Back to basics

How much packaging is good packaging in a changed new world?

back to basics
Copyright Satish Acharya 2022.

Over the past few weeks, the unnecessary and tragic war being fought over Ukraine by Russian invading forces is hard to ignore. All the world’s powers watch helplessly while death and destruction rips apart peaceful cities and millions of refugees flee their homes in fear. The notions of ‘world order’ and détente stand stripped to their bare essentials.

A very real threat of emerging global economic turmoil looms unless, quite before that happens, political events force the world to bomb itself back into the stone age! As Albert Einstein, famously said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” The way this war is unfolding, good news is certainly scarce.

Meanwhile, the world has barely begun to emerge from two devastating years of the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been a heavy toll on human lives and public health systems have been stretched to limits. Lockdowns, social distancing and Covid-19 protocols have broken social contact norms as we have known them and a ‘new normal’ of online experience and virtual meetings has emerged.

But, despite large scale vaccinations of populations, several scientific and statistical predictions suggest that the ‘next pandemic could come soon and be deadlier.’ A scientific study, published in Nature, 25 August 2021, observes that there is no way to know for sure when a variant will become dominant, or whether it will rise to the status of a ‘variant of concern’ — meaning that there are signs that it has picked up worrying new properties, such as spreading more rapidly, causing more-severe disease, or evading immune responses. “We know a lot about the humans,” says the author of the study, “but it’s the virus that’s unpredictable. And I’m a little scared of that.” About the pandemic too, good news is scarce.

As if all the above is not enough, the UN’s 2022 Climate Change report says, “We can adapt to many changes brought by an overheating planet, but some things will be lost forever.” The report goes on to describe how climate change is already damaging the physical and mental health of everyone on earth. About half of humanity is already vulnerable to water insecurity and billions more are at risk of extreme heat events, vector-borne diseases and hunger linked to global heating. Heightened risk of cardiovascular illness due to exposure to smoke from wildfires has been observed, and an additional 2.25 billion people will be at risk of Dengue fever by 2080 under a middle-of-the-road emissions scenario.

Human-caused climate change is wreaking ‘increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems.’ Many species have already hit the limit of their ability to adapt to temperature rises. There will be more extinctions. Some things will be lost forever, says Patrick Galey, on On the climate change front too, good news is scarce.

You may be forgiven, under the circumstances, to think this is a good time to look towards the sky and pray. But perhaps you haven’t heard of the ‘fridge size’ asteroid (named 2022 EB5) from outer space that almost impacted the earth near Jan Mayen, a Norwegian island on 21 March 2022. Luckily, it burnt up in the earth’s atmosphere, within two hours of when it was first spotted.

This is not a rare occurrence, and several such potential threats are tracked by astronomers around the world. In 2022, a red nova, an exploding star visible to the naked eyes is expected to make its appearance. An asteroid named ‘2008Go20,’ which is as big as a stadium in size, is also moving towards earth at a speed of 8 kilometers a second which is around 28,800 kilometers an hour. Its trajectory is being anxiously tracked. Forget about the heavens, from deep outer space too, good news is scarce.

Despite this scenario of doom and gloom, I daresay there remains an optimistic belief in the resilience of mankind and our ability, as a species, to adapt to all circumstances. We have a robust belief in our mastery of technology to create change. Our big tech pioneers have set their sights high with AI, deep space exploration and now an entire new virtual reality, metaverse. Entirely new foundations for industry are being laid. As George Bernard Shaw said, “All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions and executed by supplanting existing institutions.”

In the world of consumer branded product packaging too, this churn of ‘challenging current
conceptions’ is more than evident. An industry-academia meet organized by the Indian Institute of Packaging in Delhi on 16 March 2022, discussed the ‘Future Road Map of Safe, Secure and Sustainable Food Packaging.’ Another program, organized by the PHD Chamber, recently had the topic, ‘Decoding EPR – Challenges Opportunities and Way Forward in India.’

The Foundation for Innovative Packaging & Sustainability (FIPS) marked its annual day with a keynote session on ‘Initiatives of the UNEP to mitigate the impact of Plastic Packaging on
Climate Change.’ Over the past couple of years, it is hard to miss, that almost every webinar, forum or round-table meet has sustainability, EPR or the circular economy as a central topic of discussion. Almost every technical session and presentation by eminent packaging industry professionals is peppered with search words such as recyclability, environment protection, new generation plastics, post-consumer use, packaging waste management and so on. The buzz is clear.

Packaging today is less about shelf-life, brand communication or user experience and more
about re-thinking its role in our global eco-system.To some extent, this churning and challenging of existing packaging principles could be attributed to the incessant greenwashing and eco-anxiety driven by salesmanship and marketeering created by climate change activists with support from media and government. As a result, almost all major consumer brand companies around the world have been compelled to announce their EPR driven goals and fix CSR targets to satisfy their eco-anxiety and guilt-driven

Unilever has declared its intention to “transform our use of plastic packaging by 2025.” It goes on to say, “decoupling our growth from our environmental impact is at the heart of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan targets.” Similar pronouncements made by almost all major consumer brand companies such as P&G, Beiersdorf (Nivea), Garnier and so on can easily be found on their websites. Even though some of these targets and announcements could be dismissed as ‘tokenism’ it is hard to miss that the sustainable packaging buzz has set a course correction in motion for packaging designers.

The packaging industry has been compelled to get back to basics: How much packaging is good packaging? How can new generation bioplastics and alternate materials substitute fossil fuel plastics? How can barrier protection be achieved without compromising recyclability? How can digital technology be incorporated in labels to make packaging more active, smart, and intelligent?

How can brand communication encourage responsible waste management?
How long will be the life cycle of different types of packaging in the waste stream?
How will the waste material resource be recovered for re-use? How can consumers be encouraged to bring-back used packaging to participate in Deposit Return Schemes? How can the use of single-use plastics be substituted? Clearly, with such questions, the packaging designer’s brief has changed. Our world has gone back to basics.

Our ideas of consumer engagement and retail experience must first be stripped down to bare essentials. Brands, designers, innovators, and environmentalists must roll-up their sleeves and button-up their briefs to learn to engage with consumers at a more basic level and more responsibly. The winds of change are here, and I cannot help thinking of those beautiful words by poet, Christina Rossetti, “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I but when the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing by.”

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Deepak Manchanda
An engineering graduate from BITS, Pilani and a Post-Graduate Diploma from Milan, Italy in Human Factors Engineering. Over 40 years of work experience in branding, packaging design & development. Worked as Head of Packaging at Oriflame – Silver Oak; Dabur India and Ranbaxy Laboratories. Currently - an Associate with The Packaging Consortium – a packaging development consultancy. Worked closely with Jindal Polymer Films for Application Development of Specialty Films for flexible packaging. Now a packaging consultant for some reputed companies. He is also an Associate Director with Firstouch Solutions – a design company providing services in Brand Comm, Packaging, Exhibitions and Branded Retail Environments. He is closely associated with the Indian Institute of Packaging as a Member of the Northern Regional Committee. He is also active as a contributor to Packaging South Asia magazine and other journals and at forums and conferences. Has been writing articles on packaging design and marketing for Packaging South Asia since 2007.


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