In 2024 consumer demands for sustainability are at an all-time high, e-commerce is booming and brands are struggling to navigate the complexities of omnichannel retail.

In this ever-evolving landscape, packaging design plays a more critical role than ever before, influencing everything from brand perception to environmental impact.

To better understand how leading companies adapt to these challenges, Packaging Gateway spoke with Paul Clarke, managing director of the UK and Ireland packaging division at DS Smith. 

Clarke offers valuable insights into the future of packaging design and DS Smith’s approach to creating impactful solutions.

Sustainability: a driving force

“The biggest change has undoubtedly been the increasing focus on sustainability,” says Clarke.

Consumers are no longer satisfied with empty promises on packaging. They demand tangible action from brands to lessen their environmental footprint. 

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“When it comes to packaging, we know that consumers want to see less plastic and less waste,” emphasises Clarke.

“At DS Smith, we find innovative solutions that design out waste, reduce the use of virgin materials and replace plastics.”

He points to DS Smith’s circular design metrics as a prime example. This industry-first initiative provides a comprehensive framework for evaluating the environmental impact of packaging designs across eight key indicators. 

“The circular design metrics are an industry first and clearly identify a packaging design’s sustainability performance, and where to focus attention. This has been game-changing for many of our customers in helping them meet their own sustainability goals,” explains Clarke.

Functionality meets aesthetics

While visually appealing packaging can undoubtedly grab attention on crowded shelves, Clarke highlights that functionality remains paramount. 

“We carried out some research recently which found that the fundamental properties of packaging – to protect the product inside – aren’t currently being met for all consumers. 58% of online shoppers said they would stop ordering from a company if they received a damaged product repeatedly,” highlights Clarke.

This statistic underscores the importance of prioritising durability in packaging design. 

“Packaging is a brand’s presentation and one of the first physical touchpoints that a consumer will have with a product bought online, meaning a negative experience will hurt a brand and could impact future sales,” says Clarke. “Brands should prioritise durability as an essential and non-negotiable area.”

Technology as a powerful tool

Advancements in technology are rapidly reshaping the future of packaging design. 

“Our customers need solutions that extend beyond the box – changing shopping habits and expectations around sustainability mean we have a role to play in helping them to adapt to a changing world,” explains Clarke.

DS Smith is at the forefront of this change, actively exploring the potential of bio-based polymers as barrier materials. These innovative materials offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastic coatings. 

“We are investing in technology and digitalisation, including cloud software and data and analytics. We already use AI tools to predict demand and align our production to avoid waste,” says Clarke. 

This commitment to technological innovation and its focus on circularity positions DS Smith as a leader in sustainable packaging solutions.

Collaboration is key

“We pride ourselves in the relationships we develop with our customers to ensure we are delivering against the brief at hand,” says Clarke. 

This collaborative approach ensures that DS Smith delivers packaging solutions that are not only sustainable but also tailored to each brand’s specific needs. 

Its in-house teams are equipped with the latest market insights and shopper trends, enabling them to create strategic packaging campaigns that resonate with target audiences. 

The design process itself is a true partnership. It involves close collaboration with the brand and rigorous testing of prototypes to ensure functionality and durability. 

“We also often run workshops in our innovation centres to help customers consider options that are perhaps more left field for them. We want to support them to push themselves outside of their comfort zone,” says Clarke.

Oceans and sustainable success

Clarke cites DS Smith’s recent collaboration with Oceans, a UK manufacturer of plastic-free toilet tissue, as a powerful example of this collaborative approach. 

“The brand wanted to design a range of introductory packs which would encourage customers to make use of its subscription offer for toilet roll, safe in the knowledge that the packaging was plastic-free and 100% recyclable,” he explains. 

DS Smith understood the importance of aligning the packaging with Oceans’ sustainability mission. 

The final design, crafted through a collaborative process, utilised 100% recyclable content and optimised dimensions to minimise waste and environmental impact. 

The packaging also featured a strategically placed QR code offering a discount to first-time customers, contributing to a significant increase in repeat purchases. 

1 in 4 shoppers would cease ordering due to excessive packaging

The growing importance of sustainability in packaging design cannot be overstated. 

“We’re seeing retailers striving to meet ambitious ESG [environmental, social and governance] targets in a number of ways, as a result of stricter packaging regulations but also due to consumer appetite,” says Clarke. 

“Consumers are increasingly eco-conscious. Our research indicates that 1 in 4 online shoppers would cease ordering from a company due to excessive, non-recyclable packaging.”

This trend highlights the need for businesses to prioritise not just product quality but also responsible packaging practices.  

Looking ahead

DS Smith is at the forefront of developing innovative solutions for sustainable packaging. 

“Our research and development team has created an innovative barrier option which uses biodegradable and water-soluble polymers to protect a box on its journey to the customer,” highlights Clarke.

These coatings have a significant advantage: they separate from the recyclable fibres during the recycling process, further minimising environmental impact. 

Another exciting initiative spearheaded by DS Smith is their partnership with Nafici Environmental Research. This collaboration explores the potential of “second harvest” materials, aiming to transform agricultural waste into paper-making pulp. 

“This initiative aims to transform agricultural waste into paper-making pulp, potentially saving up to 10% of the virgin fibres used in papermaking,” explains Clarke.

Adapting to the evolving retail landscape

The rise of e-commerce has significantly impacted packaging design priorities. 

“Over the past few years, the way consumers shop has transformed dramatically,” says Clarke. “The preference for online shopping has surged, driven by convenience and lifestyle changes.” 

In the UK alone, internet sales now represent over 25% of retail sales, with more than 80% of the population engaging in e-commerce purchases.

“This shift places immense pressure on businesses to ensure their e-commerce packaging solutions are top-notch,” explains Clarke. 

DS Smith addresses these evolving demands by offering packaging solutions that prioritise three key areas: sustainability, ease of returns and durable, protective designs for online deliveries.

Looking ahead, Clarke anticipates a future in which packaging becomes sleeker and more compact, minimising waste and appealing to consumers’ preferences for sustainable practices. 

He envisions brands leveraging packaging as a first touchpoint to create memorable consumer experiences that go beyond the ordinary.