December 16th, 2020


This is the time of the year, when packaging designers are waiting to see their packaging designs for Christmas products in the store shelves and they are thinking about new innovative solutions for next year. Traditionally, the target is to get the maximum return of the packaging investment by attracting the consumers’ attention at the store shelf. Companies want the products to be sold with the highest possible margin, while contributing to the brand image and value. These factors will remain the same in the 2020s but the way in which these targets are met, will again slightly change.


As we all know, biggest thing now globally effecting everyone and everything is the Covid-19 pandemic. It effects the way packaging is perceived, the way products are packed, overall consumption, production and supply chains. When looking beyond the pandemic, there are mega trends effecting the future of packaging.


The role of packaging is changing

Packaging is not just a wrapping anymore (if it ever was). It is reflecting the world and the way we interact as suppliers, brand owners, consumers and societies. According to the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, the five most important trends of the 2020s are, the ageing and diversifying of the population, strengthening of the relational power, how technology is becoming embedded in everything, how the economy is seeking direction and the urgency of the ecological reconstruction as a key factor influencing our future. What this means for the flexible packaging, is the increasing demand for truly sustainable solutions, material efficiency, digitalization of packaging and the importance of the packaging as a communication tool between the companies and their customers.

Digitalisation of packaging


Technology is becoming embedded in everything. As the resources needed to create smart packaging are decreasing, we will see more and more packaging with features like augment reality and gamification. This will change how people perceive packaging and interact with them. Digitalisation will provide additional value to consumers, and tools to brand owners to engage with their customers. These features can be used to inform, educate or simply delight. Gamification means utilising game-design elements and game principles in non-game context such as packaging.


Many shades of green


Due to climate change, plastics discussion and the increased environmental awareness, packaging is seen as more than just a bag or a box. People are increasingly more aware of the environmental impacts of their consumption. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the consumers nor the brand owners always know, which solutions actually are and which only seem to be good for the environment. Consumers are given a great challenge to make sustainable choices, although it is nearly impossible to form a realistic view of the overall environmental impact of a product, in order to make an educated purchasing decision.

In the public debate, plastic has recently got a very bad reputation. It has become the symbol of our over consumption and our ignorance. Before we realized the severity of climate change and the challenges we have with fossil-based materials, it didn’t occur to us as a society to think about using bio-based or recycled plastic materials or to worry about recycling. This has led to somewhat careless use of plastics and a lack of functioning waste management in some parts of the world.


As the public demands actions, restrictions and bans for single-use-plastic items have been presented globally and in Europe. What is often overlooked, is that plastics as a material group has incomparable qualities when fighting the climate change. As an example, according to Denkstatt study (2011), the food industry’s need for energy would double, greenhouse gas emissions would triple and the weight of food packaging would almost quadruple, if we stopped packing food to plastic. One aspect of packaging to keep in mind is also the food safety and hygiene, which are critical for people to stay safe and healthy.

The most sustainable packaging material?


Sorry, there is no simple answer for this one. The non-thrilling fact is, that it always depends on the life cycle and the requirements of the packed product. The best way to ensure the sustainability of your packaging choice, is to make life cycle analysis calculations of each of your potential packaging options and based on the results, make educated decisions.


However, there are sustainable flexible packaging options, that have already being studied to have a smaller carbon footprint. Recycling is one of the most sustainable ways of using plastics. Today, recycled plastics can be used in non-food and secondary packaging. Future development will hopefully expand the possibilities of using the recycled plastics also in direct food contact. Biobased plastics, such as sugar cane based Green PE or wood based Woodly, are great options for food and hygiene packaging. In addition to material choices, an important aspect to remember is material efficiency. We need to make the most of our limited resources and for flexible packaging, this means recyclability, the use of recycled materials and down gauging.

Attitudes towards plastics are changing


Separate collection, recycling and the circular economy products made from recycled plastics are changing the way people see plastics. One of the biggest bakery brands in Finland Vaasan has studied, how the perceptions of plastic packaging have changed among the Finnish consumers. What they found out in their 2019 study (in Finnish) is, that the attitudes towards plastic bakery bags have turned to more positive in a relatively short period of time in the Finnish markets. In a previous study (2018), 43% thought that a plastic bakery bag was harmful for the environment compared to only 29% of the respondents in the recent study. What they have also discovered, is that nearly every third of the respondents to the survey are reusing their bakery bags. After use, 44% of the respondents are separately sorting the bags as plastic packaging waste which is processed as raw material for new plastic products in Finland.

Final thoughts


Course of the future depends on the decisions we make today. I’m encouraging the brand owners and designers to think big. When developing your future packaging, vision the long term goal you wish to reach, and design your packaging to support this. It is good to follow what the competitors are doing, to not to copy them, but to see how you are able to differ from what they are doing. By focusing on your vision, you will be able to proactively execute your development process instead of reacting to what the competition is doing.


As the relational power is strengthening, it becomes increasingly important to collaborate and form strong connections with your business partners and customers. Get them involved in your development processes and leverage expertise from a variety of fields such as food science, waste management, future research etc.. In addition, remember to involve your packaging supplier in the development process at an early stage, to take advantage of the production possibilities and latest innovations.


At the end of the day, the consumers will appreciate packaging that makes them feel good about purchasing the product and meets their needs. Today, this means an environmentally sound packaging that looks good, is easy to use and is of a right size. Tomorrow, it will most likely also mean smart packaging with augment reality features, traceability of the packaging, product ingredients or manufacturing location, packaging as a service or even edible packaging. The packaging might also have a second life. By making packaging reusable, the brands are giving a clear statement about their position related to the single-use culture. This requires innovation and imagination from the designers, brand owners and packaging producers, but has a huge potential in creating winning concepts and differentiating form competition.


Contact our packaging experts to find out, what the future for your packaging could look like!

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