A Q&A with Helen Arce Salazar and Wander Colenbrander

‘Packaging is often seen as the culprit, but we ignore that packaging design can serve as our ally to combat environmental issues’.

Helen Arce Salazar (Ph.D. Tilburg University, 2017) is a coordinator and lecturer in Economics and Microeconomics at the International Business program of THUAS. Helen studies consumer behaviour and peer influence towards adoption of sustainable products and practices with a focus on packaging. 

Wander Colenbrander (MSc Erasmus University, 2003) is a PhD candidate at University of Twente and senior lecturer at the Industrial Design Engineering program at THUAS. Within this program, Wander is coordinator of the international minor on ‘Sustainable Packaging Design & Innovation’. He studies the relations between packaging, packaging design, sustainability and education.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research?

Helen: My research is focused on consumer behaviour: what drives people to make certain choices and how can we use this knowledge to improve businesses, to make them more sustainable? Consumers show an increasing interest in products incorporating sustainable and social attributes. Consequently, companies face pressure to innovate responding to consumer demands, and to focus on sustainable solutions that reduce harmful materials and favor green alternatives. In my current study I aim to ‘unpack’ the relationship between consumer behaviour and sustainable packaging by empirically verifying which dimensions of sustainable packaging (recyclability, biodegradability, reusability) are perceived and valued by consumers. 

Wander: Since many years I have been coordinator of the minor ‘Sustainable Packaging’ and my research focuses on two elements of packaging. First, the role of packaging in society is enormous as every product we purchase needs to be packaged; packaging is always a part of the total product experience. Online shopping has changed the rules of the game in a revolutionary way because all those products need (extra) packaging to be able to be delivered at your doorstep. At the same time we also observe that people select a product based on its features and then don’t care much about which packaging it arrives in. This leads to a shift from designing the packaging to putting the design focus again on the actual product. Second, sustainability in packaging is a crucial theme, especially when we look at packaging and the food industry. These two industries can’t be seen as separate from each other because 75% of all packaging is meant for food related products. In The Netherlands, 25% of economic activity happens in the food sector; it is the largest industry of our country. As such, packaging has a huge economic impact, also in terms of waste. 

What’s the biggest problem in packaging?

Helen: If we take plastic as an example of a common packaging material: plastic is almost demonized by consumers, but it’s not plastic in itself that is the problem, but the way it is being used. Plastic is actually a fantastic product that can be recycled multiple times so we should make sure that plastic doesn’t go to waste. It is not the product, but it is how we use it and that has everything with consumer behaviour. Thus, let’s ask consumers what they really want and how we can help them to live a most meaningful life.  

Wander: Packaging is not seen as a sexy industry and is often associated with trash as that is what we encounter on the streets; all those empty cans, bottles and other packaging materials. But the environmental impact of food waste is much larger than of packaging waste and better packaging can lead to less food waste, so smart design is essential.

What do you teach students about sustainable packaging?

Wander: We educate students to ask critical questions around packaging design and encourage them to look at the entire value chain. When a product turns into a service, packaging might become obsolete as we see during the corona crisis. Our local farmer can’t sell his products on the market and has started delivering at home: strawberries fresh from the crates – no packaging needed. It’s no longer about just designing aesthetically pleasing packaging, even when made from biodegradable materials such as mycelium; it’s about taking a systems perspective. Our aim is to train the next generation of packaging professionals that have learnt to see design as a flywheel for sustainable transformation.