This research addresses the integration of sustainability and circularity-focused considerations in product-packaging development processes. The relevance of this topic stems from the increasing focus on humankind’s impact on the natural environment, in various elements of society, policy making, and industry. In traditional sustainability efforts, the reduction of the negative effects of this impact is the main target. This materializes in linear systems in which take-make-dispose patterns represent products’ material flows. In recent years, the focus increasingly shifts towards the development of circular systems: continuous cycles in which materials flow without a loss in quality and quantity. When integrating sustainability considerations into packaging development processes, the distinction between a redundancy perspective and a facilitator perspective is critical. Oftentimes, packaging is perceived as a subordinate and minor element of supply chains, regarded through the properties that become apparent in the later stages of a supply chain, and which result in perceived superfluous and excessive packaging. However, when considering the various steps from product manufacturer to consumer, packaging shows to facilitate the added value of a product in a supply chain. As a result, in this facilitator perspective packaging must be regarded as an essential and beneficial add-on to the product, forming a product-packaging combination. In this research, integrated product-packaging combinations therefore act as the main subject of focus.
A major section of the currently identified packaging sustainability-related issues can be traced back to a lack of integrating a sustainability focus into packaging development processes. Therefore, this research targets the development of interventions that value both the relevance of environmental sustainability, and consider the added value of packaging as a facilitator in supply chains. The combination of two key constructs – the development process of product-packaging combinations, and the subjects of sustainability and circularity – and accompanying complexities render this study as solution-focused design research, with an ill-defined problem as its origin. Following, it is approached as a synthesis-focused design research process. This research comprises three phases, which correspond with the core chapters of this dissertation. Each phase individually results in several valuable insights, guided by the identified research gaps and accompanying research questions. Secondly, the results of each phase provide the opportunities and boundaries of the field of research relevant for the subsequent research phases.
The first phase explores the field under research, by means of a systematic literature review. This phase primarily focuses on current methods, models, and tools that address sustainable development from the perspective of design and marketing teams, specifically the gaps and issues limiting the alignment of packaging development and circular systems. The research shows three types of integration that are important when considering the development of product-packaging combinations for circular systems: integrated product-packaging development, the cross-functional integration of actors, and front-end integration of sustainability-related considerations.
In the second research phase, the theoretical exploration of the field of product-packaging sustainability is complemented by an analysis of the current practice, through two distinct approaches. By means of a qualitative research approach, the key focus is on addressing the current alignment of the strategic and the operational levels of sustainable packaging development, by targeting the operational activities of multidisciplinary product-packaging development teams, specifically the decision making and interrelations of key actors (marketers and packaging developers), and companies’ strategic aims, related to sustainability considerations. This phase links factors that potentially influence the integration of sustainability in packaging development processes with dependencies and interrelations between actors (‘who’), decisions, actions and trade-offs (‘what’), and decision-making criteria (‘why’) within product-packaging development teams. This results in a set of identified ‘enablers’ and ‘barriers’, as a framework for the alignment of the strategic and operational levels of sustainable packaging development. The research distinguishes desired, perceived, and achieved sustainability efforts in the analyzed cases. It shows that, in the analyzed cases, sustainability considerations are never the leading requirement. A product’s commercial viability (strategic fit, business case feasibility, and a limitation of commercial risks) and development aspects (timing issues, material use, and supply chain efficiency) are prioritized over desired sustainability goals.
In this phase’s second research endeavor, the focus is directed towards the alignment of the strategic and operational levels of packaging development by analyzing how decision-making processes at various hierarchical levels are characterized in achieving a consensus on the integration of sustainability. The involvement and decision-making processes by various stakeholders – both internal and external – influence the priority setting for sustainability at both the strategic and the operational level of development. By means of a fuzzy-set qualitative comparative analysis (fsQCA), this phase shows that many of the configurations that lead to high levels of sustainability integration differ between the strategic and the operational level, which further underlines the findings of the qualitative study.
The body of knowledge derived from phases 1 and 2 identifies a collection of issues, limitations, and requirements that act as barriers or enablers for the structured implementation of sustainability and circularity-related considerations into product-packaging development processes. A key aim of this research is the development of a tailored design intervention, which materializes in the final phase. It targets the theoretical description of the role of a sustainability guardian in product-packaging development processes, by means of a problem-oriented design process – a design science research cycle – based on a heuristic structure of tacit and explicit knowledge. Besides the description of the key elements and characteristics of such a role, this research phase provides definitions of the prerequisites for successfully integrating the role in development processes. This leads to a solid basis for the further development of the operational application of the sustainability guardian’s role. It shows to be a valuable option to balance trade-offs, integrate various stakeholders’ points of focus on sustainability within multidisciplinary product-packaging development teams, and to further align the strategic and operational levels of development – desired, perceived, and achieved sustainability. The sustainability guardian acts as a suitable answer to the challenges of the limited applicability of currently available models and tools, the identified misalignment of the strategic and operational levels of development, the complexities in team dynamics, and the trade-offs in development processes.