres on waste and, specifically, on product packaging. UK households throw away almost 6m tonnes of packaging in their waste every year, according to WRAP, an organisation that campaigns for waste reduction and efficient use of sustainable resources.
Packaging provides direct communication between producer and consumer: it is through packaging initiatives and on-pack graphics that brands look to demonstrate their sustainability credentials.
This has led to a profusion of messages: carbon-footprint data, recyclability, eco-friendly materials (or, at least, materials that appear so), size and weight reductions, refill pouches, green branding and then, for some, subsequent allegations of 'greenwashing'.
Designers and marketers talk a good fight when it comes to saving the planet, but whether this noise means anything to consumers is another matter. The findings of a survey by the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment suggest consumers are ambivalent about packaging. 'They are aware that some packaging is wasteful...
[but] they are also aware that packaging plays an important role in advertising, informing, enhancing and protecting. While wanting to reduce waste, consumers are at the same time attracted by luxurious packaging and often choose packaged goods over loose items,' states the report.
What people say they want and what they do may not always tally. With its Eco Refill pouch, coffee brand Kenco impressively states that its packaging weight is reduced by 97%, but do people want an eco-pouch? 'Sustainability is a hot topic for consumers, but for most it's not one on which they base their final choice,' says Silas Amos, creative director of packaging design group Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR). 'I hope Kenco does very well, but I fear that consumers may be apathetic toward it.'
These contradictions may stem partly from a lack of certainty on questions of sustainability. 'Like so many messages on sustainability and the environment - not just in packaging, but everywhere - clarity has not really come through yet,' says Laura Haynes, chairman of branding agency Appetite, and founder of Zero: Low Carbon Communications. 'But consumers come in all shapes and sizes, from those who are very aware and informed to those who are unaware, or even apathetic.'
Several brands have been tarnished by accusations of 'greenwashing' over the past couple of years. In fact, changes made to the Committee of Advertising Practice codes, with more set to come into force in September, aim to reduce exaggerated environmental claims.
Although enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority, the effects of these rules are likely to filter down to packaging design, too. So are consumers sceptical of brands' efforts?
'Everybody's thinking about how they can be nicer - it helps in terms of costs and production and gives you a marketing feelgood factor, but you have to do it in a way that's honest,' says Antonio Bertone, chief marketing officer for sportswear brand Puma, which has just announced a major sustainable packaging initiative (see case study).
A lot of what passes for environmentally conscious initiatives, and is presented as such on packs, is, in reality, simply good design and manufacturing practice. Clients and designers have always strived for efficiency, elegance and cost savings on materials and energy. JKR's work with organic skincare business Spiezia, for example, saved the client 12% in packaging costs and the structural design reduced breakages to almost zero, according to the brand's managing director, Amanda Barlow.
Subtle but effective
In a similar case, design group Identica suggested that adjusting the 'shoulder' angle of the bottles used for Pernod Ricard's digestif Ramazzotti could reduce the energy and materials used in production, without changing its distinctive shape.
According to Identica chief executive Franco Bonadio, this saved the client 20% in raw materials costs. Working with JKR, Stella Artois and Young's ale have also 'lightweighted' their bottles.
Yet according to WRAP, research from Container Lite - a major study into lightweight glass packaging - found that shoppers struggle to detect a 5%-10% difference in glass container weight, even when they are aware of it; in uncued tests, weight differences of up to 40% in empty containers and 20% in full containers went unnoticed. In any case, the research notes that consumers very rarely compare product weights in the supermarket.
So, if companies want to use sustainability as a form of brand differentiation in stores, their initiatives often have to be elucidated on pack, which can lead to a clamour of 'me-too' messages.
'When do you put a green message on a pack and when don't you?' asks Bonadio. 'First it can be a point of difference, but there comes a point when everybody is doing it and people expect it anyway. At the moment, we are going through a transition point.'
This transition has created a hubbub of activity. Brands are changing materials and graphic design language, using third-party certifications such as Fairtrade, Soil Association, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Carbon Trust, and generally grappling with a complex and multifarious set of issues, processes and messages.
Demand vs action
Increasingly, consumers expect to see sustainability efforts from the brands they buy, but even then, the consumer position appears to be mixed and sometimes contradictory.
'People are not going to applaud you for (your efforts in) sustainability because they are slightly aghast that you haven't been doing it all along,' says Amos. 'The best packaging and brands are those that don't decide that CSR is a ghetto and they communicate it all in a more stylish way.
'Stella Artois' recent "Recyclage de Luxe" campaign, for example, was much more fun and stylish than worthy, while Ecover is the old days - it's all CSR and no style, and it has been leapfrogged.'
Graphically speaking, there is an onus on designers and clients to formulate a clear and considered hierarchy of messages, says Mark Frost, creative director of packaging group BrandMe. 'There doesn't always have to be a big flash on the front. You've got to get a balance of what should be on pack, while remaining transparent with your messages. There are so many messages we are trying to communicate now that it's a very difficult task,' he adds.
Yet these are important messages that still need to be delivered, despite the challenges and possible confusion.
'I think you should communicate what you're doing,' says Haynes. 'First, it raises the conversation, which in essence is important. Second, it creates greater understanding of the right things to be done. Third, over time, companies may well be required to talk about what they do as a kind of checklist of initiatives.'
As Frost puts it: 'Lots of things are not perfect, but it's better than doing nothing.'
CASE STUDY: PUMA
Puma this month announced the results of its two-year collaboration with industrial designer Yves Behar to create a long-term sustainability plan for its packaging and distribution.
'We looked at all our output - the shoebox, hang tags, materials, labels, everything - and asked how we can improve it in a way that's (effective),' says Puma chief marketing officer Antonio Bertone.
'Our consumers are quite young and can spot dishonesty a mile off, so we don't have the courage or confidence to say "We've fixed everything". But the boxes are made out of card with 100% recycled paper waste, which means a 65% reduction in paper consumption.
'You have to put it in today's context aesthetically - no one wants to buy something saying "I'm a tree-hugger", so we have a cute, strong, reusable, partially recycled polypropylene bag.'
The packaging has been introduced without changing Puma's fundamental supply chain: 'We can't disrupt the process or it would take years and lots of money to implement,' adds Bertone.
THE BIG QUESTION DO GREEN 'MARKS' MATTER?
Product packaging now features a growing number of third-party endorsements, such as Fairtrade, the Soil Association's Organic mark, FSC and, increasingly, the Carbon Trust.
Fairtrade, in particular, is now mainstream, with Starbucks and Cadbury products both carrying and promoting the certification.
So are all these 'green flashes' helpful, or is it clutter? Laura Haynes, chairman of branding group Appetite, says: 'People seem to get Fairtrade and they know Carbon Trust is something to do with the environment and carbon footprints, but may not fully understand it.
'Yet oversimplification of complex processes may lead to meaningless platitudes. So what's the solution? More messages often mean more logos on packs, which equals logo soup, leading people to switch off.'
We need to hold on to certifications for a while yet, though, argues Jonathan Davies, director of packaging group Butterfly Cannon. 'The more switched-on consumers become, the more external verification will become important. People will ask whether they trust brands to measure their own efforts. But right now there are too many (endorsers) all looking for revenue themselves, so it leaves a bit of a bad taste,' he says.