Re-Imagining: A New Approach to Sustainable Packaging

We hear the terms reduce, recycle and reuse a lot. The words have practically become battle cries in most elementary schools these days. One company, though, is applying a new phrase to its sustainable packaging efforts: re-imagine. Icebreaker, a New Zealand outdoor apparel company, is asking its younger customers not to throw away or even to recycle the wrapping in which their fleece arrived. Icebreaker is designing packaging that can be turned into objects of creativity: toys, jewelry boxes and pencil cases.

A brief digression about high-end packaging may be in order, for context’s sake. I ordered a very cool pair of Australian hemp shoes a few months ago, despite the hefty price tag. Sometimes sustainable products are worth paying more for, I reasoned. But when they arrived (from China), they were encased in a Styrofoam tomb.
Yesterday, someone sent me a gift card from a high-end clothing retailer here in America. The outer envelope was stuffed with bubble wrap that was sealed with very pretty pink tape. The inner box had a beautiful ribbon tied around it. Inside the box was a thick, creamy envelope with my gift card inside. I was completely enchanted by the amazing attention to detail in the packaging design. Until I looked up and saw the pile of discarded paper and plastic that I had created during my delighted frenzy. I weighed it: almost half of pound of paper and plastic had been wrapped around a tiny gift card.
Why is it that luxury goods, especially, are almost always over-packaged? Even companies like Apple, who strive to be seen as sustainable, wrap their gadgets in an unnecessary amount of plastic and paper. Are these companies simply trying to gain competitive advantage by marketing their products in a way that seems fancy and unattainable? Or are consumers so jaded that we need our expensive toys to be encased in innovative but ultimately wasteful packaging in order to feel satisfied by our purchases?
Icebreaker certainly falls into the high-end category. The kids clothing features images of happy sheep and charming maps of New Zealand. The clothes resist odor, can be machine-washed and the Merino wool fibers are biodegradable and fire retardant. But it’s not cheap, by any stretch of the imagination. And the company knows that they must provide equally creative and innovative packaging, lest they fall short of customer expectations.
In order to push their commitment to sustainability one step further, they’ve designed packaging for their children’s line that can be “re-imagined”. For younger children, the box disassembles into “finger friend” toys. The older children are encouraged to use the box as a container for other items like school supplies and trinkets. Rob Achten, Icebreaker’s VP of Product and Creative Director, says “We thought a lot about packaging and over-packaging… We wanted to see if we could encourage them in thinking about giving a second life to packaging.” Young customers are invited to photograph their re-imagined creations and submit them for display on Icebreaker’s website. To top it off, all the paper used for the packaging is made from FSC-certified forests, and the ink is vegetable-based.
This re-imagined children’s packaging is not Icebreaker’s first attempt to innovate in the world of sustainable business. Earlier this year, we told you about their new “Baacode” system. Each clothing item comes with a unique Baacode that the customer can punch into the website to see the entire supply chain for their new sweater, from farm to mill.
Packaging that is recyclable or recycled has been a big trend recently, especially for green products. Unfortunately, companies are over-packaging products to the nth degree with the justification that: it’s recycled paper! Or recyclable plastic! Icebreaker is making a statement by ascertaining that their packaging can actually be used again and again. They are adding end-life value to their packaging design. I’m excited to see what they do next.

Rebecca Greenberg is an MBA candidate at the Presidio School of Management. Prior to her studies at Presidio, her professional experience was primarily focused in corporate retail merchandising at both Gap Inc. and Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Having traveled extensively in the developing world and having worked in corporate America, Rebecca is very passionate about applying business principles to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

2 responses

  1. Very cool article. My pet peeve is how the cosmetics company encase a tiny jar inside a larger cardboard jar to make you think you’re buying more. Who are they kidding? keep up your good work!!!

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