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Splendors and miseries of packaging

Each of us handles about fifty a day1 and yet, it has never been so criticized. The ultimate avatar of the self-service economy, will packaging be able to reinvent itself in light of the ecological crisis and continue to evolve, as it has been able to do for centuries?

Splendeurs de l'emballage
"It has existed since the beginning of civilization, so that shards, dishes and wineskins make part of the objects that archaeologists often discover with jewelry and weapons. Containers of fired clay dough probably dating from 6500 BC. have for example been found in the Middle East."
Benoît Heilbrunn

It is hard to imagine a world devoid of packaging as it is omnipresent in our lives… and in the history of humanity.

The ancestors of the cardboard boxes, cans and other sophisticated bottles of the 21st century were then essentially used to “store, protect and transport food items such as oil or wine. It will have to wait a few millennia, i.e. the dawn of the 20th century, to witness the advent of packaging as such (designating the part of the packaging in contact with the end consumer). A turning point closely linked to the emergence of the “self-service society,” describes Benoît Heilbrunn. Having become the “main lever of attraction and seduction of the client”, the packaging allows nothing less than “to coat the product with imagination. Doors suddenly open up to merchants, and innovations follow one another. Among them, let us mention the tube of toothpaste which appeared in 1892 and gradually replaced the old jars of menthol paste, or even the metal cans, marketed from 1930 in Germany, succeeding glass bottles.”

The Era of manipulation?

“Packaging is an individualized selling technology that comes from very far away and is not about to disappear. It allows the splitting of the offer and therefore a massification of the offer,” analyzes the researcher. This does not prevent it from receiving a certain number of criticisms. In a text that has remained famous, The Hidden Persuaders, the American sociologist Vance Packard thus attacks in 1957 the power of seduction or even the manipulation of packaging, by criticizing in a chapter entitled ‘The packaged soul’ a society where everything is now “packageable”.

“It is clear that from the consumer’s point of view, the marketing and communication function has taken precedence over the technical functions,” comments Benoît Heilbrunn. And that is the tragedy of packaging: we end up seeing it only as a weapon of market manipulation, when that is only one of its functions. This criticism is aimed more particularly at secondary packaging (protecting the primary packaging in contact with the product), sometimes considered excessive.

Primary packaging, meanwhile, has continued to improve in order to better fulfill its conservation mission, i.e. the guarantee of “consistency in product quality throughout the manufacturing-distribution-consumption chain”. The user experience is also being refined by allowing optimized gestures, exact dosage and the provision of integrated and efficient applicators. Packaging has actually gone beyond its function of protection and communication to become intelligent and help the consumer in the daily use of the container and its contents. Does the consumer only measure the technical progress and the level of complexity required in the design of contemporary packaging?

Packaging has a bright future ahead of it,” on condition of “reinvesting the technical functions of the pack at the expense of its marketing functions alone, so that the consumer buys the product and not the packaging.
Benoît Helibrunn
Rethinking packaging in the 21st century

More recently, the ecological crisis has further damaged the reputation of packaging, traces of which can now be found–in the case of microplastics– even in the ocean floor. How can packaging transform? As some alternatives such as bulk are being developed, the way we look at packaging is also changing as we look to reuse it According to a YouGov study at the end of 2021, 63% of French people would indeed like to be able to buy in bulk the products of major brands that they usually buy packaged. Benoît Heilbrunn nevertheless remains convinced that “packaging has a bright future ahead of it,” on condition of “reinvesting the technical functions of the pack at the expense of its marketing functions alone, so that the consumer buys the product and not the packaging”.

Reducing the weight of materials, printing with fewer colors, eliminating unnecessary over-packaging, improving the effective recyclability of packaging… On a technical level, manufacturers have their work cut out for them. But preconceived ideas about packaging die hard. While plastic is often referred to as public enemy number one, a study by McKinsey2 reveals that the carbon impact of a plastic bag is 80% lower than that of a paper bag, and the impact of a plastic soap dispenser 15% less than a glass dispenser. Raising public authorities’ awareness of the ecological issue, its complexity and also warning against ‘false good ideas’ seems key: in this respect, the decision taken by the French government in the summer of 2022 to train 25,000 civil servant executives in addition to ministerial teams on ecological issues, seems to be going in the right direction.

Benoît Heilbrunn

Benoit Heilbrunn

Professor and lecturer at ESCP, author of “Que sais-je? (Puff) The packaging”.



It is also the imagination of consumers that should be developed in order to help them make the right choices. Benoît Heilbrunn then concludes, not without malice: “there is a very powerful technology to transform the imagination, it’s called marketing…”

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