Dr. Alexandra Hildebrandt on the topic sustainable packaging design

Dr. Alexandra Hildebrandt on the topic sustainable packaging design

Dr. Alexandra Hildebrandt is publicist, sustainability expert and business psychologist. She regularly writes for the Huffington Post and is co-initiator of the Faces of Sustainability initiative. In the Springer Gabler publishing house, she published the volumes “CSR und Sportmanagement” (2014), “CSR und Energiewirtschaft” (2015) and “CSR und Digitalisierung” (2017) in the management series Corporate Social Responsibility.


Circular Thinking – Circular Economy

The developments in the global packaging industry could soon have positive effects on the lucrativeness of local recycling. However, products would then have to be designed in such a manner that their components are easier to recycle. The material costs in the production of packaging constitute about 80 percent of the total production costs. The recycling of the production waste, which could amount to up to 30 percent, is decisive for economical packaging production. Packaging materials should prolong the durability of products, protect them better as well as indicate in a more transparent manner about durability and the quality condition, and factor in the increasing social tendency of personalisation. The lighter and more sustainable the packaging is expected to be, the more difficult the task is for designers and technicians.


What does sustainability even mean?

If we take a look at the available definitions, one thing becomes clear: there is no universally valid definition for this term. The term “Sustainability” cannot be explained comprehensively and accurately by means of a simple definition. On the contrary, the term sustainability is a sum of several broader definitions, which consider the different elements of sustainability, and which give information about the characteristic core elements when it comes to sustainability.

In the definition of cross-generational ecological justice (intergenerational equity), the Brundtland commission 1987 characterised the understanding of sustainability as follows: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Based on this, sustainability is described as a kind of development, which is aimed at the present as well as the future. In a nutshell, sustainability can be understood as a form of ecological and economical trade off that should guarantee the present and future generations similar or better living conditions wherein the element to be used is used carefully and conserved accordingly. The environment and economical and social aspects lie at the core of sustainability. (Download PDF: Our Common Future report 1987)


What does sustainable packaging include?

Flic Floc Zotter

Sustainable packaging should

  • be separable and sortable based on the component type,
  • be recyclable and functional,
  • be made of renewable and lightest possible material,
  • have a low ecological footprint,
  • be biodegradable or compostable,
  • contain important background information,
  • have a unique design.

Against the background of the growing significance of sustainable products, environmentally compatible and practical packaging are more than ever in use today. The first ones seemed simple and dull, and were designed with muted colours. They then became more and more attractive, as also substantiated by the examples given in the following part.

A classic example for a sustainable product is the “memo box”, a reusable dispatch product, with which memo AG is setting ecological standards. Customers thus have the option of sending their goods in sturdy, green boxes without any extra charge. To reduce the environmental impacts of the reusable dispatch product further, it is being produced since autumn 2016 using the recycling plastic “Procyclen”, which consists of plastic waste. This reduces the greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing of the box by up to 30 %. Therefore and because it conserves valuable resources through its multiple reuse, the “memo box” was also given the Blue Angel label.


The design as the harbinger of the contents

Das Design als Vorbote des Inhalts

The design may not commit more or even less than what the content has to offer. For a good designer, there is nothing that just “stands” on the packaging – everything has a relationship and significance. Packaging designers and artists like Andreas Gratze, who characterised the writing of the Zotter chocolates, use their design to react to the environmental and economic developments. Gratzes Devise says: “We are who we are because we didn’t try to be any other way.” A lot of packaging looks the same these days – their makers copy each other all the time and play it safe. In doing so, they also miss a lot of opportunities to attract attention to themselves and their message.

Working with drawings and graphics never saw the end in packaging design; occasionally, they fell behind in favour of photos. Today, they seem to be taking their traditional places once again. They are an ideal medium for humour or caricatures, but are also used decoratively or convey certain moods.


Sustainability for feel

I would like to give you a few examples below of cases where the sustainable aspect could be successfully combined with the aesthetics of the packaging.

Tyto Alba wine

Wein Tyto Alba
“Companhia das Lezirias” supports active ecological research. It also includes the “Tyto Tagus” project that deals with the distribution of nesting boxes for barn owls in the forests of Portugal. This region is shelter to the largest known barn owl population in the world, which makes it an ideal symbol for this winery. The owl face on the sticker directly looks at the consumer as the “face” of the wine (Tyto Alba). The traditional wooden case for wines has been modified in such a way that it can actually be hung in the garden as a nest box.

Canvas bag by Fengfan Farm Products

Fengfan Farm Products roots from Jintan, a village in south China. The word “abundance” in Mandarin sounds like “fish” – which is why the natives wish for “Fish all year long” as a blessing. This aspect can also be seen in a new design; it has been combined with the idea to carry and reuse a 10-kg rice bag. The canvas bag is shaped like twin fish. The screen-printed graphics on the outer front side refer to the contents inside.

Ramlösa table water

Tafelwasser Ramlösa

The table water “Ramlösa” finds its origin in an accredited Swedish spring, discovered in 1707. By now, the world-renowned brand is also offered in exclusive restaurants, conference venues, in IKEA and in nightclubs. This required a premium packaging, which would make it stand out from the standard PET bottle available in retail. The shape and the imprinting have been inspired by the old-style crystal glasses.

Gino‘s Garden olive oil

Olivenöl Gino‘s Garden

The organic olive oil “Gino‘s Garden” originates from the Rihanch region in Lebanon. Only a very low quantity is produced every year. Hand-plucked in a piece of Gino Haddad’s woodlands, the olives are cold pressed to create a fine quality of oil. To emphasize the organic methods and the limited production, the bottle has been designed in two different olive-shaped variants. Mathematical techniques were used for the ceramics, for the calculation of the irregular shape and size, which were then manufactured with black glossy or green matt glaze.


Dr. Alexandra Hildebrandt vita

Dr. Alexandra Hildebrandt studied literature, psychology and book learning. Subsequently, she was working in top management positions in business for several years. Up till 2009, she worked as Head of Social Policy and Communication at KarstadtQuelle AG (Arcandor). She was also member of the DFB committee for sustainability in the German Football Association (DFB) from 2010 to 2013. She assisted the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce in the conception and implementation of the “CSR-Manager (IHK)” certificate course.

We would like to thank Dr. Alexandra Hildebrandt for her contribution!


As further reading on this topic, we recommend our magazine articles Design and sustainability and Sustainable design.


Alexandra Hildebrandt, Claudia Silber: Verpackt oder unverpackt? Warum Stoffkreisläufe eine Frage der Nachhaltigkeit sind. Amazon Media EU S.à r.l. Kindle Edition 2018
Jens Müller, Julius Wiedemann: The History of Graphic Design. Vol. 1, 1890–1959. Multilingual edition: German, English, French. Taschen Verlag 2017.
Julius Wiedemann (Ed.) The Package Design Book. Taschen GmbH, Cologne 2017.

Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, chapter 2, page 37

Header image:
FI iPad Sleeves (Winner of the Red Dot Award: Communication Design 2015), Finanzinformatik GmbH & Co. KG, Frankfurt/Main, Design: beierarbeit GmbH, Bielefeld

Posted on 02.03.2018

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