Whitepaper: 4 Best Practices for Communicating Packaging Sustainability

Global trends and learnings from our packaging design testing practice

4 best practices
for communicating
packaging sustainability

The move to more sustainable packaging is an urgent humanitarian priority, according to new and alarming scientific findings

New and alarming scientific evidence underlines the importance of moving to more sustainable product ingredients and product packaging.

For example, at the 2019 Plastic Health Summit, researchers from the University Medical Centre (UMC) Utrecht announced that they had discovered that microplastics cause accelerated human cell death and are harmful to our health. [1]

While microplastics are a product ingredient problem much more than a product packaging problem, it is also clear that these types of news stories contribute to consumers’ unease about product packaging as well, in particular plastic packaging.

Recycling plastics


Consumers respond to scientific and environmental developments with unease about plastic packaging

Experts agree that the move towards more sustainable packaging is a top priority, and predicted to become even stronger after the COVID-19 pandemic

Top-3 most influential trends in beverages [2]

Sugar reduction

1 sugar reduction

More sustainable packaging

2 more sustainable packaging

Avoidance of artificial sweeteners

3 avoidance of artificial sweeteners

QuotesMcKinsey projects that consumers are optimistic about overall economy recovery post COVID-19: Over 80% of consumers will consume the same or more. Consumer behavior is expected to be sticky after the crisis with regards to online penetration, attention to product safety and health and environmental concerns. [3]

Environmental pollution has triggered a consumer backlash against plastic packaging specifically, and a genuine interest in solutions. And people want to be part of these solutions

environmental impact of plastics

The Ocean Cleanup project

Sources: Photo: Muntaka Chasent, Ghana

Fortunately, we’re observing a wide variety of initiatives towards more sustainable packaging:

Increasing PET & rPET plastic content

Manufacturers are moving from single-use non recyclable plastics to PET and recycled PET plastics

100% Recycled plastic bottles

Reducing and removing packaging

Some brands are reducing the quantity of plastics used (at the risk of consumers subconsciously questioning size reductions)

Better store, Less plastic

Replacing plastics with paper

We see a shift from plastics to paper, but it can be a challenge because paper is heavy and may not be as protective

replacing plastic with paper

Development of bioplastics

The development of bioplastics is very promising now that they are coming to market

plantbottle bioplastic

Shift to mono-materials

New technologies enable the shift from laminated, multi-layered non-recyclable towards recyclable mono-materials

use of non layered packaging

Designing for re-use

Manufacturers are moving from single-use glass bottles towards store-returnable and re-usable glass bottles

reusable glass bottles

Some sustainable packaging examples

Thai supermarkets abandon single-use plastics in favor of banana leaves

Banana leaves

banana leaf

Banana is a
particularly versatile plant. Not only is it a food source, but the leaves of the plant can be used for food packaging or even in place of plastic or paper plates. [4]

In the 135 countries where bananas grow, the leaves are plentiful and sustainable. They are thick, durable, flexible and waterproof, and food can even be cooked inside of the leaves.

This organic and sustainable packaging example is both old school and new school cool.

Igloo replaces Styrofoam coolers with a biodegradable version

biodegradable igloo

biodegradable igloo

Styrofoam coolers
are lightweight, cheap, and pretty good at keeping beverages cold. They’re also pretty bad for the environment. [5]

Igloo has come up with a less destructive alternative made from paraffin wax and recycled paper. The 16-quart cooler has a weight capacity of 75 pounds and is highly water resistant.

12hr resistant cooler

Igloo says the RECOOL can keep ice cold for up to 12 hours and hold water for up to five days without leaking.

Starbucks begins trial of compostable hot coffee cups

recycle coffee cup

coffee cup

serves about 6 billion paper cups annually. However, because the paper cups are manufactured with a plastic liner, they aren’t recyclable.

In 2018, the chain pledged $10 million towards the development of a more sustainable alternative to the current to-go hot cup through the NextGen Cup Challenge. [6]

The experimental cups come lined with a bioplastic that can withstand high temperatures and is also compostable and is a great example of sustainable packaging. [7]


LOOP: Helping your favorite brands become waste free

LOOP: waste free

biodegradable igloo
Launched in 2019
at the World Economic Forum, LOOP is an important initiative against single-use plastic waste.The circular shopping platform offers close to 200 products from popular brands in reusable packaging. The platform is now live in the USA and Paris, and will soon expand to 4 more markets. [8]It could prove to be a viable solution if consumers buy into a program that relies on reusable packaging.

In parallel, we are observing a lot of communication on the topic of sustainable packaging

Manufacturers aren’t shy about letting the world know about their sustainability packaging initiatives

Decrease the use of virgin plastic, Dove products

Decrease use of virgin plastic

Last year,
Unilever announced packaging reduction targets and initiatives for their Dove brand of personal care products. Their overall goal was to decrease the use of virgin plastic by 20,500 tons per year. [9]

As part of that effort, Dove now uses bottles made from 100% recycled plastic [10], something they highlighted in a new promotional campaign. This campaign promoted their recycling messages on packaging and included installing an uncommon vending machine in New York’s Grand Central Station.

And this type of communication is a good thing!

Recycle your bottle, Lucozade

Recycle your bottle, Coca-Cola

Consumers are eager to contribute to a more sustainable ecosystem. They want to be informed about sustainable and recyclable packaging initiatives, because it enables them to adjust their shopping, purchase, consumption and recycling behaviors accordingly.

Recycled bag

Yet, there are risks associated with communicating sustainability initiatives

We saw this in the backlash triggered by Coca-Cola’s communication of a marine plastics recycling pilot initiative

Recycled marine plastic bottle form Coca-Cola

A press-release [11]
from the Break Free from Plastic Alliance stated that: “Coca-Cola is the most prolific plastics polluter, found in 40 of 42 participating countries. More than 75% of all 239 participating cleanups reported finding Coca-Cola branded products along their coasts, shorelines, parks, and streets.

The irony is ripe. Coca-Cola, the single largest marine polluter, believes that the plastic ocean trash they are considerably responsible for can be used to repackage their beverages, which would then likely end up right back in the ocean. This is a poorly timed apology masquerading as a solution and is greenwashing at its finest.” [12]

About the research icon

How can your brand best
communicate about
sustainable packaging
on the packaging itself?

Follow these 4 best practices for communicating packaging sustainability

icon messaging

Prioritize product benefit messaging

Consumers appreciate green, recyclable packaging, but they’re not buying your product for its green packaging. They’re buying it because of its (in)tangible product benefits. Respect design hierarchy guidelines by making sure that the primary product benefit(s) cues on your packaging design continue to be seen before your sustainable packaging message.

icon switch on-off

and switch-out

A fundamental pack design meta-learning is that communicating through your packaging design is like a balancing act: Emphasizing one message creates a very real risk of weakening other messages. Be prepared for your on-pack sustainability messages to detract from other important messages, so consider making it a temporary message.

icons and claims

Amplify your message with icons and claims

Icons that clearly communicate whether a packaging can be recycled are highly appreciated. Call-to-actions (for recycling) can but don’t have to be directive – people do understand and will act upon more subtle, implie call-to-action claims. Leveraging the color green to communicate sustainable packaging credentials can be effective but is not a must.

disruptive materials

Disruptive material changes offer fantastic opportunity for disruptive growth

Disruptive packaging material changes (e.g. from plastic to paper) offer fantastic new opportunity to focus on the key drivers of powerful packaging design: Improving shelf visibility, variant findability and design appeal.

Let’s look at a powerful sustainability packaging example:

Design strengths

Design strengths:

  • Ocean plastic used in the Sea Minerals variant
  • The bottle is shaped like an urchin (including the dotted line pattern)
  • Black color signals premium
  • Understated recycled plastics message is secondary to brand, variant and primary product benefit messages
  • The removable whale tag for in-store stand-out and call-to-action

this bottle is made with recovered ocean plastic

Bottle design comparison

This is what the Sea Minerals product normally looks like
Potential design weaknesses

Potential design weaknesses:

  • Can regular buyers of the Sea Minerals variant still find it on shelf?

Another example: Among the largest sustainable packaging trends is the move from single-use to virgin PET and rPET

Head & Shoulders new packaging


How can you best communicate such a move? Should you go big and creative, like Head & Shoulders?

UK flag

This design communicating that Head & Shoulders packaging is partially made from rPET was launched at ASDA (UK) in early 2019

Spontaneous reactions confirm that consumers welcome the recycling messages on packaging

But it also triggers critical comments, raising the question of whether this particular execution worked as intended

Head & Shoulders new packaging

Consumers expressed 3 types of concerns:

1 benefits understandingbenefits understanding

Blurred product
and benefit

It’s admirable but I’d rather read about what the shampoo will do for my hair
lightblue quotes

brand impact

It makes the brand look cheap
Claim lacks specificity
Claim lacks specificity

Claim lacks

It doesn’t make it clear which part and how much. Maybe it contains only miniscule amounts of recycled plastic

A virtual store test revealed that – unsurprisingly – the sustainability message comes through loud and clear

Head & Shoulders new packaging

Unfortunately, it is at the expense of shelf findability and product benefit understanding, and quite possibly has a negative impact on sales

Forbidden icon

Commit to the environment and sustainability

Forbidden icon

Purchasing from shelf

Tick icon

Sustainability message take-out

Forbidden icon

Haircare message take-out

We consistently see that consumers consider packaging sustainability an important but secondary benefit

Consumers should therefore ideally see sustainability messaging only after they have first taken note of the primary functional product benefit(s)

MetrixLab’s 9 best practices for powerful pack designs include guidelines for design element hierarchy

Design Guidelines

Design Guidelines

Knowing that sustainability messaging is best placed to be seen after the brand, variant and primary functional product benefit gives us an easy framework for determining the optimum placement on pack

Current viewing order

Knowing that sustainability messaging is best placed to be seen after the brand, variant and primary functional product benefit gives us an easy framework for determining the optimum placement on pack

Dove packaging

Optimum place for recycling message patch

The framework for determining the optimum placement on pack of sustainability messages helps us to evaluate and guide design

Dove packaging

Best-in-class example:

This Sun design communicates the brand before variant and product benefits, and before natural and packaging sustainability claims (at the bottom of the pack)

Sun nature package review

Viewing order

Brand logo is seen first
Variant (All in 1 tabs) is seen next
Primary product benefit: Natural & effective
End-promise: Sparkling clean
Secondary product benefit: 70% natural ingredients
Packaging sustainability message
Primary reason-to-believe: Sodium bicarbonate
Secondary reasons-to-believe: EcoLabel & Made in France

The Sun design has a strong design hierarchy: The packaging sustainability message is placed such that it is seen in the right order.


Sustainable packaging design can be a balancing act:

Emphasizing one message creates a risk of weakening other messages (but this may not be a problem if it’s a temporary message).
Let’s take a look at this sustainability packaging example from Hellmann’s:

Hellman's bottle

Sustainability messaging replacing product benefit messaging

Replacing the eggs and sustainable/natural ingredients message with a sustainable packaging message will undoubtedly trigger a large upswing in sustainable packaging credentials. But this may be at the expense of design appeal, product quality and premium perceptions.

changes in performance new vs current

We know that symbols and icons in support of product sustainability typically work very well – as long as they fit the category context

Icons in support of product
sustainability messaging

Eco logos

Bees don’t fit the context of
the dishwasher tabs category

bees and dishwashers

Icons and claims in support of packaging sustainability

Certain types of icons are better than others in terms of supporting claims of sustainability on pack. Be wary of claims that “ladder-up”, in the sense that the icon reveals a higher-order benefit (e.g. reduce CO2) without explaining how this achieved

informative claims

Simple, informative claims

  • Recyclable packaging
  • Climate-friendly packaging

appealing claims

Claims that make a direct appeal

  • Recyclable with your help
  • Help us do the right thing!

ladder-up claims

Claims that “ladder-up”

  • CO2 reduced packaging
  • Help protect the environment!

The combination of claim and icon (placed in the hierarchy of design elements so that it is seen only after brand, variant and primary functional benefit claim) makes for powerful packaging design

Signal package

Carte D'Or package

A disruptive packaging material change can offer fantastic opportunity for disruptive repositioning and growth

Laundry detergent new package

what creates powerful packaging design

Through advanced analysis of our PACT benchmark database, we know that there are 4 key drivers of packaging design success

Visibility is the most important factor for success, followed by shelf stand-out (that is, people noticing the product on shelf while browsing) and the ability to find a specific variant from a brand that you are interested in. The third driver is design appeal, and the fourth is how persuasive the communication of product benefits is.

sales from shelf

In case of (disruptive) line extensions, two additional questions come into play:

How the new SKU influences the brand block on shelf, and how the new SKU balances brand drivers with SKU-specific differentiators

Package design
success also depends on the rest of your product line. In the case of (disruptive) sustainable line extensions, two additional questions come into play: How the new SKU influences the brand block on shelf, and how the new SKU balances brand drivers with SKU-specific differentiators.

Unsurprisingly, these four drivers of package design success apply equally to disruptive packaging designs. So whenever you are considering a more disruptive packaging design change, you will want to make sure that the new packaging design performs at least equally but ideally better on these 4 drivers than the original design.

Package design

SKU visibility

For example: The transition from shrinkfoil to cardboard topclip is not only sustainable, but will also improve shelf visibility and findability

Beer package

Beer shelf

Now you know our best practices for communicating packaging sustainability

If your brand is taking steps to adopt more sustainable practices and products, that’s great. Consumers care about these initiatives and want to know. But it’s important not to let the communication of green initiatives overshadow general packaging guidelines.
Just follow these tips and you’ll be set up for success.

icon messaging

Prioritize product benefit messaging

Make sure that the primary product benefit(s) cues on your packaging design continue to be seen before your sustainable packaging message.

icon switch on-off

and switch-out

Consider making your sustainability message a temporary one so that it doesn’t detract from other important messages.

icons and claims

Amplify your message with icons and claims

A combination of an icon and claim can be very effective, especially when communicating multiple benefits.

disruptive materials

Disruptive material changes offer fantastic opportunity for disruptive growth

Disruptive packaging material changes offer a new opportunity to focus on the key drivers of powerful packaging design: improving shelf visibility, variant findability, design appeal and benefit communication. Make sure you are striking the right balance of each.

About MetrixLab

MetrixLab provides consumer insights that drive smarter business decisions. A truly global digital research agency, we pioneer new technologies and integrate multiple data sources to push the boundaries of research. This enables our experts to provide high-quality insights at scale, at speed and for an unparalleled value. Our passion, expertise, and solutions enable our clients to succeed at product innovation, brand engagement, and consumer value.

Active in over 90 countries, MetrixLab is a proud partner of more than half of the world’s top 100 brands and part of Toluna.


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