Packaging - it’s all in the detail.
This is part two of a four part series on our packaging and the thought processes around all the many decisions that have to be made for every detail of designing the packaging for our products. You can read Part 1 here. I thought that it might be interesting for you to learn about just how intricate the process is when one tries to find the perfect sweet spot between sustainable practices and customer needs.
Changing consumer habits
When I was growing up in France, the onus was on the customers to bring suitable packaging and containers to the market or shops that they frequented. Bags for dry goods, cloths to wrap bread, jugs for cream, milk churns for milk and liquids, and baskets for everything. You might get a slip of parchment paper for your cut of meat or a cardboard cake box for the Sunday ‘tarte au citron’, but that was as far as it went. This responsibility to provide packaging has moved from customer to vendor in the last 40 years. With it, the concept of reuse has diminished and the mountain of waste refuse grown exponentially. Some of that has been legitimately driven by health and safety regulation, but it’s probably fair to say that a lot has been driven by convenience for manufacturers and distributors and packaging for presentation/branding. We need to find ways to hand back at least some of the responsibility for providing packaging for goods to us, the consumer, while pushing back on manufacturers and suppliers to provide more sustainable, less wasteful packaging solutions.
But it’s not at all straightforward.
Soap - to wrap or not to wrap?
Take something as simple as the bar soaps. They seem like an easy place to start. Not being liquid, they don’t require a container necessarily, and so we do sell soaps without packaging in our shop. But then, what do you actually do with them so that people can take them away? When the staff are packing up the purchases they can’t put them in with the other products, because the soaps may mark them. Of course that isn’t so important if you’re just buying stuff for yourself, but lots of people are buying gifts and so you don’t want them to be smeared with soap. What do you do? At the moment we wrap it in a piece of tissue paper. The tissue paper is expensive, printed with a map of the Burren, made in Italy and FSC certified (meaning it comes from sustainable forests). Is this any better or worse than just selling the soap in its original packaging? It’s hard to say. Also, legally we are required to detail the ingredients and allergens on every product we sell, so strictly speaking we shouldn’t sell unwrapped soaps at all, buuuut customers are asking for the option and the ingredient information is available online so we’re willing to give it a try.
The refill option for liquid soaps and hand creams
Liquid products are hard to package sustainably, so when it comes to reducing packaging, refills are obviously a good option. As a customer, I always like to have the option to refill all the products that I use myself. When I initially discussed this with our cosmetic chemist, Rose, she raised health and safety concerns that needed to be considered that I hadn’t thought of. When we make a product, it’s Rose’s job to guarantee that the conditions it’s made in and the bottle that it goes into are pristine. Cosmetics manufacturing is highly regulated and we have a responsibility by law to ensure that all our products are made and sold in a way that is safe for our customers and that is free from any risk of contamination.
The problem with refills is that if someone brings in a bottle we can’t guarantee the sterility of that bottle, and if someone has a reaction then we would potentially be liable. We discussed it and agreed that we would trial it, so now we do refills on our most popular Atlantic Coast and Lost Garden castile soap on the understanding the refill bottles are very clean and that they are re-labelled with the correct best before date and batch number. While there were a lot of requests for this option from our customers, after setting it up only a few people have come in and availed of the service. Part of the problem is that we’re so far away from everything and a lot of customers come from overseas so it’s just not convenient for people to pop in for refills.
Recycled plastic packaging
We’ve thought a lot about the packaging for the body lotions and castile soaps. We are collaborating with University of Limerick School of Design’s Real World Studio project, to produce a sustainability study of our packaging, specifically the life cycle of the body lotion bottles, and we challenged them to come up with alternatives but, importantly, to inform us of the impacts from all angles during manufacturing, shipping and end of life.
Until recently, our lotions and liquid soaps came in plastic bottles, which is obviously not ideal, even though they are 100% recyclable PET which is the most highly recycled plastic. We have thought about glass, and most of our skincare products are in glass, but many customers will not purchase or use glass bottles in the bathroom because of the breakage risk. We used to sell our bath and shower liquid soaps and bath oils in glass bottles in 2001 but fashions have changed and many customers feel that it is dangerous. So what do you do? Do you push through and offer them in glass hoping that this will change the trend or do you respond to what are customers are asking for? When we approached our suppliers 10 years ago to ask what packaging they had that was from recycled plastic they more-or-less laughed at us. “No-one is asking for it, so we’ve no reason make it” was the standard response. So at the time, we felt that 100% recyclable PET was the best of a bad set of choices.
Things have moved on since then and finally a bottle made from recycled plastic became available last year. So now we have switched over our castile soaps to recycled PET. The bottles are slightly brown and cloudy, which is not quite the image we thought we wanted initially, but now we think they look cool and sun-tanned, and sometimes you have to make comprises between the look of something and the ethics of it. Our recycled bottles are made from 100% post consumer recycled (PCR) PET plastic which primarily comes from UK curb side waste collection and is mainly water bottles and natural colour personal care bottles. They are also recyclable a further 18 times if they get returned into the recycling chain although inevitably they will downcycled over time.
Our hope is that by pioneering the use of these bottles we can encourage other cosmetic companies to follow suit as well as demonstrating a better alternative to consumers. By the nature of what we do, we tend to attract discerning and well-informed customers who are thinking careful about what goes into the cosmetic products they use and how it is packaged. Perhaps we can make it ok or even desirable to have cosmetics in cloudy recycled plastic, because it is important that someone creates a market for recycled plastic. If no one will buy it, then recycling isn’t profitable and it will just be incinerated or go into landfill.
We’re a very small company in the grand scheme of things so it’s not like what we do will move mountains (or markets!). But our size does give us the freedom to try things larger companies are likely to be shy of. We have no shareholders insisting on cost cutting or higher profits, so if we want to try a more expensive but more sustainable packaging option we’re free to do that. And we have a very direct connection to our customers so we get pretty much instant feedback on what people like or dislike.
A few months further on from when I started to write this, I can report that, alongside championing the recycled PET route, we are have decided to go back to glass for all our new body lotions and body care products. This is in part due to the findings from our study carried out with our University of Limerick team and in part because the infinite recycling capacity of glass is hard to beat and we have perhaps solved the downside of glass, the transport weight. We will be using a new type of lightened glass developed by our bottle company which contains 50% less glass by weight, has 40% less external volume, and creates 70% less CO2 emissions during its manufacture compared to a standard glass bottle. This decrease of glass weight and external volume reduces the impact on the environment due to less extraction and use of raw materials, less melted and manufactured glass and less CO2 emissions for transport all along the supply chain. These are, you’ve guessed it, more expensive than standard glass bottles.
Recycling and Waste
Recycling is a very misunderstood area. Consumers are, in general, poorly informed (at least here in Ireland) and there are strong incentives for manufacturers and suppliers to create a ‘good impression’ of their efforts while glossing over the less palatable realities of packaging waste and recycling. And to be fair it’s not confined to manufacturers, the government and local councils also have an incentive (how can I say this kindly?) to ‘tell the story in a particular way’.
Of course people are much more savvy about this than they were say 5 or 10 years ago, but still there is an impression that by carefully sorting our waste, putting recyclables in the right bins, we are ‘doing our bit’. And we are doing our bit, as best we can, but for many materials there is simply no viable way to make recycling work. For example glass is highly and almost endlessly recyclable but the raw material for glass manufacturing is so cheap (sand) that brand new glass can be made as cheaply as recycled glass. But at least with glass it’s easy to know what is and isn’t glass. With plastics it gets way more complicated. Some are recyclable, some are not, some can be mixed, some can’t, etc. There are a wide variety of recycling symbols, some of which tell confusing or ambiguous stories, and finally, a ‘recyclable’ symbol does not always mean that the waste will be accepted by a local recycling centre, or even if it is, that it will actually be recycled.
Most people don’t realise that the rules have changed in the last couple years since China shopped taking our recycling. Almost all European countries used to export their recycling to China, and as such, very few now have the infrastructure in place to deal with all of their own country’s waste. This means that the rules are much stricter now. All the packaging has to be ‘Clean, Dry and Loose’ before it goes in the recycling bin. Which means you can’t put your recycling in a big bag or none of it will get recycled. You also can’t put soft plastics in your recycling bin anymore (though there are some facilities which will take them) and you also can’t put black plastic in because it the machines can’t see it very well so they can’t sort it. As such it can often end up contaminating other recycled materials like paper. I may be preaching to the choir here but even if this seems like common knowledge to you, ask your friends about it and you’ll be amazed how many people aren’t aware of these things.
I can also understand how recycling can feel like a pointless endeavour. So much of it never gets recycled, it either gets incinerated or thrown in a landfill. I am currently investigating what happens to all our recycling once it leaves here, carefully sorted and cleaned. We have sent a detailed list of questions to our local recycling centre but have yet to hear back from them. We’re very lucky to have good composting facilities on site for the tea rooms and in high summer we use the council food waste composting service, and apart from that we have very little waste. We have some cardboard, from packing boxes, which we often use as mulch for the herb garden and we have glass.
Sustainability is central to our brand and we will continue to invest time and money to find what we consider the best solutions and to document that journey in the interests of transparency and also so that you understand the complexity of the decisions that we are trying to make. We are only a small company however and what we can do is only going to have a small effect. But every time you as a consumer choose to spend (or not spend!) money on a product you send a message to manufacturers all the way up the distribution and supply chain. That's why we're seeing changes in what the big players are doing - they're responding to a very noticeable shift in consumer expectations. Keep the pressure on them, vote with your money!