Protopian thinking: How can it solve the industry’s packaging fears?

12 December, 2023
3 minute read
Share article
Mondi and Vogue Business

Advancements in durable, paper-based packaging offer fashion retailers an opportunity to enhance customer experience.


Sustainability spans every stage of a product’s life cycle, from farming raw materials to considered design, production, distribution, consumption and waste management. With a mere 19 per cent of Europe’s packaging waste estimated as plastic-based, according to the European Parliament, this stage of the life cycle is becoming an imperative focus for brands seeking to become more sustainable.

Futurists such as Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired, champion the merits of “protopian” thinking, where progress towards a better future is made through evolving ideas and technology. The pressing need for progress has intensified off the back of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have just six years remaining on the original timeline. Of these, goal 12, ‘responsible consumption and production’, has particular relevance to the fashion industry, with targets beneath it aiming to substantially reduce waste generation and achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources.

Protopia / prəʊˈtəʊpɪə / 

Coined by futurist Kevin Kelly and the opposite of a “dystopia”. A protopian civilisation is one free from restriction, increasing its chances of societal improvement. 

So how can protopian thinking resolve existing problems in the supply chain? One area that is primed for sustainable innovation is packaging. A collaborative solution to reducing packaging waste could not only answer a perennial problem for fashion brands but also revolutionise the way consumers experience deliveries.

A market in transit 

Global shipping volumes are expected to reach 256 billion parcels in 2027, up 59 per cent from 2022, according to the Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index, illustrating the role of e-commerce in driving sustainable progress. The scale of the fashion industry’s packaging problem is palpable, and, with the average person in Europe generating around 188 kg of packaging waste per year, governments are taking serious measures to counter it — for example, the UK’s government has committed to eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

Supply chain transparency is becoming increasingly important, giving way to the emergence of new roles such as traceability officer. Beyond government regulation, the onus for a more transparent supply chain is currently reliant on self-reporting. Global non-profit CPD opened its plastics reporting from an initial data set of 7,000 companies in April 2023; meanwhile, retailers such as Selfridges are already three years into their push for better disclosure. In 2021, the luxury department store group collected information from nearly 20 per cent of its partners, with a goal of 100 per cent by 2030.

Improving supply chain traceability offers multiple benefits, including strengthened relationships with suppliers, lower-risk operations and enhanced compliance, as businesses work towards net zero targets. For now, as mandatory traceability becomes global, there are competitive advantages in proactive — rather than reactionary — measures.  

Bringing delight to the delivery 

The importance of sustainability to consumers shouldn’t be underestimated: 84 per cent of respondents cited sustainable packaging as an essential factor in their online purchasing decisions, in a recent survey conducted by Mondi. Yet, for fashion, beauty and lifestyle consumers, this cannot come at the expense of the e-commerce experience. These customers often have elevated expectations for luxe aesthetics and the tactile pleasure delivered by packaging.

Mondi, with its group offices in the UK and Austria, is a leading global manufacturer of sustainable paper and packaging. Its team of over 100 designers has developed packaging solutions for e-commerce that protect products shipped using sustainable methods and offer a memorable unboxing experience for the end consumer. In many cases, the customer’s first physical interaction with a brand is often through its packaging; an experience amplified by growing social media trends that visually document this initial interaction via ‘unboxings’ (or ‘unwrappings’).

Of respondents surveyed by Mondi in five e-commerce markets, 78 per cent indicated that they would be inclined to make repeat purchases from a retailer if they were provided with a distinctive unboxing experience facilitated by exceptional product packaging. While many brands view this as a critical marketing touchpoint, it opens the floor to opportunities across sustainability and for meeting circular objectives. As environmentally friendly packaging is the third most important factor for online shoppers, this becomes a key moment to communicate sustainability efforts with consumers.  

Delivering excellence 

Ultimately, packaging must fulfil its primary function of protecting goods during transit, which expectedly emerged as the most important factor for online consumers in Mondi’s research. For luxury customers purchasing items at a higher price point, packaging as product protection becomes non-negotiable. Not only this, but replacing goods damaged in transit contributes to the environmental impact of items when returned, reprocessed/manufactured, repackaged and redelivered.

Mondi has established an International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) testing centre where products can undergo rigorous laboratory testing to comply with ISTA standards and ISTA 6-Amazon — a packaging programme jointly developed by Amazon and ISTA, designed to mitigate damage risks during the distribution of products from Amazon’s warehouse to the customer’s doorstep.

While components of packaging, such as internal stuffers, protect products during transit, excessive volumes can create an annoyance for receiving customers alongside risking a detrimental effect on brand image. Not only is the disposal of packaging important to consumers on an environmental level, but the convenience of this disposal also matters. The same mentality applies to returns, with 88 per cent of surveyed customers demanding that returns should be made more seamless through packaging that is easy to reuse and reseal. Crucially, there is evidence that consumers will even pay a small premium (around €1) for more suitable packaging, with Gen Z (80 per cent) and millennials (74 per cent) being the most likely to oblige.  

Practising protopian thinking 

Uncertain times call for true innovation, which reaches beyond invention to create new forms of working and have a positive wider impact. Key themes emerging from the recent Dieline Forum at Labelexpo Europe, the world’s largest label and package printing forum held in Brussels in September, saw a focus on craftsmanship, with savoir-faire and durability noted as key signifiers of luxury. Other conversations centred around refillable packaging and planet-focused solutions through collaborative innovation.

There is precedent for industry cooperation over competition, both within the packaging industry and beyond. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity focussed on developing a circular economy, announced its collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) and NGO Wrap in January 2023, with the aim of better information sharing around the charity’s global Plastics Pact initiative. Meanwhile, the Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba has partnered with member companies such as L’Oréal on its carbon ledger, which pledges to reduce carbon emissions along their supply chain; by encouraging recyclability of packaging alone, it’s thought the scheme could reduce consumer carbon emissions by 37 grams per customer.

The betterment of industries through viable solutions and incremental progress over time is vital for protopian futurists. With businesses like Mondi, the pursuit of pragmatic, industry-leading and co-created solutions could be key to solving some of the greatest problems facing consumer supply chains today.  

Key takeaways: 

  • With consumers demanding environmentally friendly packaging as part of their purchase journey, e-commerce packaging presents a unique opportunity for brands to highlight sustainability efforts to consumers. 
  • Innovative, sustainable packaging enhances brand identity and maximises value by enhancing the delivery experience for customers. 
  • Co-creating fit-for-purpose packaging solutions with Mondi not only protects products and enhances supply chain sustainability but also helps create a more seamless and efficient returns process. 
Products & Solutions
Share article

You might also be interested in...