Closing the Loop— The Packaging Plight, Busting Buzzwords & Accessibility Demanding Environmental Design
In helping organizations define their impact, the most frequent request we get is in helping others increase their works’ accessibility. This is an easier feat for services vs. product based companies, but one that our culture tries to convince us is vice versa. Why so? Like most things, this little problem has been exasperated by a lack of correctly defined language, paired with the marketing leaning on environmentally-driven trends rather than allowing the ideal to lead the organization’s operational narratives. Google exists— and surprisingly enough, so do libraries— so I’ll let you educate yourself on the history of marketing’s trend history and the culture of consumerism in driving misinformation. For now, we’ll keep our conversation focused on the latest enviro-lickin’ trend: “Closed Loop” Products.
What we’re currently hearing closed-loop language used for:
1. Refillable plastic containers
2. Upcycling materials into new products
3. Properly recycling materials (this bad boy has been getting a make over every time a new eco-trend buzz word hits the market)
What closed-loop actually is: Thinking about the entire lifecycle and multiple potentials of a material, including its ability to break back down into nature to feed the system the material was developed from.
So why do we care about this? We agree with Michael Braungart and William McDonough when they talk about humans having a “materials in the wrong place” problem. And we also believe in our clients’ ability to be creative enough to sustain their goal of creating accessibility. With 52% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide, generated since 1850, still in our air, we believe that to sustain an accessible narrative we must think about how the process of the products we develop diminishes when we purchase materials processed or gleamed from spaces that have been harmed because of this work. If a health center is selling supplements derived from a process that is depleting a natural resource at an unsustainable rate or unnecessarily processing items with chemicals that are decreasing the air quality in a nearby city, this negates the accessibility of a healthy way of life for those struggling within the harmed environments. Offering increased health opportunities for some does not negate the trifold of harm created for others around the world. But this isn’t a doomsday blog. This is an opportunity to design a solution.
While you chew on that, let’s talk about current culture product development expectations vs. how your communities really need you to design—
What most think about when they “create” a product:
1, Where they can purchase or make a product from wholesale materials
2. Thinking about how the user will find or initially utilize the product.
3. And half the time, the packaging design
What product development really requires when considering the end use of every material involved:
1. The base material’s ability to break down and feed back into the planet, no matter how many lifecycles it has as multiple products
2. The process to create the base material and form it into your product — labor & emissions are equally revered in this process
3. Understanding the least amount of packaging needed to bring the product to the public (Fun fact, an average of 50% of a product’s waste comes from its packaging— this is where that self-taught history lesson comes in, marketing once used the word “disposable” to convince entire generations (cough cough, anglo-centric western cultures) that materials can “go away”.)
4. The educational materials to teach the public about how to manage the product’s lifecycle
5. The follow up to make sure the product was properly managed in its “final” lifestyle stage
This brings us back to the conversation of designing for accessibility. When I talk compostable packaging, natural material options, or transparent marketing that outlines the lifecycle of products created (what current work culture has encouraged us to think as “extra”, “going above and beyond” or “not necessary”), I get a lot of frustrated tones or furrowed brows when they see increased budgets, time expectations and processes. This is where we take the opportunity to challenge the desire for accessibility.
Our research has shown that “accessibility” is most equated with “affordability” when it comes to end cost for the user. (We ironically see this problem combatted by brands’ frustration of not making enough profit to “give back” to their communities, a charity that could be negated if profit expectations were decreased and thus increasing the affordability. The ability to offer scaleable pricing also offers increased accessibility.)
Accessibility is defined as the large majority’s ability to access a particular deliverable. This access is defined by the living environment that allows an individual’s participation, barred through a unique block of physical, mental, emotional and/or environmental barriers. These barriers are created through a cacophony of able-isms— ageism, racism, environmentalism. It’s got an ism? Add it to the list.
When you look at the lifespan of a product, one of the leading gaps in the strategy is the end of the lifecycle, the part of the product’s timeline that tends to end up in a trash pile floating in an ocean or stacked up next to sand dunes in Chile. This decreases accessibility to a healthy environment for those who are live in and participate with the locations trash piles up. Off-gassing materials are another deterrent to accessibility, decreasing the health of the initial user of the product who is constantly touching, rubbing and playing with the product. The emissions created during the process of the development of this product is a further degrade on health, decreasing local environments’ ability to self-regulate with chemicals pumping into the atmosphere, to create the chemicals that will soon off gas in your home.
You can see why we’re such nerds about strategizing around product development.
Looking to close that product loop and actually align your marketing values with your operations? We’ve got you.
Want to join our case study on closed-loop products, packaging, materials and infrastructure? Give us a holler! We’re currently connecting with partners across the world for this project.
Until then, start perusing some of our favorite folks who are committed to ridding trash from the source: