The Future of Sustainable Packaging With Dieline Founder, Andrew Gibbs

by | Apr 20, 2020 | e-commerce insights, inspiring stories

How to stay competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace

Plastic: it’s practically everywhere and the creation of it is, surprisingly, projected to rise. With sustainability as a trending topic and the overwhelming reality that plastic may not be going anywhere anytime soon, we sat down with packaging expert and climate thought-leader, Andrew Gibbs.

As our CEO and Founder, Miriam Brafman has a candid discussion with Andrew, he dives into his own personal passions and experiences with plastic, packaging, and the environmental impact they have on the planet. From his creation of the Dieline as a global phenomenon and its impressive progression as company to his life-changing spinal injury and inspiring story of how A Plastic Planet came to be, his insights are powerful and plenty.

For the curious, this interview will help to break down the problem with traditional plastics and the positives of eco-friendly packaging–and for those who want to lessen their ecological footprint, our conversation with Andrew will offer up lots of food for thought.

“We all have a responsibility to ensure the packaging and products we create don’t further pollute the planet.”

You’ll learn how

  • Sustainability offers a golden opportunity to redesign consumer behavior
  • Eco-friendly perspective informs editorial coverage and awarded designs on the Dieline
  • E-com businesses can help the environment by embracing new, sustainable materials and designs
  • Brands are getting creative and rethinking the purpose of their packaging

 

If you’re looking to reduce environmental impact with sustainable packaging, we can help. Our packaging is made from recycled cardboard sourced to the highest degree allowed by paperboard industry standards. Econoflex is our most sustainable option and is remarkably affordable.

All of our boxes are 100% recyclable. Start designing our eco-friendly shipping box today.

 


Transcript

Miriam

Andrew, tell us about the Dieline and how it’s evolved since you launched in 2007.

 

Andrew

Yeah. So, in 2007, I was kind of fresh out of college. I was a production artist and I called it like the pre-Pinterest era. And essentially, I started like a Pinterest board–it was really just, essentially, my personal collection of packaging that really just inspired me. And that’s kind of what it started as when I started the site. There was nothing online for the packaging space, and I needed inspiration and blogs were kind of brand new at the time in 2007. I think ‘blog’ was actually the word of the year. And so I started the blog and in 2009, we launched the Dieline awards. We were named a global phenomenon and the first year which was insane and we got just so many more entries than we ever expected in a million years, which was fun. In 2010, we launched Dieline conference and we’ve hosted over 14 conferences across the US and Europe, which has been awesome.

In about 2017, we started working with Jones Knowles Ritchie. We relaunched the Dieline brand and our entire platform in 2018 at the end of the year. And really, it took us kind of so long–it wasn’t actually supposed to take that long. But towards the end of 2017, I started having major health problems and the entire left side of my body started shutting down. So, after I had months and months of just tests and prods and poking and scans, and you know, trying to figure out what was going on with me. In March of 2018, I was diagnosed with a rare brain malformation that had caused permanent spinal cord injury.

 

Miriam

That sounds terrifying.

 

Andrew

Yeah, it happened just so quickly, too. It was just in a matter of months–I had bought a house that year and it was a two story house, and I could walk up the stairs just fine when I bought it in May. Towards the end of the year, I couldn’t lift my left leg anymore. And I was just having a hard time even getting up my stairs. And so it’s like–okay, I knew something was wrong. And that really just kicked everything off.

They found this rare brain condition and that caused a blockage of spinal fluid from my brain to my spine. Then that causes a cyst to form inside my spinal cord. And so my spinal cord was widened from the inside out, and it just kind of destroyed all the nerve fibers inside and left me with this incurable spinal cord injury. So that really, obviously, changed my entire world–personally, professionally, it just changed everything for me. I really started to see the entire world through a completely different lens. It was really crazy.

I remember about a week or so after I was released from the hospital. The National Geographic, ‘Plastic or Planet’ issue was released. I remember lying down–I had set up my recovery bed upstairs because they couldn’t actually walk me down the stairs–and I remember just lying in bed, and I had my laptop on my lap and I had the Dieline homepage on it. My friend, Jessica brought over the issue that had just came out and I remember reading it, and staring back and forth between the issue and the website. And I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, like, I’m complicit. I’m a part of the problem.’

It was this almost otherworldly experience I had. And it was just like: oh my gosh, what am I doing? It was really shocking to me. That issue was really, really incredible, and that was a really kind of turning point for my career. So, it was really then, in that kind of moment right there–I just decided that, you know, Dieline would no longer continue the myth of toxic plastic packaging, and we really kind of baked it into our mission going forward.

Then from there, I decided I would learn everything I could about the issue. You know, I knew it was a problem for the industry, but I really never understood the extent of it and how bad it was. I went through Al Gore’s Climate Reality Corp since I was trained as a climate change leader. I learned so much there. From there, I joined forces with a group called A Plastic Planet, which is a UK based nonprofit. We are dedicated to turning off the plastic tap, really reducing the amount of plastic used in consumer products.

We started focusing on the food industry, food and beverage, because it’s just so pervasive. And, you know, we think it’s kind of weird that something as perishable as food is packaged in something as indestructible as plastic. So, that’s kind of our main focus going forward. We’ve done things like the world’s first plastic free grocery store aisles, we have a plastic-free consumer trust marker, very much like the ‘Organic’ logo.

So today, I kind of split my time between Dieline and A Plastic Planet. I teach sustainable packaging at art center, as well. And then kinda like full circle, I was just recently asked to be an advisor for the National Geographic Ocean Plastic Challenge this year. They just announced the finalists this week and they’re awarding over half a million dollars to the winners of the prize pool. The winning project has the opportunity for up to a minimum of a million dollars of funding from Sky Ocean Ventures to actually take the idea and hopefully bring it to commercial scale, which is super exciting. So, that’s what I’ve been up to!

 

Miriam

Cool! So, you know, you launched this in 2007, and a lot has changed. That was a very pivotal year for a lot of reasons–obviously, the iPhone launched and things like that. So, how is Dieline’s brand and reach as a media company, changed since 2007, with Instagram and everything like that?

 

Andrew

Oh, man–it’s changed tenfold. I mean, it’s so interesting looking back on it. It feels like an entirely different world. Because in 2007, when I launched the site, agencies and design firms did not want us to feature their work. It was this thing where the industry was so secretive. Agencies didn’t want to even take credit for the work that they did, because they didn’t want their competitor agencies to know that was their client. So, they were just afraid of even featuring work that they did, because sharing them and potentially another agency would swoop in and steal their clients. In the early days of Dieline, I had gotten tons of cease and desist letters from brands and manufacturers and agencies–like, ‘we don’t want you to actually feature this’. I go back and look at the content and it’s funny, because a lot of it is literally me taking pictures at Target and stuff. Now, fast forward with Instagram and everything–it’s just an entirely different world. We live in a productized world, and it’s so commonplace now. Brands are trying to connect to consumers and agencies are trying to get their work out there as much as possible. So now, it’s completely the flip side. We turn away a lot more than we even can feature.

 

Miriam

Right–and I guess for brands that, well, let’s say you have a food brand, and you’re launching into all these different kinds of packaging types that are typically plastic. Because that’s what’s on the market or maybe what the supermarkets are telling you and it has to be packaged a certain way. What resources are there for for brands that need a primary packaging option? What options are there to avoid plastic?

 

Andrew

Right now, what the challenge is, is that there is a big information gap. Because with this new era of bio-based materials, it is so new, and we’re really on the cusp of it. So, I really think it’s a lack of information and a lack of resources, and not necessarily a lack of materials itself.

One of the things that we’re working on through A Plastic Planet is creating a plastic-free, sustainable database. An actual library where you can go online, to the website and find sustainable vendors all across the world and we’re going to have a filtering system. So, if you’re working on a food project in the Netherlands, and you’re looking for a plastic-free, sustainable packaging manufacturer, then you can actually find one. For us, we really just want to open up the communication to the industry and really create that resource. Because as a packaging designer, I would love to have that. And a lot of the packaging designers that we talked to, and everyone who comes to our conference, that’s the biggest kind of thing that they say is: where do I find these materials? It is a huge challenge, because they exist, they’re there–they’re real, but it’s so scattered and they are hard to find. So our goal is to open up the lines of information and actually create this database and we’re hoping to launch it next year. So, that’s coming.

 

Miriam

Awesome. That’s really cool. I’ll definitely be interested in checking that out. You’ve seen a lot of the most innovative plastic-free packaging concepts with the Plastic-free Dieline Award, and obviously, the National Geographic award–so, do you find that these are gaining mainstream adoption in the commercial landscape?

 

Andrew

You know, they’re starting to. I think that’s really why we created the award. That was really the purpose of it, was to recognize that these are truly paradigm-changing projects. We wanted to give as much visibility to them as possible, because they’re real and they’re actually being produced. We awarded our big award to Cove water, our Plastic-free Innovation of the Year Award. They created the world’s first 100% bio-based water bottle, and it’s made out of material called PHA. It kind of looks like plastic, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but it actually decomposes on land and ocean very much like a peel of a fruit. Obviously, the biggest problem with plastic right now is that it makes its way to the ocean. It turns into microplastic and PLA, and with the Cove bottle, if it actually makes its way to the ocean, they usually decompose faster in motion. So, materials like that are a true game changer. PHA, specifically, is absolutely going to be a game changer for the industry. But you know, right now it’s in the early days and it is expensive. So, they’re positioning as a premium water brand. They’re going to be launching in Los Angeles, at the end of the year and they did a pre-launch already. So, we have bottles, it does exist everyone! But their goal is to start the brand to get the material out there and they want to become the resource and the supplier to other beverage companies.

 

Miriam

What are some of the barriers these new packaging types face as far as gaining the traction they need to really unseat the plastic? Because I think with plastic it’s just so true that the costs are essentially kind of offloaded to all these problems that nobody’s paying for but eat away at our environment in a very slow and painful manner. So, with these externalized costs and the sort of engineering properties are insurmountable. So I guess, at this point, are you pretty optimistic that we’ll be able to find the solutions we need in time?

 

Andrew

I am, actually. I really am optimistic. We have a really terrible outlook right now– like plastic is oil, literally, plastic is oil. And right now cheap U.S. gas like Shell Gas is driving this global plastic boom right now. And plastic production is projected to rise. Right now in just the U.S., the petrochemical industry is spending 180 billion dollars in investment on 300 new plastic plants that they’re building right now in the U.S., which is alarming. It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying for the planet. It’s terrifying, just for our industry, but I don’t believe that hope is all lost or that we’re just kind of fucked if you will.

Inversely, I really believe that it’s a really exciting time for designers, especially designers of packaging and brands. It’s an incredible business opportunity to gain a new type of consumer that’s really based on loyalty and based on trust, and based on passion but not pollution. Now, I believe that for designers and creators of the brands of the world, this is a once in a lifetime time golden opportunity. Because what we can now do is redesign consumer behavior itself. If you’re working on a beverage project or a project on a plastic bottle–why does it have to go in the plastic bottle in the first place? So, what brands are doing, is not necessarily thinking, “Well, what’s the material that’s going to replace the bottle?” It’s thinking about the bigger picture, like why is it in a plastic bottle in the first place? And why is it a liquid actually? A lot of times, it’s because it’s 80% water. A lot of brands like Lush and more CPG focus brands like Love, Beauty and Planet have released plastic-free shampoo bars. Lush has an entire naked line of hundred percent plastic-free products.

Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to ensure that the products and packaging we create really don’t further pollute the planet. And it’s weird because as a designer, even when I started my career in packaging, it felt so weird throwing my packaging away. Something that I actually designed, I would just throw in the trash and wow, that sucks. Literally everything we design just gets thrown away. That’s a really weird thing and I don’t think that’s the future anymore. Especially with systems like Loop and Circular Systems, that the paradigm of packaging is just changing. Part of it is also the idea of permanent packaging, and thinking of this design, instead of being a single use plastic bottle, it’s permanent. So, it’s designed to be used hundreds or thousands of times and is returned in a circular economy system.

A lot of these starter brands are really doing a good job and creating new circular systems, changing products, changing materials, and the big CPG companies love to buy smaller, upstart brands. And they are, and it’s exciting, because some of these bigger brands are taking the challenge on, and they’re very well aware of it and not running from it. The CEO of Unilever is really focused on reducing as much plastic as possible and eventually producing no plastic. So the big CPGs are actually starting to really take it seriously. It’s challenging right now, because it’s so new. For the big CPG companies, it comes down to a matter of scale, and we’re just not quite there yet. But I believe it will get there.

 

Miriam

How does your perspective on plastic packaging inform your editorial coverage on the Dieline? Are there projects you avoid featuring on the basis of their environmental footprint?

 

Andrew

For one, we focus a lot much, much more of our original editorial content on this subject. All of the interviews that we are doing focus a lot on sustainable packaging and that’s been the biggest change in our editorial coverage. It’s just too important not to, but as far as specific projects that we feature, we really recognize that as an industry. We’re in the very early stages of this cusp of a movement and we understand that the industry is in a major transition. It’s weird for us to say, “What are we going to feature? This is toxic. Do we just not feature it going forward?” We’re all having these questions. It’s making us take a second look at everything we do feature.

Going forward, we generally try to avoid anything that uses excessive plastic packaging. That’s kind of our key point right now. If it’s excessive, then don’t bother submitting it. If you’re being a little bit more responsible about the use of plastic, there’s creative work behind it. So, it’s this double-sided thing where there’s some really brilliant, good quality, branded creative, that’s just unfortunately on plastic. We’re kind of like tight in the middle. So, we do feature a lot of plastic still, but we take a harder look at what we feature.

 

Miriam

It’s kind of like you’re just doing less of it than you had in the past.

 

Andrew

Yeah, absolutely. We’re much more selective and we make it way more of a focus to feature the alternatives. You know, featuring more sustainable packaging, I think going forward, we’re going to get to a point where we feature like a black box (like a cigarette warning, essentially) on all plastic packaging. Because the reality is that plastic is toxic to the environment, and it’s toxic to human health. When designers really know that the material that they’re using has the potential, and is now being proven, to cause cancer and birth defects and all these crazy things– that’s information that the world needs to know. I hope to get to a point in the future where we don’t feature any plastic whatsoever.

 

Miriam

Yeah, definitely. So, I came across a recent paper that was just about the rise in niche consumption with a lot of very targeted, specific brands that people are finding now in-house. It’s sort of the result of this increasing cross product priority, as well as online sales with infinite shelf space and advertising. So, I’m curious how you think this has sort of played out with the packaging design industry? And what role packaging influences with this?

 

Andrew

Yeah, I think the rise in niche consumption is really upending traditional business models completely. Quite frankly, I think it’s time that they need to be upended. It’s time that things need to change, and online sales are only going to continue to grow. It really started with subscription boxes and right now brands are embracing online sales as a sustainability solution, rather than just a convenient way to shop. I believe that the future of packaging is moving into a circular economy. The idea of permanent packaging that will be returned back back to where it came from. I think the future of online shopping is really going to go down towards the path of sustainability, which is really exciting. It gives brands a new opportunity, and a new way to do it, that they actually couldn’t do before with the traditional business models.

 

Miriam

Interesting. What impact do you think that would have on the design of the outer container?

 

Andrew

One good example is Loop, which is terracycle, and right now they’ve created an entire system of permanent packaging. You can get your Häagen-Dazs, but it comes in a stainless steel cylinder that’s designed to last 100 plus times. So, the actual packaging itself is changing. What they’re doing is, it gets packed back into the shipper that it came in, and gets picked up by UPS the next day or whenever it’s ready to go. Then, it gets shipped back to the customer. The actual shipper box itself is becoming way more important because now it’s not just a one-way delivery tool anymore. It’s now two-way, so it needs to go back at some point.

 

Miriam

Do you see that being branded? How are people going to go about personalizing the brand?

 

Andrew

Well, the thing is, as far as personalization, it really opens up a lot of opportunities. Things like digital printing, I mean, brands can fully customize a product for a specific consumer. One of the projects that won a Dieline Award this year was a concept for a beauty brand. The idea is it’s this kind of tech connected beauty brand that’s connected to your calendar. It knows if you’re going to be in Australia, and if it’s 100 degrees it’s going to send you a weekly supply extra SPF. So, brands are really able to do things like that now and actually package them. It’s really exciting, because products are going to get way more personal and customized in kind of almost in a scary way–but I love it.

 

Miriam

Do you have any thoughts on smart packaging? Is that a trend you’re noticing? Or is it sort of a bit gimmicky at this point?

 

Andrew

I think the idea of smart packaging is changing. In the past, it was more gimmicky. It really started with QR codes, and no one uses those anymore. Then it went into NFC tags and that’s kind of shifting away. Right now, we’re seeing some really cool stuff with AR, which is really fun. People are able to use their iPhones and tablets to have an additional experience with the packaging, or even instructions on how to use it. You know, if it’s a meal kit, then how to cook the actual meal. We’re seeing some stuff like that, that’s really interesting and really innovative. I think smart packaging going forward is going to become more or more big data driven. That’s the smart side of it versus it being this tech-driven thing.

 

Miriam

You recently became a Climate Reality Corps leader, can you tell us about what that entails? What inspired it and how it ties into the work you do with the Dieline?

 

Andrew

I learned about the Reality Corps in my search after surgery. I needed to find out how I could best serve my community. I came across the Climate Reality Corps and lucky for me, they were coming up in Los Angeles. So, it was this cosmic moment. I applied and gratefully got accepted. I think it was the largest one to date, it was over 2000 people that were trained at the training, which was incredible. What I really took away from it, what Al Gore really instilled in me in his presentation was that he gives (and I’ve seen it several times now and seen it years before) is just this evolving presentation that is dynamic. And it changes all the time. It’s one presentation, one keynote deck that he gives that gets constantly updated and upgraded. So, he uses that as his tool. Essentially, they trained all of us to be able to give his presentation. We actually have access to whatever his most current deck is that he’s currently working on. Every time he has a new update to his deck, we get a copy of it. We actually get up to date info of the latest things happening in the climate space.

For me, I kind of took that concept and ran with it on my own. I developed a talk called a Plastic-Free Future that I give and it’s an evolving presentation. I’ve given it maybe two dozen times now, and it’s just changed 10 times over. It’s given me a framework to work with him to be able to connect my audience with what I’m passionate about, and to really get them on board.

 

Miriam

That’s awesome. That’s really cool. So, who are some of the most inspiring packaging designers that have crossed your radar recently?

 

Andrew

This week, all the finalists of the National Geographic Ocean Plastic Initiative Challenge were announced. Some of the finalists in the design track just have completely blown my mind. There’s one of the materials that looks and functions like plastic. It’s clear, it looks like plastic, and it’s made from fruit. It’s just incredible what people are able to come up with and do. These solutions are just ingenious. There’s edible packaging, and there’s compostable packaging made with local materials. Those kind of packaging designers, the less traditional, like branded packaging designers and the designers that are really experimenting on the material side, those are the ones that are really inspiring me right now.

 

Miriam

So, if you had to pick which era in history had the best packaging design, in your opinion, what would you pick?

 

Andrew

This is a tough one! I would say that the era before the microwave. Honestly, the microwave came to life in the 70s and the 80s, and I think before that, what the microwave did, in one of the best examples I use in my talk, is the Swanson TV dinner. When that first came out onto the market, it was revolutionary, it was convenience packaging, and it was the first of its kind and the first year they sold millions (I don’t know the exact number), but they sold millions in the first year. And that was packaged in aluminum. Everything at that time was packaged in aluminum and glass and paper and traditional materials that are already sustainable. But when the microwave started becoming huge, everyone had to switch to plastic because you couldn’t microwave aluminum. That kind of cemented the use of plastic and food packaging. So, yeah pre-microwave is my favorite era because it was sustainable and less toxic materials. It’s interesting, because we’re keeping things kind of circular. We’re coming back to that now, which I think is really exciting.

 

Miriam

Interesting. I’m also curious what your opinion is on Amazon, and whether they’re kind of a net positive in terms of packaging issues or negative? Because, obviously, they drive an insatiable amount of demand with incentives to purchase things that maybe we would otherwise not purchase. And that obviously comes wrapped in lots and lots of packaging. On the other hand, they’re starting to really crack down on sellers that are packaging things a certain way. I know they have a whole team dedicated to reducing packaging waste and making it more efficient. They’re doing very interesting things with their power. So, I’m just curious, what was your take on whether it’s good or bad?

 

Andrew

This is a tough one, because Amazon’s scale is so large. They have such power and such opportunity. At the same time, I think what they’re doing with their frustration-free packaging is absolutely incredible. Because the concept of purchasing products has changed entirely. The old paradigm used to be all about catching your eye on-shelf and having a structure that you’d want to pick up and touch. That’s changed. Now you’re looking at a one-inch-by-one-inch square on your screen. So, after you bought it, why do you need the packaging? Do you need the retail box that it came in? You’re not at retail, what’s the function? What’s the purpose of that? I think one of the really great things that they’re doing with the frustration-free packaging line is they’re literally removing the packaging. Manufacturers are applying the products without the plastic packaging, which I think is great. I know some team members who work in the packaging side at Amazon, and I know that they’re very, very actively working on solutions. They’re aware and everyone’s aware of the problem, which really goes back to scale. The biggest challenge for them is the scale is massive. It becomes a bigger and bigger challenge, but they’re working on solutions. I feel very confident that they will be leaders in the space.

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Danielle Anderson
Content Marketing and Community Manager
Danielle Anderson is the Content Marketing and Community Manager at Packlane. Born and raised on the East Coast, she is an inspired storyteller with a love for beautiful content and thoughtful design. When she’s away from her desk, you can find her at the movies, the best brunch spot in town, the local bookstore, the gym, or on the next flight to Europe.
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Danielle Anderson
Content Marketing and Community Manager
Danielle Anderson is the Content Marketing and Community Manager at Packlane. Born and raised on the East Coast, she is an inspired storyteller with a love for beautiful content and thoughtful design. When she’s away from her desk, you can find her at the movies, the best brunch spot in town, the local bookstore, the gym, or on the next flight to Europe.
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