The Purpose of Packaging

by Chris Bean

Whether we realize it or not, packaging has become so engrained in our daily lives that it almost becomes invisible. If I’m being honest – I never really gave any of it much thought until I had the opportunity to work at a company dedicated to making the world a better place through packaging. I was tasked with answering the question, “what is packaging’s purpose?”. It seems like a silly question, because at first – after all, packaging is just a box or some type of container, right? That’s originally what I thought, but it wasn’t until I was challenged to go deeper that I began to consider the numerous roles that packaging plays in both our products and our everyday lives.

Before we get to the purpose of packaging we need to start with the basics – what is packaging? Merriam Webster’s defines packaging as…. Just kidding! Of course, we’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room, the surface level role packaging plays: to provide protection for goods, allowing them to be safely moved, stored, and shipped anywhere in the world. For example, e-commerce companies can spend up to 17 times more than their shipping costs to replace a product damaged in shipping – so a well-designed package is well worth the investment! While product safety is one of the more obvious and important roles that packaging plays, it’s a lot more impressive than a first glance might suggest. A well designed e-commerce package can expand the reach that companies have to the rest of the world now that products can be reliably protected throughout the shipment process. Businesses both big and small can now reach customers in parts of the world that they didn’t have access to before.

A link to this article in the digital edition of Sustainably Packaged Magazine

In addition to adding protection from physical damage, packaging and continued innovations have also made it possible for meats, fruits, vegetables, and other food products to stay fresh longer. This has reduced the amount of food spoilage and increased the distance food can be transported from cattle ranches, orchards, and farms, increasing the availability to communities where those specific food items might not be readily available. Packaging also makes it possible for big box stores to sell products wholesale to their customers. By bundling together products or by offering them in larger quantities, brands can sell more and pass on better deals to their customers, allowing families to buy fresh foods, knowing they will last longer.

Think about the last time you were standing in an aisle at the grocery store looking at the items on the shelves. There is an incredible number of brands and products on those shelves, all of which are in direct competition with each other for your attention. Have you ever noticed that for the thousands of products on those shelves, you still seem to quickly find the exact item what you were looking for? This is due to the role packaging plays in a product’s ability to demand brand and product recognition to stand out among the thousands of competitors in any store in the world.

Looking for something new? Product packaging also allows brands to advertise what sets them apart from competitors and is the perfect place to mention the products’ key benefits and advantages – such as health and nutrition facts, or whether a product was produced sustainably. I know I’m not the only one who has purchased a new kind of hot sauce or craft beer based solely on how the packaging was shaped or the design of the labels it used (I’m a sucker for a cool looking hot sauce bottle…). Packaging also allows people, like me, with food allergies and/or dietary restrictions to find, learn about, and purchase items that fit our needs.

I recently purchased a new computer and while I was excited about the actual computer, my anticipation grew through the experience of unpacking it. It wasn’t a small purchase, so upon opening the box I was delighted to see how much thought was put into the packaging design. It unfolded beautifully and intuitively, with a spot for everything with little to no wasted space or material. While I wasn’t buying the computer for the packaging, the fact that designers had gone the extra mile with the level of care and attention to detail was a positive addition to my overall impression of the products’ quality, as well as enhanced my experience as a consumer.

The intention or purpose of packaging has come a long way since its start as a basket carrying apples or berries way back when. Through technology and innovation, we have seen great strides that have impacted individuals and communities alike. Naturally, the next question is what’s next? As we look into the future it’s important that we think about just that – the future. Where will this carton or box end up after its use is completed? In order to continue innovations and progress, we must design for the full life cycle of packaging. Where does it start and where does it end. Sustainability can be a part of every step of the process, and it needs to be, in order to get where we want to go.

It’s easy to forget about all the different problems that packaging helps solve in our daily lives. In fact, packaging often plays its role so well that we tend to only notice when there is a problem (I’m looking at you, resealable bags that don’t reseal just right!). This speaks highly to the design, passion, problem solving, and testing that went into each and every aspect of a package. It’s important to consider the purpose of packaging and how we can make a positive impact both on consumers and the environment with something as influential and invisible as packaging.


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