The Art of Reusable Packaging

Since buying and selling was invented, packaging has always been there to protect and market products. The needs and wants of people have continually evolved and so has product packaging. Although packaging has evolved, 95% of new products still fail. Why? Because most customers don’t have the time and energy to know the advantages and disadvantages of products when they shop, so they use shortcuts in making their buying  decisions. And that shortcut is product packaging. Packaging is one powerful tool because it tells consumers why your product and brand is different from any other products on the market. For example, Apple is known for its clean and minimalist designs, Coca-Cola’s bottle silhouette is recognisable around the world. Established companies and big business enterprises know the importance of packaging and many have invested in attention-catching packaging. Modern start-ups are also mastering the packaging world because businesses today are more in-tune with what consumers want (thanks to social media and other modern platforms). Many of these start-ups have started to take advantage of sustainable packaging with interesting designs to attract customers and making product unboxing as exciting as buying and owning the product.

Packaging can also continue to influence a company’s sales and continuous growth. For example, MillerCoors’s sales experienced a slump a few years ago. After they revamped their beer packaging, sales boosted by nearly 5%. Miller didn’t change their beer, they just changed the canister it came in. Poor packaging and government regulations can also contribute to the success of a brand or business. As another example, the Australian government instituted a “plain packaging law” for cigarettes and other tobacco products. The government ordered the removal of packaging and branding that aimed to encourage people to smoking. Now tobacco and cigarette companies cannot even use their own logo. The typeface on cigarette boxes are all the same and the covers were replaced by health warnings and graphic images that deter smoking. This law resulted in the biggest smoking decline in Australia over the past 20 years.

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Packaging shouldn’t just exist to entice customers, but to protect the product inside it and be as sustainable and reusable as possible. Natural resources are fast depleting because of continuous population growth around the world – and with this growing global population alongside the expansion of consumption, it was estimated that human consumption first exceeded the normal capacity in the early seventies. Experts have also stated that humanity cannot maintain the planet’s natural resources and decrease the deficit every year. And even if the planet is in a deficit, humanity is not taking any serious measures in moving everything back in the right direction.

Pollution, climate change and energy use are all environmental and human issues that provoke international debate and attention regarding sustainability and the modern human lifestyle. At present, sustainable packaging has become a mainstream concern for many governments and businesses around the world in order to preserve and save the planet’s future. Sustainability and reusability in packaging should also comply with international, national or local packaging rules and regulations. Packaging materials should also be efficient for the environment and the economy.

Why is Product Packaging Essential?

Since the 1930s, product packaging has served as the silent salesman for any product. On the shelf, a buyer looks at the product through its labels and packaging and starts to think about its quality and the possible value. A great and effective packaging emotionally appeals to consumers and allows them to imagine what they can do with the product. If this is achieved, these emotions usually convert to a purchase decision and an actual purchase being made. Product packaging is meticulously created and developed to go beyond its emotional appeal and to serve important functions that are critical in ensuring that the product delivers a great experience after purchase. Product packaging functions include:

  • To contain the product efficiently and to define how much of the distribution and consumption.
  • To protect the product from physical damage from vibration, shock or compression during transportation from manufacturing plant to retail store and theft.
  • To preserve and extend the shelf life by preventing any contaminants caused by harmful microorganisms from the air, moisture and biological changes.
  • To communicate and allow consumers to recognise and identify the brand or the product on the display or shelf.
  • To promote, entice and to catch the attention of the customers and present information that is useful to them and influence their buying decision.
  • To transact and allow the logistical and commercial capabilities that can easily integrate with various point of sale systems.
  • To use as barrier protection. Packaging serves as barrier form water vapour, dust or oxygen. Permeation is also critical in package design and some packages contain oxygen absorbers in extending the life of the product.
  • To promote security for products. Packaging plays an important part in reducing security risks of shipment. Packages can be made with improved tamper resistance to deter tampering. Packages can be engineered in helping reduce the risks of package pilfering or theft and illegal resale of products.
  • To promote convenience by having features that add convenience in distribution, handling, stacking, sale, opening, use, reuse, dispensing, recycling and ease of disposal.
  • To control portions, especially in the food packaging business. Single serving or exact dosage packaging has an exact amount of contents limit product usage. Bulk commodities like sugar or salt can be divided into manageable packages that are more suitable for individual households.

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Packaging can be described by their layer or their function where:

  1. Primary packaging is the material that first envelops the products and holds it. This is usually is the smallest unit of distribution or use. It is the package which is in direct contact with the products or contents.
  2. Secondary packaging is outside the primary packaging that is used to group primary packages together.
  3. Tertiary packaging is commonly designed for bulk handling, transport, shipping and warehouse storage. The most common form of these packages is a pallet unit load that can be packed tightly into containers.

A Short History Of Packaging

Many people know that product packaging has several important functions which enable trade and commerce. Modern day packaging functions go beyond containing, protecting and preserving products. It also includes functions to communicate, promote and transact products. The packaging provides several cues that are designed to affect the consumer’s perception of the product and eventually influence their behaviour. The mentioned functions are normal today, but it took 150 years of continuous product packaging innovations to evolve into a carefully designed artefact that integrates different functions of commerce into a thin film wrapped around many products. Ever growing competition and continuous technological innovations have helped shape the packaging evolution since the 1860s. Experts have stated that material and technology innovations have revolved closely around cultural phenomenon and consumer behaviours that were prevalent around the given time periods.

In ancient times, food was consumed and produced locally so there was no need for any packaging. But as civilisations grew, the need to contain, protect and transport food became really critical. Ancient civilisations used materials that were readily available to them. The first packages used natural materials available at the time – basket of reeds, wooden boxes, ceramic amphorae, pottery vases, woven bags, sheep skins, etc. Minerals, ores and chemicals were discovered, metals and other forms of pottery were discovered and developed that lead to the use of new materials including fabrics, ceramics, metals, wood ware, jade ware, and certain simple types of paper. The earliest recorded use of paper for packaging was dated back to 1035, when Persian travellers visited markets in Cairo. It was recorded that basic commodities like food and hardware were wrapped in paper after they were sold.

The modern era or the industrial revolution has introduced the use of tinplate for packaging. The manufacture of tinplate was long held by Bohemia. In 1667, the English engineer Andrew Yarranton and Ambrose Crowley brought the process to England where it was improved by ironmasters like Philip Foley. By 1997, John Hanbury owned a rolling mill that made Pontypool plates. The process of rolling iron plates using cylinders enabled more uniform black plates to be produced as compared to traditional hammering. The tin plates were sold from ports in Bristol starting in 1725 and by 1905, about 80,000 boxes were made and 50,000 were exported.

And with this packaging development and the eventual discovery of the importance of airtight containers for food preservation, the tin can process was first patented by the British businessman Peter Durand. He sold the patent to two fellow Brits John Hall and Bryan Dinklin who refined the process and set up the first commercial canning factory in London.

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In the 20th century, packaging advancements included transparent cellophane overwraps, carton panels, bakelite closures on bottles have increased the efficiency in processing and enhanced food safety. Aluminium and several types of plastics were developed to be incorporated into packages to further improve their performance and functionality. The great depression also marked the rise of the supermarket culture and it has drastically changed the distribution and the consumption patterns of consumers worldwide. The changes in behaviour of self-service model required for packaging to assume the role of a salesman. Consumerism after World War II made single use-and-throw materials popular. Many of the innovations in packaging were applied for military use.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the rise of digital technologies allowed many businesses to scale rapidly and become worldwide. And with fierce competition, packaging came in the way of differentiating products stored on shelves. At the rise of the digital age, it resulted in the rise of computing abilities and the evolution of printing technologies. Digital printing technologies with innovative transactional capabilities have provided the unwarranted speed of execution and fast scaling of business became possible. While the growing fascination for plastics led to innovations in packaging materials and shapes, nondecomposable packaging waste became an environmental issue around the world.

Reusable or environmentally-friendly packaging is not common yet, but people are becoming more aware of the impact of non-sustainable and non-reusable products and packaging. Landfill spaces are limited and the life-cycle of reusable packaging is truly superior.

As much as packaging has become as important as the product itself, modern-day packaging is also recognised as a threat to the environment and much research continues to find new materials and processes to find sustainable solutions.

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Product Packaging Attributes

Product packaging is made up of several cues that come together to present consumers with a clear value proposition that can affect the perception of the product quality and influence their purchasing decision. These essential cues can be classified into 4 categories

1. Intrinsic cues that are inherent to the product

These are the cues that define the inherent properties of the product itself. It allows the consumers to understand its utility for their purpose.

  • Instructions – which is an inseparable part of product communication which also defines the consumer behaviour around the product.
  • Ingredients – the key components or substances mixed together in making the product function and pinpoint its application.
  • Shelf life – this is the period for which the product is good to be consumed and allows for the fair assessment of its value.
  • Volume – It’s the quantity that determines the portions and distribution patterns of the product, but it also affects the consumption patterns.

2. Structural cues that define the tangible properties of the product

These are the cues that constitute the tangible characteristics of the product. This forms the initial stimulus that buyers respond to even before they consciously process any information about the said product. Cues include:

  • Colour – this is a visual perceptual property that evokes a response from the possible consumers and often conveys a meaning or message without using words.
  • Shape – these are the geometric properties that define the form of the product or its container which suggest the potential use of the product.
  • Texture – it’s the surface characteristics that help define a distinctive character and quality of the product.
  • Material – these are the elements that define the surface evoking an emotional response from consumers of the anticipated product experience.

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3. Extrinsic cues that are properties outside the product

These cues directly affect consumers trust and probably the primary indicators that influence their perception. If the consumers can relate to the brand or business, they are more likely to relate to the product as well. Cues include:

  • Brand name or identity – the outward expression of a brand, including the name, the trademark, visual appearance and communications that allows consumers to recognise the original manufacturer.
  • Product name – this is another essential part of branding and is inseparable from its identity. The primary function of this is to let consumers associate a meaning to the product being sold.
  • Product message – it includes the lines, graphics, symbols, illustrations, patterns, typography pictures and others. This gives the consumers an idea of who the product is for.
  • Place of origin – this is essential for an unknown product. The source authenticates its history of ownership, its cultural associations and the assumptions about the quality of the product.

4. Transactional cues

These cues deal with the economics of the decision-making process which elevates the product perceptions and provide buyers with information that helps them make a value assessment of their purchase decisions.

  • Price – the most objective cues which enables consumers to individually assess the value of the purchase. Consumers equate their purchase thinking the services or product they will get against the payment they make or have just made.
  • Quantity – this is the measurable property of the product that signifies the quantum of benefits and justify the product price.
  • Promotion – the information intended to differentiate a product and increase the demands. It can include coupons, contests, rebates, premiums, prizes and product samples.
  • Bar code – the Universal Product Code that allows retailers to access and organise information.

What Is Reusable Packaging?

We’ve all heard these terms – reusable, sustainable, recycling, and disposable and other terms that pertain to environmentally friendly packaging. Are there any difference between these terms or processes? As we know they can under sustainable packaging solutions that are being pushed by many countries around the world. Let’s dig deeper.

Reusable packaging is the manufacture of durable materials which is specifically designed for multiple use or trips and to have an extended life as compared to other types of packaging. A reusable package is commonly designed for reuse without impairment of its original protective function. Returnable can also be interchanged with reusable and includes returning packages or specific components for other uses apart for disposal, recycling or incineration. The most common materials used in reusable packaging include, wood, steel, polypropylene sheets and other plastic materials. Reusable packaging is also an important aspect towards more sustainable packaging.

Reusable packaging also includes racks, pallets, bulk containers, dunnage and hand-held containers that move product safely and efficiently all throughout the supply chain. Reusable packaging is commonly used by manufacturers, processors, suppliers and customers in a well-organized supply chain that follows a tightly managed shipping time. Most of these reusable packaging is made of durable materials to withstand the rough handling and storage that are typical of logistic systems. Reusable packaging can be:

  • Owned and managed by the user
  • Owned by the user or managed by a 3rd party company
  • It can be rented or leased by the user from a 3rd party pooling company
  • It can be transferred between multiple end users and recycling companies
  • It can be exchanged between the members of a co-op or an association

And through reuse, it offers a fast ROI and a lower cost-per-trip as compared to a single-use packaging products while offering more efficient storage, handling and distribution of the products at any point in the whole supply chain. When the number of trips goes up, the cost-per-trip can go down while the packaging continues to deliver the known benefits.

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On the other end of the table, some experts also say that reusable packaging often cost more initially and uses more and different materials as compared to single-use packaging. It often requires more complexity to the distribution system and some people believe that not all packaging justifies being reusable or returnable. It was also stated that a thorough study and analysis is needed because reusable packaging involves material, labour, inspection, transportation, refurbishing, cleaning and cost of management and often, these costs may be incurred by different companies with different costing structures. Environmental costs and benefits can also be complex. Material, energy required, pollution and others need to think about the entire system process.

The Benefits And Complexities Of Reusable Packaging

Many business organizations are experiencing the benefits of incorporating reusable packaging solutions into the supply chain. On the other hand, every supply chain is unique and it also requires that a company identify and measure its own unique factors to know whether reusables are the right solution for them. In some case, one-way packaging may be the best solution while on their supply chains, a combination of reusable and one-way packaging may be the best overall solution. Supply chains evolve and grow to be more efficient and sophisticated and packaging decisions must also be viewed holistically. Packaging also should not be seen as the last step in product development because the decision process must include all the impacted stakeholders and other variables in the supply chain to know and identify the best fit of packaging for the whole chain. Implementing reusable packaging within the supply chain will have a great impact on the business’ major financial categories which includes enhancement of revenue, capital utilisation and reduction of operating expenses. The business and supply chain professionals should have a financial understanding of the impact of reusables before the process is presented to management.

To explain further, let’s define reusable packaging as pallets, dunnage or containers that are used to store, handle and move products all throughout the supply chain.

1. Enhanced ROI

Reusable can enhance investment and revenue in two ways – merchandising at the store level and the elimination of white space at the plant level which allows more units to be sold. Retail-ready reusable packaging allows most suppliers to place more product within the same shelf space which reduces stock outs and increasing revenue. A supplier could choose to add an additional SKU within the same space, thus resulting in higher sales.

The second is through the plant level. Many distribution networks and manufacturing plants are straining under increasing SKU proliferation, and with standardized designs and friendly automated features, reusable packaging can optimise plant and warehouse space. This enables the warehouse or plant to move products into the supply chain faster and more efficiently, with little or no downtime at all.

2. Utilisation Of Capital

Just like any business expenses, purchasing reusables requires capital. If the business capital is limited, it’s most likely that the packaging will be leased or rented which will keep its capital free to invest in other strategic business initiatives. The procurement cost of one-way packaging is less expensive, thus it can also be an option to keep the available capital and if the business is looking at a per unit costing. Expendables are less expensive as compared to reusable, but it will not provide the longevity, durability and long service life as compared to reusables.

3. Reduction of Operating Expenses

Reducing operating expenses is another area where reusables can have an impact. Reducing operation expenses can include savings from substituting reusable packaging for any expandable single use package to the reduced labour that is associated with reusable packaging handling. The most common operating expenses impacted by reusables are:

  • Total Procurement Costs. This is the cost of purchasing or leasing reusable. Although this will fall on a significant line item, you have to remember to take a holistic look at the impact of reusables. Whenever reusables are a perfect process for your business, all the other expenses will go down, which will also lower the procurement down the road.
  • Reduction of Product Damage. Any well design and well-made reusable container, pallet or tote can protect the products and contents. If they are well produced, surely there will be a reduction in product damages this goes true for expensive equipment or products and perishable goods. Saving the products from damages on each turn can add up to ROI and customer satisfaction.
  • Reducing Downtimes. In any business, experiencing downtimes and inefficient operations can cost the business large amounts of money every minute. Any delays because of downtimes or operation failures will affect the whole line which can result to investment losses and customer dissatisfaction.
  • Eliminating the Disposal Cost. Not spending on disposal costs of expandable products is a big savings for the business any company that doesn’t have a local system that will take care of recycling or doesn’t have the ability to collect used packaging, may be paying substantial amounts in disposing of expendable packaging.
  •  Reduce Packaging Material Cost. It’s an accepted fact that buying reusable packaging requires a significant amount of capital, but it can reduce the overall costs of packaging material in the long run. Some companies have attested that they were able to save about 85% in packaging.

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Reusable Packaging Design Factors

Sustainable packaging refers to the development and the use of packaging that helps improve sustainability. It includes the life cycle inventory and the life cycle assessment in reducing the environmental impact and the ecological footprint of packaging. The main objective of sustainable packaging is to improve the quality of life and increase the longevity of natural ecosystems. Reusable falls under these green initiatives thus durability and reusability are not the only factors to make reusables successful. Earlier, reusable packages were focused on pallets and containers with the supply chain, now let’s focus on making reusable packages for retail in attracting customers through their design and function. With the emergence of any sustainable packaging technologies, many businesses are finding opportunities in leveraging the many innovations in improving their production line and enhancing their environmental performance to meet industry standards. Modern day sustainable packaging should possess:

Traceability. In recent years, more and more consumers are increasingly basing their purchase decisions on the traceability and sustainability of the packaging and products through the supply chain. Consumers want to be assured that the packaging is from an acceptable, legal and sustainably managed source. Because traceability is both an environmental and ethical issue, many businesses are adapting their sourcing that enables them to communicate with consumers about the traceability in the supply chain. From procurement up to end-of-life cycle.

Labelling. Consumers demand any information about the products they are buying and having clear labels is one of their requirements. Consumers want clear labels for any genetically engineered foods, clear instruction, nutritional facts, product ingredients or place of origin. Labels should provide easy-to-understand information about managing the product until it reaches EOL.

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Reusability. Decades ago, reusable packaging was only limited to the producer/manufacturer and retailer use of pallets, containers, and others. Yes, it helped in a more efficient supply chain, but similar approaches did not extend to the consumer level. Recently, reusable packaging for items like retail food products and clothing is attracting attention among customers. For example, in 2011, Pizza Hut introduced and fully recycle and multi-use pizza box in Costa Rica. The pizza box can be made into 4 separate plates and a smaller box for any leftovers. The packaging was well received and positive brand awareness form a cleverly sustainable packaging.

Materials from Responsible Sources. Today, many companies are considering materials that are derived from renewable resources. It can be recycled or materials or from plantation-grown, quick-growing trees, industrial organic waste such as grain husks, waste wheat chaff and other materials.

Packaging Design Hooks

Packaging designs also acts as silent salesman, communicator and personal billboard rolled into one small package. For a product to sell, it should attract customers. Product packaging should hit the right points in attracting customer and complemented by the right design that targets the right audience. Pricing and packaging present a very solid way of communicating with your target audience and express the positioning your business wants. Design is not just only the outer looks that the product comes in, it should also show which services are bundled together for an immediate customer or a specific end-user.

Product packaging can take many forms, it can be simply stamped or printed tags or it can be unique or collectible containers that are more valuable that the actual product contents. For business as a whole, packaging is a representation of the way the organisation communicates its sources to the buyers and the end users. Packaging can also be a style in which a business provides its products and services. Packaging and package design should reflect the position of the business, it should communicate graphic identity and reflect the target market values. Once these values are met, conversion and sales will not be far behind.

Packaging Design Trends

The rise of social media has made a lot of marketers and brands question the efficiency of their advertising campaigns and brand awareness efforts. Each business or brand is unique and not everything that defines your product will fit perfectly into the social platform world. Although, it has been proven that social media is a good platform for marketing your products, consumers still rely on product packaging because it is something tangible that can pique the senses. It entices people, which fosters their desire to purchase your product.

Here are four packaging trends that will continue to dominate this year:

Visual Authenticity

This is the departure from the status quo, the mainstream. This trend is the complete rejection of the established corporate brand design. It’s a response to the ever shifting consumer demands and values with many consumers no longer relying on established brands. It’s all about products that convey trust and create human connection. Modern day consumers require real, trusted, human connection to the said products and the brands they use. Characteristic of visual authenticity can include:

  1. Natural colour palettes
  2. Vintage-inspired typography
  3. A sketchy typography or a handwritten style form of writing
  4. Hand rendered and simple illustrations

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The Luxury Of Less

This trend represents a new generation of luxury goods that are not dependent on established luxury brand names and flashy designs. Gone are the era of excess, unapproachable and overdone branding; the new trends focuses on designs that exude class rather than flash. Subtle cues in the packaging are the most important aspect of the brand packaging design. Characteristics include:

  1. Tactile textures
  2. Subtle and understated design cues
  3. Graphic elements, emblems and hand drawn icons
  4. Soft and understated colour palettes


This is the trend where brands are trying to look and create pure, stark and highly minimal branding, packaging systems and brand environments. Purity takes brand minimalism a step further because it reduces the brand’s essence to its purest and simplest abstract form. It mostly relies on the absence of branding and there’s usually no traditional logo showing. Characteristics include:

  1. Geometric shapes, patterns and abstract graphic elements
  2. Straight-forward and stark designs
  3. Monochromatic or dichromatic colours
  4. Minimal wording and no traditional logos


Consumers will continue to demand honest, pure and sustainable products and packaging. Inspired by nature, this trend has the goal of reducing the carbon footprint. Many packaging designers are becoming more aware about the issues of non-biodegradable waste and its impact on the planet. Many have started to push the boundaries of packaging substrates to protect the future of the planet and the next generation. Characteristics of this trend include:

  1. Edible packaging
  2. Packaging innovations made from natural materials
  3. Inspired by nature
  4. Carbon neutral development processes

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Keep your eyes peeled for these sustainable packaging examples, and try to do your bit by purchasing environmentally-friendly packaged products when possible.




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