This will be upgraded to be a larger case study in upcoming weeks.
The original SOLE Custom Footbed package was a PET box. This enabled the consumer to see the product, but not to take it out or replace it very easily, and the product is a very tactile one. People want to feel it in their hands and step on it even, to see how it feels “right out of the box”.
The first packaging change was to a PET “pocket” package that enabled easy removal of the product. Another goal for me throughout the years of working on SOLE packaging was to make it more sustainable. The “pocket” package reduced the amount of PET used. After researching alternative materials, I found PLA, polylactic acid. This plastic is made from corn, uses less energy than PET to produce, it is compostable, and of course corn is renewable. After months of testing the material we changed over the package to PLA. I believe this was the first non-food-related packaging made of PLA.
The deeper one gets into sustainable materials, the more complex it becomes. As I studied Cargill (the parent company of Natureworks), the growing use of corn for ethanol and bio-plastics, the effects of this on the price of food corn, etc. I decided that PLA was not a very good option. We also started to have durability problems when we changed vendors to one better suited to our logistics. (I will expand upon this when this portfolio pieces becomes a full case study, in February 2014.) We went back to using PET and started to work on a new version.
The new package was to be even more sustainable, minimal, and hopefully less expensive. We explored moulded pulp fiber (including palm fiber), dozens of paperboard solutions, a bio-composite hanger, and numerous other directions. The final design (dubbed the “clip” package) used 100% post-consumer recycled paperboard and a bio-composite plastic clip (based upon a material I found exploring a toy store). This clip was made of 40% wood flour (a by-product of wood industry) and 60% post-consumer PP. We even stumbled upon a local source of 100% white, post-consumer recycled PP!
Though the clip was not recyclable, we decided that using the wood flour composite, vs. 100% PP, would be more sustainable as only 10% of plastics tend to get recycled in North America. Sustainability is always tied directly to the locale of the consumer as well as the production facility. This is part of its staggering complexity. If we were to sell this package in Germany, for example, recyclable plastic would be better, as they tend to recycle a much higher percentage of their refuse. With only 10% of plastics getting recycled in NA though, we decided that using a renewable resource that did not particularly matter when landfilled, was better. At the time, I sat on the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco-Working Group, packaging sub-group. Other member organizations backed up this decision.