2012-06-28

Co.Exist

Designing Sustainability That Sells

To get away from it’s feel-good image, sustainable products need a packaging that’s as sexy as it is good for the environment.

Consumers are beginning to express their desire for more sustainable products. But by and large, those products are not making themselves easy to love. Lance Hosey, who keynoted at the recent Sustainable Brands conference, believes there’s still a fundamental disconnect between form and function in green product design. Simply put, products that are more sustainable tend to telegraph sensible, not sexy.

This attribute was personified by Seventh Generation, a company with an incredible line of products that suffered from generic "Brand X" packaging. With that in mind, I was excited to hear about the partnership Seventh Generation had struck with Ecologic Brands, a packaging company that balances low-impact materials with eye-popping design.

Milk Pouch, Meet iPhone

Julie Corbett, CEO of Ecologic Brands, grew up in Quebec, Canada. As it turns out, her background had a great deal to do with the inspiration behind her product.

For a start, her childhood home was deep in pulp and paper country. This imbued an appreciation of pulp’s sustainability and design potential. Fast forward a few years, when Corbett purchased her first iPhone and was struck by the high-tech, yet warmly familiar molded pulp packaging. It was, in her own words, "comfort food" for her senses.

Another inspiration was the humble milk pouch. Essentially a sealed plastic bag holding a liter of milk, this pouch was a staple of Quebec supermarkets in the 70’s. Drop one of the bags in a special re-usable jug, snip the top, and you had fresh milk with virtually no packaging.

Years later, Corbett tapped these influences to create her breakthrough packaging: a lightweight plastic bag surrounded by a protective molded pulp shell. She sensed her product would answer a nascent demand for eco-packaging that had shelf appeal. But first, it had to make it to market.

Insight + Design = Success

Corbett emphasizes the rigors her container needed to withstand in order to pass North American certification. “Our packaging had to hold up under extreme heat and cold, wilting humidity, drops and shakes, you name it."

The packaging held up well and was certified. But then came an equally daunting task: finding early champions to back the new idea. “The Straus Family Creamery in Northern California agreed to use our packaging for their non-fat milk so we could track market impact. Turns out non-fat milk in our bottle saw a 72% upswing in sales,” says Corbett.

Based on these results, Packaging Digest Magazine did a story on Ecologic. A story which Peter Swaine, from Seventh Generation saw. Seventh Generation became Ecologic Brands’ first major brand customer, using the unique container for its concentrated liquid laundry detergent.

At this point, the power of the package design became obvious.
Grocery stores, notoriously difficult about new packaging, welcomed the
new container. In fact, new stores clamored to get the packaging on
their shelves.

Corbett is especially proud that the new container helped expand the previously limited Canadian market for Seventh Generation. Today, the product is among the ten best-selling detergents in the natural grocery channel, a statistic that can at least in part be attributed to the shelf appeal of the packaging. Over a million bottles have been produced.

As Corbett says, “Our bottle telegraphs reliable, trusted, and ‘feel
good’—not to mention subliminally alleviating consumer guilt. It
brings a smile.” In other words, it’s a great example of intuitive and innovative design driving sustainability forward.

Lessons for Innovators

  • Design is key: Sustainability and packaging experts tend to push either utility or logistics. But design appeal must be kept in central focus – it’s what consumers intuitively respond to.
  • Take the consumer’s perspective: When she was inspired to create the Ecologic bottle, Corbett was thinking as a consumer, not a manufacturer. Manufacturers innovate based on what their equipment can do. Consumers innovate based on what they want. What consumers want, is what sells.
  • Hybridize: Innovation doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Milk pouches and iPhone trays are known entities. Sometimes success simply means connecting the dots.

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