Forget the packaging, rethink the product offer

Anne-Laure Bulliffon is the founder of Profil’Pack in Montreal and Albumine in France, and a member of the Circulab community. This article was previously published in the paper version of Emballages Magazine in March 2024.

“We need to restore value of our product range by taking action on packaging, by being as eco-responsible, recyclable and cost-effective as possible. And if you could do away with plastic too…” This is the type of brief I’ve been receiving for some time now.

Threats to margins, the risk of delisting by distributors, rising raw material prices, CSR commitments, omnipresent regulations such as the French Anti-Waste Circular Economy Act (Agec) and the draft EU regulation on packaging and packaging waste (PPWR), health issues, strong incentives for reuse and bulk sales: this fine food company is facing many challenges in the eco-design of its products.

Digging a little deeper, I quickly realised that the packaging has already been greatly optimised: reduction of voids and thicknesses, integration of recycled materials, attempts to replace it with a recyclable monomaterial. In reality, the industrial and economic limits have already been reached. My client is therefore under total stress.

So I ask him: “What do you mean by adding value to the product?” Stoically, this boss and his team explain that they have worked on the recipe, the process, purchasing and communication. All these areas have been scrutinised to save a few pennies… But to no avail: the product is still losing market share.

Some of you will recognise yourselves in this case, which is far from isolated. I could have sold them a few days’ worth of services and presented them with packaging solutions that they had no doubt already thought of. Instead, I offered them a completely different approach: rethinking their product offering.

Focusing on the real issues

When we ask ourselves what a food product will be worth in 2023, we are first and foremost asking ourselves how we will eat in 30 years’ time. We will have to feed ourselves with an average annual carbon budget of 0.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Teq), i.e. 5 times less than at present, if we hope to limit global warming to 2°C. However, we will have to live with the disastrous consequences of climate hazards, which will continue to worsen. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are constantly warning us: “Our food system is highly at risk”. Built on a linear industrial model, it reduces, wastes and destroys the living resources system and generates a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

And yet, on an industrial scale, 30 years is an eternity that does not fit into strategic development plans, even in the long term. Yet the agri-food industries (AFIs) have an opportunity: to become the catalyst for this vital transformation! By offering climate-friendly products and services, they can accelerate the transition in agricultural practices, while providing solutions for the general public to reduce the carbon footprint of their food by eating more healthily.

Making way for optimal innovation! 

The era of design thinking is over! Make way for optimal innovation! In 2020, the Agec law in France introduced the beginnings of a new circular economic paradigm, from which we often only remember the “3Rs” of reduce, reuse and recycle. It is essential to move away from single-use products, reduce the use of fossil fuels, extend their lifespan and recycle more effectively. But the circular economy is also defined by interdependent strategies that aim to rethink manufacturing and marketing models in order to sustain resources, while reducing impacts to a minimum.

For more than 30 years, brands have been influenced by the ‘design thinking’ movement, taming our desires to provide us with ever greater ease of use, practicality and new needs to satisfy, with highly technical and highly profitable models. However, design thinking integrated into a traditional linear process means wasting 90% of what is produced.

Optimal innovation offers an enhanced dimension to design thinking, by incorporating the principles of the circular economy as a fourth design pillar.


Given that 80% of the economic, environmental and social impacts of products are determined at the design stage, imagine what Nespresso’s additional value would be today if circular strategies had been integrated into the project from the outset? Refillable capsules, machines that can be repaired, organic and fair-trade coffee, perhaps even a system for hiring out machines. Millions of tonnes of waste and pollution avoided…

On the scale of a very small business, Les Paniers de Léa seized the opportunity for optimal innovation in 2013 when its linear model of selling packed baskets to businesses was faltering. By activating the Economy of Functionality and Cooperation (EFC), Les Paniers de Léa now provides “well-being through food”. In addition to its local baskets and short distribution channels, the company sells workshops and advice on quality of life in the workplace. Sharing, health, good humour, performance, the positive social externalities are numerous and their turnover has almost doubled in less than 2 years.

Circular design

What if we took one element out of the product thanks to circular design? What if we sold a service rather than a product? What if the price was adapted according to the customer’s use? These questions are part of a serious game including around sixty creativity cards from the Circulab agency’s toolbox. As a certified facilitator, I’m always amazed to see how Circular Canvas enables a team in charge of a project to go beyond the confines of packaging and rethink its product right down to its very business model.

I remember a workshop where the challenge was to reduce certain components while creating added value for customers. During the first round of creativity, the managers on the steering committee focused on classic optimisation actions, such as substitution, lightening, recyclability, reuse, etc. It was during the second round of creativity that the magic happened.

The project team came up with a totally innovative product concept in which packaging is all but eliminated in favour of a refill system in reuse loops via an innovative distribution channel.

The Steering Committee had understood that packaging remains a protective tool at the service of a product in its production and marketing ecosystem. The systemic approach and the principles of optimal innovation make it possible to bring together everyone’s skills in order to find solutions to solve today’s challenges more effectively and live better tomorrow. However, it will be necessary to carry out an environmental assessment of all the criteria to ensure that the solution is really a step in the right direction.

For the record, the assignment was not signed with my prospect. At least I planted a seed. Let’s hope it germinates quickly, time is running out…

Now, it's up to you.


(Straight forward)


(Monthly and home made)