Puma’s “clever little bag” and other lessons in sustainable packaging

Thanks to Chris Sherwin – former head of innovation at Forum for the Future and now a consultant at Dragon Rouge – for forwarding me his recent Design Week piece on the future of sustainable packaging.

If you’re thinking “Packaging? Yuk, how dull!” just hold your horses for a second.

Quite apart from the fact that packaging waste is a major problem – 6 million tonnes of it discarded every year by UK households alone (much of it, of course, ending up in landfill) – a couple of the examples Chris cites are actually rather sexy and seriously bloody clever.

None more so than Puma’s aptly named “clever little bag” – an innovation developed by Yves Behar (he of XO Laptop fame) – which is just such a smart idea on so many levels, and amply illustrates the value that design can bring to the development of more sustainable products and systems.

What’s so clever about it is the way in which it simultaneously attacks the packaging waste problem from both ends of the life-cycle:

  1. Tackling inputs – How can we design waste out of the system through our choice of materials? How can we reduce the types and volume of materials used, reduce the energy and water involved in their sourcing, manufacture and transportation, and ensure that they are safe and healthy for people to use at every stage (including all probable end-of-life scenarios)?
  2. Delaying/preventing disposal – How can we migrate behaviours away from single-use packaging that’s instantly discarded once a product is opened? What if we could give packaging life beyond life? Once it’s fulfilled its purpose of protecting the product on its way to the customer, what other purposes could it usefully fulfil? How can we make it desirable to keep?

What’s even cleverer about this solution (to my mind at least) is the way in which it potentially reframes the value proposition of sustainability for consumers.

Sure, it ticks all the obvious environmental performance boxes (8,500 tonnes less paper consumed, 20 million mega-joules of electricity saved, 1 million litres less fuel oil used, 1 million litres of water conserved etc.), but it goes beyond that.

The “clever little bag” doesn’t just filter out the nasties; it gives the customer something extra – something they can continue to use, for example, to store their shoes in a suitcase or kitbag, to stop their other stuff from getting mucky.

That may not sound like much in practice but, in principle, it’s a massive shift – a reason to choose the more sustainable option not simply because it’s “the right thing to do” (essentially a proposition based on guilt), but because the solution actually outperforms its less sustainable alternatives (one based on added value).

That principle, writ large, is at the heart of creating mass market appeal for more sustainable products, experiences and business models and (as I’ve written in the past) where design can add greatest value – by replacing messages of doom and gloom with ones of hope and aspiration.

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