The outlook of packaging in 2023: Three experts weigh in

Credit: Pixabay by geralt

I recently sat down with two experts in the CPG and packaging industries to talk about the collective hits that businesses have taken over the past two years, and the 2023 outlook from multiple perspectives: design, supply chain, technology, and regulatory changes around sustainability.

Jon Crothers serves as operations improvement coordinator at Stoner, Inc., a leading manufacturer of cleaning and maintenance brands for the automotive and household markets. He is an expert on issues such as supply chain, reshoring, and manufacturing 4.0. My other colleague is Gerri Brownstein, a renowned voice in the packaging industry.

I’ve worked with Jon and members of his team for nearly two decades. My company, FORCEpkg, has helped Stoner design and develop products and packaging for the automotive and household cleaning categories. Gerri, on the other hand, is an expert in the packaging world and someone I’ve known and respected for the last 25 years. So what are the highlights of our discussion?

Reflecting on 2022

Summing up the past two years, Gerri listed off the seismic impacts felt not only by businesses, but also by consumers. “It’s been a volatile time,” she noted. “The combined drama of politics, inflation, recession, and of course, COVID, has people looking for products and packaging that brings them joy or uplifts them.”

Jon also voiced his sentiment regarding the volatility of the past few years. From his perspective—roadblock after roadblock, hiccup after hiccup—greatly affected every aspect of his business. “The supply chain was a mess. We relied much too heavily on foreign suppliers and were left without key product items at an unprecedented rate. Our hands were tied.”

For Jon, the pandemic and supply chain disruptions caused many business pivots. As he stated, “with the shelves being consistently empty, the end goal was simply to get product out there. Brand loyalty was out the window. You’re always looking to grow your business, but Covid and supply chain disruptions put us in triage mode, plugging holes and treading water.”

For instance, Jon reflected on his company having to scramble to replace trigger sprayers and aerosol nozzles for their products. “In the early days of Covid” he said, “the cleaning supply category was running out of supplies left and right—lead times for getting bottles and sprayers, for instance, went from 4 weeks to 26 weeks virtually overnight. Getting trigger sprayers in our branded yellow color simply wasn’t an option.”

At the beginning of the COVID situation, my team at FORCEpkg was in the middle of helping Stoner redesign their Invisible Glass brand (specifically related to the household category), and the research was telling us that the brand should move from a black/gray bottle into a clear bottle. This transition was a big change and presented a very unique set of internal concerns and issues. Although Covid shouldn’t be talked about in a good light, it did foster emergency changes that eventually resulted in the adoption of the clear bottle.

Those Who Innovate, Survive

Jon and Gerri agreed that many in the industry worked tirelessly to innovate and rise above the noise. Some of these innovations have been adopted as a business norm today.

For Jon, this meant trying alternative suppliers that are more centrally located. Awaiting supplies from across the globe just to save money is no longer viable. Sourcing items regionally or even using multiple suppliers that are at least based in the US adds an additional layer of relief that supply chain issues are being alleviated.

As Jon put it, “Made in the USA has now taken on a different meaning. We’re proud to support American suppliers and are grateful for their support.”

Jon also voiced one innovation, in particular, that was a longtime coming; since 2006, to be exact. That innovation was the aforementioned conversion to clear bottles.

Reality Check

Now I’m not one to typically toot my own horn, as me being right about something is fairly rare, but here I go. It was my team that suggested to Stoner way back in 2006 that clear bottles with transparent labels were the way to go. It’s not that they didn’t listen to me or the research that supported this change, the brand wasn’t ready and there were other product concerns back then, but all of those issues are in the past. The Invisible Glass household brand is now on the right track for growth in the coming years.

Another hot topic on everyone’s mind moving into 2023? Sustainability in packaging.

The Sustainability Movement in Packaging

Over the past year, headline after headline detailed companies, cities and even countries announcing their sustainability plans. Here are 4 key trends to look for in 2023:

1. Paperization of consumer packaging: In short, this means we’ll see the plastic liners in cereal boxes, paper  boxes, and other consumer packaging being replaced by paper. This is being proposed primarily to satisfy consumer perceptions of plastic waste.

Reality Check: 

First, many of the paper/plastic hybrids are very difficult to sort and recycle—things like paper bottles with internal plastic pouches, and paper/plastic carton combinations used in beverage packaging. This type of packaging is almost guaranteed trash and bound for the landfill or incinerator.

2. Compostable packaging’s heyday will end: Unfortunately, compostable packaging, while thoughtful in theory, just doesn’t work. 2023 will see the industry giving up the ghost, so to speak. There just aren’t enough people home composting to offset the cost the industry sees to produce compostable packaging. And most compostable packaging options are only industrial compostable.

3. Clamping down on greenwashing: The U.S. is making strides against companies overpromising and underdelivering on sustainability; known as greenwashing. Considering the dissatisfaction with compost ability and other environmental claims, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed new climate-related disclosure requirements for public companies. Proposed rule amendments will mandate that companies provide climate-related financial data and greenhouse gas emissions insights in public disclosure filings.

Reality Check:

While I agree that this announcement sounds great in theory, I’ll patiently await the follow through. As we’ve seen with many, many, many other similar initiatives, pulling it off seems to be the issue. All of the sustainability goals and objectives will get pushed back or simply changed to be more realistic.

4. Keep an eye on Europe and Canada: It is widely known that European countries and Canada are moving the sustainability/recycling needle at a much greater pace than America. France, on one hand, is working against greenwashing, similar to what I mentioned in #3. Meanwhile Germany is widely known as the country with the most sophisticated recycling program. Further, the UK recently announced a rollout ban on single-use plastics by October of this year. Canada has a similar plan in the works.

Given the global nature of business, packaging innovations in Europe and Canada designed to meet new regulations will drive similar innovations here. It will be interesting to see how this transcends.

Now that we’ve covered the supply chain and sustainability; next up, let’s discuss what Gerri is seeing in terms of packaging design for 2023.

Design Goes Bold

As Gerri noted, the very human desire for authenticity and joy has been heightened after the pandemic. People are looking for packaging designs that spark interest and creativity, amusement and whim. Let’s dissect these top design trends for 2023.

Bold Fonts or Maximalism: Using typography as the centerpiece is still hot. A burst of color, pattern, and things that don’t quite go together, but somehow work. This is a joyful response to the lockdowns and gloom of recent years.

Another form of this trend is anarchism, where designers have the chance to throw out the rulebook entirely. Look for 2023 to be the year of anarchy. One brand playfully rebelling and providing an irreverent, humorous take on coffee is Blink. The packaging is intensely graphic, foregoing the usual image of coffee to tell a fun story through text and color. You’ll be seeing a lot more of this breakaway-style design.

Out with Formal Fonts; in with Scrawl: Designers are moving away from straight lines and focusing on curves, which makes packaging more natural, almost giving a handmade feel thanks to that minimalist design and bolder font choices.

Stolpman Vineyards created a whimsical wine label for their sangiovese line, rebranding Carbonic Sangiovese with a simple, hand-written hand-written label that says “Love You Bunches.” Who wouldn’t buy this—if for nothing else than to look cool? Other brands using typographic scrawl are showing up everywhere.

Minimalism: This one is showing up on all the 2023 trends lists. This trend is seen across ALL types of products – everything from perfume to makeup and dairy to CPG, brands will not only continue to save the stories for other mediums like social media and websites, but lean into minimalism as a way to demonstrate thoughtfully made, artistic items.

Cheers to 2023. Hopefully this year is full of positive moves forward and a special thanks to my friends and colleagues Jon and Gerri.

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