Being a More Environmentally-Conscious Packaging Designer

As graphic designers, we have the power to make a tremendous impact on how new and existing products are impacting the environment.

One of the ways that we can make an impactful difference for the better is through environmentally conscious packaging design. 

While it is important to consider functionality, usability, and aesthetics when working on a packaging design project, it is equally as important to consider how this product will impact the planet. A great place to begin is by thinking about the packaging’s “End of Life”.

End of Life

What is the end of life? When all is said and done, when the item has been purchased and presumably used up, what will happen to the packaging that it came in? Will it end up in a landfill? Can it be recycled, and if so, how difficult would it be for the consumer to recycle it? Could it be upcycled, repurposed into something new?

These are all important questions to ponder when deciding on the materials and functionality of the product’s packaging. The ideal choice would be to try to keep things out of the landfill. But to do so, it is important to make sure not only that the item can be recycled, but that the consumer knows or can easily figure out how to recycle the product. Unfortunately, we see many products on the market, particularly in plastic bags/wrappers or wax-coated containers that misinform the consumers by claiming to be recyclable, but under closer examination, in tiny fine print, state that they must be sent away or dropped off to a very specific facility to be recycled. But why make it harder and more confusing for the consumer to make a decision that impacts our planet? By clearly communicating somewhere on the packaging what to do at the end of its life, we can make the experience so much easier. 



Choosing Materials

Another way that we can impact the environment as designers, is by choosing sustainable materials or materials that are easier to recycle. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to commercially recycle mixed materials. By choosing packaging that only uses one type of material or multiple types that can be separated (glass, aluminum, paper, etc.), and by choosing post-consumer recycled materials when possible, recycling the packaging at the end of its life becomes that much easier. It also increases the chances that it will be recycled properly. 

By choosing sturdier materials, it increases the chances that the packaging may be upcycled. For example, by packaging something in a glass jar or metal tin as opposed to a plastic jar, not only are you using more eco-friendly materials, but now the consumer has an object that can be repurposed, giving it a new life. 

A Final Note…

If this is all new to you, don’t be overwhelmed. It’s something worth thinking about, and as you consider and implement these practices over time they will become like second nature in your design process. 


Check out our other post on how to be more a more environmentally conscious web designer.

Being a More Environmentally-Conscious Web Designer

Web design practices have more of an environmental impact than we may realize

As designers, we can always work towards being better at creating environmentally-conscious web design.  In our projects, we often don’t think about building and designing eco-friendly websites.

website server

Oftentimes, we assume that making something digital makes it more environmentally friendly. We’re using fewer resources, right? Not quite. It can be easy to forget that our websites are running on servers somewhere, which are running on energy, which often use fossil fuels. There are many things that we can do both in the design and development stages to help reduce the amount of energy used to view our sites. 

Less is More

Minimalism is definitely trending in the design world, and not just because it looks nice. By following the less is more principle when designing websites, there is less loading required when going to a website, which reduces the amount of energy being used. Browsing a website with media such as images and videos emits approximately 12g of CO2 per minute. That would be the equivalent of driving a car roughly 89 feet. By reducing java widgets and graphics, gifs, ads, and moving elements, and by uploading smaller files for things like images and videos, the site will load faster. You can even look up the speed at which your webpage is loading using the Google Developer tool. 

Going hand in hand with the concept of “Less is more”, is making the site User Friendly. Obviously, one of the main goals of an effective website designer is to make the site as user-friendly as possible. The fewer clicks it takes someone to get where they’re going, the easier the website is to navigate intuitively, the better. By making the website as user-friendly as possible, also saves energy. Fewer clicks and less time spent navigating make for a quicker experience, and less energy being used on the server that your website is hosted on. 

Designing Printer-Friendly 

It’s not uncommon for people to want to print out things that they find online, so it’s very important to take that into consideration. By designing printer-friendly websites, when someone does decide to print, it will use less paper, ink, and in turn, energy and resources. If the site has a colored background, even when printing in black and white, the printer will need to print the background color of your site.

recipe with print buttonHave you ever gone to print an article or recipe online, and saw a “Print” Button on the page? Oftentimes, when designing for something that will no doubt be printed, we can include these buttons that open a new window with a print-friendly version. These are usually black text on a white background, a more condensed layout with smaller type sizes, and images or anything else that doesn’t need to be printed removed. That way, you can still have a colored background on your website, larger text, and images, animations, etc. while still being print conscious. There is a wonderful Plugin called Print Friendly that can do this! 

Other things that you can do

Have you considered choosing a green WebHost? Since your WebHost controls the server, it’s a great idea to choose a WebHost that cares about its environmental impact as well. When searching for a WebHost, you can ask them questions, like how they choose to get their energy needs met. Are their servers powered by renewable energy? Do they offset their energy use? 

Another thing that you can do is to educate your website’s audience on the matter. There are websites that show carbon footprint calculations based on what sort of shipping option you choose. There are also websites that have pop-ups talking about your digital carbon footprint, and how using the site may be affecting the planet. This might not necessarily make sense to have on every site that you design, but where it’s applicable it might be worth trying out.

ecograderEcograder is a website where you can enter your site’s URL and it provides you with a report, ranking you in various categories, letting you know what you could do to make your website greener, and whether or not it’s using renewable energy.

Website Carbon CalculatorWebsiteCarbon is another great site that can give you an estimate of your carbon emissions.

Checking your websites on these platforms may be a great place to start on your journey to becoming a more eco-friendly website designer.

Being a More Environmentally-Conscious Designer: Working with Others

As designers, we have more power than we may realize to help impact the environment for the better.

There are many ways that our choices and processes can affect the environment. One of those ways is by choosing who we work with.

It’s always nice to have clients who are on the same page as you, who want to do as much as possible to make sure that the work you’re doing doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment. However, realistically, that isn’t always the case, which is why it’s always great to communicate your goals and decisions and to be encouraging when possible. By having clear and open communication about why you’re making the choices and suggestions that you are, it helps everyone feel aligned in the path forward.

Giving Recommendations 

Offering recommendations is helpful to clients in many ways – tapping into your wealth of knowledge, saving them time – and allows you the opportunity to recommend something environmentally conscious that support your clearly aligned goals. One example of this is having a conversation with your client about the benefits of carbon offset shipping for their e-commerce business when setting up or looking into shipping for their website. It could be something they haven’t even considered, so it’s important to outline the benefits. In general, it’s a good idea to try to give recommendations for ethical third parties that also care about the environment before recommending those that do not. 

UPS Truck: Carbon offset shipping

Going along with that, it’s also a good idea to work with manufacturers and printers that also care about their environmental impact. It’s perfectly okay (and a good idea) to ask these companies directly, if the information isn’t available on their website, what they’re doing to be more environmentally conscious, and many have policies, written practices, and maybe even impact reports ready to share. By having this network or database of sustainable third parties to work with or recommend to clients, it becomes easier to be a sustainable designer because the resources are already at your fingertips. 

Having Conversations

While communicating with clients about your sustainability-inspired decisions can be helpful and encouraging, it’s equally as important to have these conversations with fellow designers. By talking about sustainability with colleagues and others in the field, it can reach folks that might not have considered it as thoroughly beforehand. Even if you just start with small conversations, every choice that you make while working with others can be another step towards becoming a more environmentally conscious designer. 

Being a more environmentally-conscious graphic designer: Printing

As designers, we tend to do a lot of printing.

Not only do many of the things that we create eventually get printed, but we also do a ton of test prints to make sure that the final prints look how we want before sending them off to the printer. While many times this is unavoidable, there are steps that we can take to be more environmentally conscious when it comes to our printing habits. 

Conserving Materials

I’m sure when you think of being an environmentally conscious designer, one of the first things that come to mind is considering printing. Obviously, we can’t just give up printing, as there are many instances where printing is the more realistic and effective way to communicate, but there is room for reduction. It’s always worth asking yourself what you can do to conserve materials. A great question to ask — is it necessary to print this? Can it be digital? If you end up deciding, which you often will, that printing is the best route to take, you can still be mindful of the environmental impact of printing by optimizing the document sizing for printing. 

For example, maybe you can set up your document and design it in such a way that minimizes white space that will be cropped off and recycled once it gets printed. Or try to use the space to the fullest. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean to shove a bunch of stuff in your white space as white space is very valuable in a design, (shout out to the folks that designed the Dr. Bronner’s packaging because that is not something that could be easily pulled off). However, it is possible to still have white space, and be more intentional about sizing/folding/margins/bleeds/ etc. when setting up a document to conserve as much as possible. Less is indeed more when it comes to printing materials. So perhaps, you can print things a little smaller, or print but use less paper by strategizing how things will be assembled. 

Choosing Materials

It’s important to take into consideration both the paper, but also the ink that’s being used for the print piece. You can now request at many print companies that they use VOC-free inks. Before the 1970s, most inks actually used vegetable oils as a base. However, as the years went on, it became the norm for printers to use synthetic inks. Inks that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are carbon-based inks that evaporate, releasing greenhouse gases and contributing to global warming. More and more printing companies are offering new and improved environmentally friendly vegetable-based inks that are available upon request!

Additionally, more printing companies are offering environmentally-friendly papers. It’s always a wonderful idea to be mindful when choosing a paper stock. Chlorine-free paper is always a great idea, as well as recycled paper. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a not-for-profit organization that certifies paper stock that has been harvested and produced responsibly. Other organizations certify papers as well. 

Printer fsc logo

Working With Others

Another way to be more mindful when printing, is by choosing to work with printing companies that consider their emissions and environmental impact. You can always ask a new potential printing company what they are doing to reduce water, energy, etc. to see if their values align with yours. 

Learn more about how working with others can help you to be a more environmentally conscious designer in our next blog post!