Talking sustainable packaging with Root Packaging Consultant Tracy Sutton

Materials World magazine
29 Mar 2016

Tracy Sutton talks to Natalie Daniels about what sustainable packaging really means and what can be done to implement more environmentally friendly solutions.

Tell me about your background. 

I studied Sustainable Product Design at Falmouth University, UK, then went on to specialise in sustainable packaging. I’ve since worked in the fast-moving consumer goods sector as a packaging technologist, packaging engineer and, finally, the technical project director for Pearlfisher, in London and New York. I saw first hand how packaging innovation could reap both environmental conomic rewards and therefore set out in my career to focus on packaging design, innovation and sustainability.

What does your work at Root involve?

A typical project would kick off with a brand immersion and a factory visit to get to the root of the business and understand where the client wants to take their brand and packaging. I then go away and create a proposal that has 3-5 project stages and includes a number of different phases – some take six weeks and others 18 months. 

Some clients need a packaging strategy for their brand to help them focus their efforts in a particular direction, others need range rationalisation and to reduce costs. I've worked with a number of global brands to help them design and define new pack formats to develop for the future, but I've also helped a start up find the best and most appropriate packaging for a small cosmetic range – it's a real variety of projects, which is what I love about my job. 

What is sustainability in the packaging industry?

You often hear people say that there is no such thing as a sustainable package because it is additional to the products we buy – it is often essential, but more often excessive. While consumers continue to demand limitless products 24/7 from around the globe, the industry will strive to prioritise and develop more environmentally sound solutions. Profit drives most businesses, meaning sustainable packaging must be something that will increase profit, sales or reputation. For me, sustainable design is smart, simple and slim. There is a tendency to over complicate things, but I think it's always best to keep it simple. We should use less, and design packaging with a circular economy in mind to ensure that it can be disassembled at the end of its life, and composted at home or easily recycled.  

Do you think there is enough innovation in the packaging industry or has the industry become too relaxed with the term ‘innovation’?

The word 'innovation' can be used too much these days. Brands are under pressure to innovate, but often need support to make it happen. Innovation is not compostable packaging, a new shape of packaging or a light-weighted pack – these are all things that have been done before. Innovation is significantly more than this – these incremental steps are important achievements, but they don't necessarily benefit the consumer. They don’t fill consumers with surprise. More needs to be done to help nudge people out of the comfort zone that exists around this apparent 'innovation'. The industry is somewhat complacent, working within the systems and processes that exist, so we lack real game changing technological or creative innovations that really engage with consumers.

What are some of the challenges companies face when implementing sustainability into their packaging and brand? 

There are two key challenges that prevent more environmentally considerate packaging hitting the supermarket shelves. One is lack of education and the system within which designers operate. Education surrounding sustainability needs to be greatly improved within the design sector. I have a great network of designers and design agencies that would all like to design packaging with a lower impact, but they don't often have access to the information and expertise they need to make it happen. 

There is a serious lack of education surrounding sustainability, across the design and manufacturing sectors. Designers want to do the right thing but are not provided with the tools to make the best decision. I've worked with a number of universities as a guest lecturer on a variety of design courses. I know that courses often have optional or small modules on sustainability rather than sustainability being a consistent theme throughout the course. This is why people who studied graphic design or communication design courses generally need technical and environmental guidance to help them realise their concepts in production. Without this support, fewer new ideas and concepts will get to market. 

It's easy to increase the impact and appeal of packaging through prioritising sustainability principles. Today, there are more barriers than incentives to adopting more environmentally friendly practices, simply because people believe that it will have a negative impact on their work. The current system does not give designers the opportunity to consider sustainability. Brands rarely include environmental aspects in their design briefs, so they miss the opportunity for designers to engage with the subject and put forward more environmentally considerate designs. 

What needs to be done to ensure over time the industry is more sustainable? 

The understanding of what 'sustainable' packaging really is needs to change. People wrongly assume that it costs more, which is a myth – using less material costs less and it can be that simple. Manufacturers also need to work hard to integrate sustainable design principles into their packaging and give clients what they want. Many are churning out tonnes of non-recyclable, non-renewable packaging material every day and are benefitting from the profits without investing in a more sustainable future. A more collaborative, future focused approach would gain them a better reputation and increased trust. It's what consumers want and it's what brands want. 

What are the most important factors when it comes to packaging? 

Cost must come first – it's one of the key pre-requisites for sustainable packaging and it's the first question buyers ask. Packaging must be economically sustainable for businesses to adopt. If it's expensive then it won't work. The three key areas I focus on are profitability, desirability and sustainability – packaging must be designed with these factors in mind. Without one of them, it can not be successful on a long term basis. 

What steps would you like to see taken in the industry over the next few years? 

I'd like to see if we could find a real alternative to plastic that uses renewable resources and composts in a home environment. The emergence of bio-based plastics such PET made from renewable resources are great, but they still leave us with lots of plastic to clean and move around the recycling system. Scientists, polymer manufacturers and packaging converters are currently undergoing a lot of work to trial new compostable materials, and I'm looking forward to seeing and reading the results of these tests. I'd also like to see regulation for those claiming their products are compostable and biodegradable within the industry. Brands are being sold items such as coffee cups and lids that only compost in an industrial composting facility. There is no real infrastructure to collect industrially compostable packaging – the packaging goes to landfill, while the buyers think that it dissolves in the garden at home.

Tracy Sutton is a print, packaging and sustainable brand consultant. She founded Root in 2013 to help brands take advantage of sustainable design thinking. She has 15 years' experience in the packaging industry as a technologist, engineer and technical project director and has worked on a number of national and international projects, managing global packaging launches, branding implementations and sustainability strategies for brands including Starbucks, Cadbury, Jamie Oliver, Mosami and Waitrose. Tracy has been on the advisory board for a number of global brands, is an RSA Fellow, and frequently lectures at a number of UK universities.

To find out more about Tracy’s work at Root, visit