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As part of our ongoing look at the packaging industry I asked Mary MacGregor-Reid, a packaging designer of Black Robin Design fame some leading questions last week.

The competition with imported low ‘ethic’ packaging that Mary brings up is an interesting angle. And her call for legislative changes (last question) is a common one we hear from New Zealand players in the industry. read on for more…

1. The “sustainability” thing has been around for a while now, do you think we are getting anywhere when it comes to packaging?

I think recycling and sustainability in packaging is a concern for many consumers and I do think many people are irritated by the amount of surplus packaging in many everyday products but I don’t think most ‘producers’ of the products inside the packaging have really started to change what they do.

I do think that particularly manufacturers of FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) and everyday commodity items are dictated to by their sales outlets – for example what is acceptable and fits shelf space in the supermarket. There are also a lot of expectations from sales outlets and from end users about shelf-life, expiry and perfect appearance of  many products so you end up seeing things individually or ‘over’ packaged to meet those expectations.

Everyone is still very conscious of watching their spend and will think twice about spending more to come up with a better packaging solution if sustainability isn’t a core focus of their company brand – I feel that investigating ‘sustainable’ packaging options is still often seen as a luxury rather than a necessity and needs to be pushed through by the brand ethos of the company producing the goods.

If a company wants to focus on the nature of their packaging then they will push manufacturers, printers, finishers to come up with better options. With most companies, if the option is there and the cost isn’t much greater than for the standard packaging options then most producers will choose environmentally friendlier options if they are presented with the choice. But if there is too much effort or cost required to ‘go the extra mile’ then it becomes too difficult for most people.

2. Do clients ask for packaging where end-of-life is considered?

Hubbards breakfast cereal packaging by Black Robin Design

Again, if the clients core brand values highlight sustainability then they do, but if it’s something that just has to be done to ‘tick the sustainability box’ then they won’t (although they are usually open to the idea when a suitable, cost-effective option is offered). Having those options on hand is really important for us so that if a client is thinking of packaging their product in one way then we can suggest a better alternative. I have found that generally manufacturers are very open to thinking about it and usually what stops it from happening is either prohibitive cost or not meeting some sort of hygiene or safety standard (eg certain foods might require a plastic wrap rather than a biodegradable wrap due to water levels in the food and permeability of the wrap). There are definitely some NZ companies out there who are pushing the boundries and creating great new packaging solutions!

3. In talking to companies, the younger the employee the more horrified they are by bad environmental practise. Have you noticed a difference in how young/small and old/large companies approach the issue of the waste they create with the sale of their products?

Yes! I have noticed that younger people are far more concerned and are far more open to trying to find better solutions. The size of the company doesn’t seem to make too much of a difference, it’s the importance of sustainability in the companies brand that makes the most difference. And by that I mean TRUE commitment not just paying lip-service.

4. We run a recycling centre and are sometimes humoured, and sometimes horrified by designers/manufacturers not even having visited a recycling centre and understanding where their beautiful shiny thing ends up. Do you follow any particular ethos or set of precepts in your design process which connects the end product with the post-consumer reality?

It’s quite tricky because although we can advise companies on good options, we can’t force them to make those decisions. With larger companies they often have their own procurement departments and if cost is the most important thing, then they will make decisions based on price and we have no say in that. The best thing that we can do is offer suggestions, outline the benefits to the company and to their brand by making more sustainable choices and demonstrate how they can leverage those choices to appeal to the market. With companies who have a sustainable focus it’s an easy sell because it’s what they want to do anyway!

5. Anything else you’d like to add?

I think that change needs to come from the top down as well as from consumers at grass roots level. I’ve noticed a sort of chicken and egg scenario going on with government, manufacturers and consumers in NZ that seems to go something like this:

  1. Consumers want cheap products and the government want to stimulate the economy
  2. Cheap products are imported from Asia to meet consumer demand and create free trade between NZ and other nations
  3. The NZ government doesn’t enforce any sort of sustainable packaging requirements on imported goods from Asia so NZ manufacturers are unable to create products with sustainable packaging which can compete on price with the imports
  4. The NZ consumers would like to see more sustainable packaging but on a whole don’t want to pay for it and the government don’t want to impose standards and requirements because they don’t want to jeopardise exports
  5. So the whole thing goes round again!

Unless consumers are willing to pay more for products packaged in a sustainable manner (and only a few are) then sales outlets won’t support them.  I’d like to see the NZ Government and the large retail outlets approaching this in a similar way to what has been done in Scandinavia where the big retailers and the governments have all set a level that all the suppliers, both local and international, have to meet.