Story | 06/19/2024 16:05:22 | 6 min Read time

Head of Pentawards Adam Ryan: Brands share their learnings on sustainable packaging like never before

Daniela Walker

Text

Ossi Piispanen

Photography

Adam Ryan is the Head of Pentawards, the leading global packaging design community. When he started in this role seven years ago, sustainability was just a sidenote in packaging design and brands kept quiet about their sustainability learnings. Now it’s a very different game. This is what Adam has learned about the change that is taking place in the packaging business.

Lesson 1: Sustainability has become the starting point

“When I started in the industry, all packaging design briefs focused on communication and branding, or how the packaging could best protect the product. If sustainability entered the equation at all, it focused on making things lighter and reducing material costs. 

Now, you can’t have a brief that doesn’t include an element of sustainability. Designers must think about it at the start of the design process. Part of what has allowed this is the technological advances in materials. The material of the packaging is the most important thing because it drives an emotional connection. There are so many materials on the market that didn’t exist before: for instance, mushroom or avocado fibres, bioplastics, cornstarch for film. These technological innovations mean that brands can start moving away from single use plastics.”

There are so many materials on the market that didn’t exist before.

Lesson 2: Packaging can be both beautiful and sustainable

“At the Pentawards competition, we’ve seen a lot of great examples showcasing that sustainability and aesthetics aren’t mutually exclusive – you can have that emotional connection using sustainable materials and design.

One of my recent favourites is from the Spanish brand Ecoalf by design agency Lavernia & Cienfuegos, which focuses on sustainable fashion and uses fabrics made from plastic marine waste as raw materials for its fabrics. They expanded into body care last year and the packaging was designed to be reusable, recyclable and refillable. It looks strikingly modern and minimal, but all the materials have been thoroughly vetted to be sustainable. They’ve used aluminum, which is highly recyclable, 100% FSC paper and card, with biodegradable interiors and cornstarch in the packaging film. It shows you can create an entire sustainability ecosystem around a brand and execute it beautifully. It also reflects a trend we identified in our 2024 report about brands using packaging to make a statement. Ecoalf’s statement is: ‘Because there is no Planet B.’

Another example is champagne brand Dom Ruinart. They created a limited-edition gift box, made from a single material, a moulded fibre wrap which is formed using water, heat and pressure creating this unique case. It is a very distinguished, sculptural object, to resemble the Champagne region’s historic crayeres chalk cellars, but at the same time ultra-light and saves nine tonnes of paper compared to the old gift box.”

 
You can have that emotional connection using sustainable materials and design.

Lesson 3: Standardisation of packaging will push things forward

“One conversation I’ve seen growing is the idea of standardisation. I recently attended a talk by sustainability expert Uwe Melichar, who used Germany as an example. There are around 150 different beer brands in Germany, which means also 150 different designs of the bottle itself. Imagine we had one standard glass beer bottle, with different branding and communication. That would mean there would be one means of production, you could recycle it in the same way, you’d save cost and emissions, and it would be very efficient.

There’s a question about whether one day we no longer need packaging. If you eliminate all packaging, the world would be a lot more sustainable. But the way we consume now – I think that would be impossible. 

Maybe one day we will have a Silicon Valley-type innovation hub where the entire focus is on those processes and infrastructure to design for sustainability. We are already seeing it. A design agency, Auge Design, created packaging for Italian brand Pedon’s instant cereal line, where the packaging was made from using by-product waste and turning it into paper. Packaging that uses waste in authentic and innovative ways are going to stand the test of time.”

 
Maybe one day we will have a Silicon Valley-type innovation hub where the focus is on processes and infrastructure to design for sustainability.

Lesson 4: Sharing is caring – for everyone’s sustainability

“Currently, brands share their learnings – which is a big shift. Previously learnings were kept in-house. Now at industry events I see competitors on stage, and they are not afraid to share what they are doing. Newer brands and businesses have an easier path to being more sustainable because they’re starting from scratch and have access to those learnings, as opposed to larger brands who might have legacy systems in place. But I appreciate if a brand says: ‘We’re looking into it, we’re working on it and not trying to greenwash’.

That’s where regulators and policymakers step in. We have the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) coming into force, which I think is a good thing because we’ll have standardised guidelines to work towards. At the moment, there aren’t any. Policymakers, brands and designers all need to work together.”

Currently, brands share their learnings – which is a big shift. Previously learnings were kept in-house.
 
 

FACT FILE: Adam Ryan

  • Adam Ryan’s career started in the world of fashion and jewellery, working as a fashion designer and creative consultant for several international brands including Westfields, Diesel, Kurt Geiger, and Lexus.
  • He joined the leading global packaging design community Pentawards in 2017, becoming the Head of Pentawards, overseeing the entire organisation, in 2019.
  • His first ever professional job was for BAFTA, and in 2010, he founded Essex Fashion Week with his twin brother Simon. This grew to be one of the biggest fashion weeks in the UK and was featured in the TV series The Only Way is Essex. 
 

Author

Daniela Walker

Daniela Walker

Text | Daniela Walker is a writer, editor and trend forecaster, whose work helps brands understand the major societal and cultural shifts that are impacting our collective futures. She has worked with companies such as Nike, Bacardi, Dell and the BBC and her writing has appeared in Wired magazine, Frame magazine and Monocle amongst others.
 

Author

Ossi Piispanen

Ossi Piispanen

Photography | Ossi is a documentary photographer and director. He works primarily with communities, alternative sports and grassroots movements, focusing on portraiture and storytelling. Ossi’s clients include FT Weekend, The Guardian, Vice and Zeit Magazin.
 
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