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Packaging nostalgia; are we going full circle?

Top 5 nostalgic packaging solutions worth considering today
8 mins


March 2024

AUTHOR: Gillian Garside-Wight, Sustainability Consulting Director

Packaging is more than just a means to protect, preserve, promote and contain products; it’s often a gateway to cherished memories and moments of nostalgia. From the crinkle of a sweetie bag to the iconic silhouette of the Coca-Cola bottle, packaging has the power to transport us back in time, evoking feelings of warmth and familiarity.

Today, at the very top of the political and ethical agenda is global warming and packaging has a big part to play. We are experiencing an unprecedented surge in new and updated packaging legislation globally with the aim to promote a circular economy.

Nostalgic packaging; Bridging past and future

There’s an emerging opportunity for brands and retailers who get it right, according to McKinsey, however, rather than reinventing the wheel, should we not be reflecting and learning from the ‘good ol’ days’?

Let’s take a journey down memory lane and explore the nostalgia that surrounds 5 packaging solutions from our past and, how in some cases, we have gone full circle. We have brought back these nostalgic packaging solutions in new more sustainable, closed-loop forms.

Products making environmental, social, and governance claims averaged 28 percent cumulative growth over the five-year period, versus 20 percent for products that made no such claims.

McKinsey [1]
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1. Deposit Return Schemes

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s no-one threw away the fizzy pop glass bottles, which were bought as a treat. Nothing could beat the feeling of collecting them from family, friends and neighbours, then returning them to the shop or the ‘pop man’ and being rewarded with extra pocket money. This could range from 2p per bottle in the 70’s to a whopping 30p in the noughties. In fact, it was less than 10 years ago that AG Barr stopped accepting returns of its fizzy glass pop bottles in Scotland [2].

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What worked back then, still works today but in a new and improved way. We are seeing many deposit return schemes (DRS)/bottle bills emerging across Europe and America and today they are not restricted to glass.

The vast majority of schemes are targeted at drinks containers made from PET and Aluminium. We have learnt from the past and realised that return schemes provide a fantastic source of clean recyclate.

In some ways, what is more important is the sense of responsibility and pride that this approach brings to consumers. Not only is it right for the planet, but it puts money back in our pockets and pride in our hearts – for me that’s a big win!

Gillian Garside-Wight, Sustainability Consulting Director

2. Paper wrapped memories

Post-war there were no supermarkets, and few people had the luxury of a freezer or even a fridge, so shopping was a daily task. At the greengrocers, fruit and vegetables would be loose and sold in paper bags, bread would be bought from the bakers wrapped in paper, as would the meat from the butchers. Everyone had a basket or shopping trolley to bring home their shopping – no plastic carrier bags in those days! Even in the 80’s, I remember going with my Gran down the street to the store with her trolley bag, which was a daily occurrence. There was nothing better than the smell of fresh bread and if I was lucky, we would go to Mrs Hoggs, the sweet shop for a poke of sweets (‘poke’ is the Scottish term for a paper bag).

During the Covid 19 pandemic, we were encouraged to ‘shop local’ due to the distribution challenges and to prevent the spread of this dreadful disease. This brought a new lease of life to our local high streets but unfortunately this was short lived as supermarkets regained their dominance for grocery shopping [3]. However, the ‘packaging experience’ appeal of the high street has remained. By that I mean the use of paper wrapped products. We all love the theatre and feel-good factor of locally, hand-wrapped produce, and it also has less environmental impact than mass-produced alternatives.

CAUTION: Please take care not to be greenwashed, the nostalgia effect has led to many brands adopting paper-style packaging implying this is the perfect solution for packaging. In some instances, this may be true, but this is not always the case.

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3. Returning to refill

Refillable packaging has a history that dates back centuries. The concept of refillable packaging started back in the 1700’s, as industrialization led to mass production and increased consumption. Glass bottles, metal tins, and ceramic jars became popular containers for household staples such as milk, oils, and spices. These durable containers were often returned, cleaned, and refilled by merchants, reducing waste and promoting sustainability, long before it was a ‘thing’. These traditions remained for many years, growing up no tin or glass jar ever got thrown away.

Jars and tins were reused or refilled with anything from homemade jams and pickles to buttons, beads and even nails. Somewhere along the way we became a ‘throwaway society’, and nothing was kept or reused.

Gillian Garside-Wight, Sustainability Consulting Director

With increased consumer awareness of plastic pollution and single-use plastic, thankfully there has been a resurgence of interest in refillable solutions. From bulk refill stations at supermarkets to subscription services for household products, innovative refillable solutions are back with a vengeance!

Refillable packaging has stood the test of time as a sustainable solution. As we look to the future, refillables will continue to evolve, driven by consumer demand and conscience. Insights from the IGD report, How to help consumers adopt reusable packaging [4] seem to support this viewpoint. 

Of the reusable options currently available on the market, the report found that consumers are most open to refill-at-home and return solutions, and are most likely to use them for fruit, vegetables, dried goods and household products. The IGD report goes into some depth about consumer behaviour and reuse/refill, highlighting opportunities for brands and retailers to drive change by addressing three key themes: cost, ease and reassurance.

4. Coca-Cola – a timeless classic

There are few symbols that evoke as much nostalgia and recognition as the silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle. For over a century, this distinctive shape has remained virtually unchanged, serving as a timeless reminder of the brand’s heritage and enduring appeal.

The contoured bottle was first introduced in 1915, and quickly became synonymous with Coca-Cola, transforming the brand into a cultural icon. Its unique shape not only set Coca-Cola apart from competitors but also served as a powerful marketing tool, reinforcing the brand’s identity and creating a sense of nostalgia and familiarity among consumers.

The iconic silhouette of the bottle became just as powerful as the colour red to the Coca-Cola brand, evoking emotional connections with consumers old and young. It was so iconic there were very few marketing campaigns that didn’t include the bottle, from retro-themed advertisements to limited-edition packaging designs, Coca-Cola continues to tap into the nostalgia associated with its iconic bottle shape.

Just because Coca-Cola haven’t radically changed its appearance doesn’t mean it hasn’t moved forward. Coca-Cola has driven innovation to remain current and meet the changing demands of consumers and the industry. The contour bottle has been resized, reshaped, reinvented in different packaging materials, and reacted to environmental considerations. However, the essence of the original design stays intact, ensuring continuity and recognition.

By embracing refillable and supporting initiatives that promote sustainability, we can contribute to a more circular economy and a healthier planet for generations to come.

Gillian Garside-Wight, Sustainability Consulting Director
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Despite perception, Coca-Cola has been a leader in sustainability, championing a mission to reduce waste and minimize its environmental footprint. Coca-Cola has introduced initiatives such as lightweighting, plant-based plastics as early as 2009, and refillable packaging options to address concerns about packaging waste and promote eco-friendly practices.

Brands don’t need to disappear and come back again to be provoke nostalgia, but few have managed to create this timeless evolution while maintaining its original brand equity. From its humble beginnings as a solution to combat imitators, to its status as a global cultural icon, Coca-Cola’s contour bottle silhouette embodies timeless appeal. Read more about Coca-Cola’s ambitious sustainability targets in this blog by our specialist sister company, Aura Consultants.

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5. Milkman deliveries

I’m not sure any form of packaging is as nostalgic as glass milk bottles delivered to your door.

Pre-war daily deliveries were the only way to enjoy fresh milk due to limited refrigeration. Post-war, over time came a surge of consumerism, with affordable refrigeration resulting in greater quantities of milk being bought and stored in large, durable plastic packaging containers.

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We have seen many forms of milk packaging over the decades. From churns and glass bottles to Tetra Pak and even bags of milk. Today, the most common packaging for milk is the new and improved plastic HDPE bottles, which are fully recyclable and also made from a high percentage of recycled content and even colourless lids to aid the recycling process

However, we have also seen a bit of a resurgence of the traditional milkman. This started during the first lockdown of Covid 19 and has remained at relatively high numbers, not to the demand seen back in the 70s but deliveries in the UK in July 2020 peaked at 670,000 [5].

Today, I still enjoy milk deliveries twice weekly, delivered to my door in returnable glass bottles from a local dairy using an electric vehicle. Does it remind me of days gone by?
Absolutely, and makes me happy that I’m doing my small bit towards a more sustainable future.

Gillian Garside-Wight, Sustainability Consulting Director

So, what is the best option for milk packaging, should we all be moving to milkman deliveries or are supermarket plastic bottles the best way to go?

Plastic Bottles

With high recycled content and fully recyclable, this is not a bad solution and for many this is the most affordable choice, especially if you have a big family and consume large quantities of milk.

Milkman Deliveries

Delivered in returnable glass bottles is great, but only if delivered from a local dairy using electric vehicles and not transported across the country. However, this usually comes at a premium and may not be possible for many, especially in the current economic climate.

From Nostalgia to Sustainability: The Evolution of Packaging

Packaging nostalgia reminds us that some of life’s most cherished moments are wrapped in the simple pleasures of everyday objects. From the iconic designs of beloved brands to the sentimental packaging of childhood treasures, these packaging solutions evoke memories that transcend time and connect us through shared experience. As we embrace the nostalgia of packaging, lets celebrate the beauty of these everyday items and the memories they hold in our hearts.

What we must remember is that in the ‘good ol’ days’, both product and packaging was mainly locally sourced. So, great solutions with a low environment impact. Today, we can measure benefits, from recyclability to carbon footprints and full life-cycle analysis and this is vital if we are to reduce the impact of global warming. It also offers a tangible measure to qualify packaging change / improvements.

For brands and retailers, all these solutions have something in common, they evoke warm feelings and fond memories in consumers, and that is priceless. However, as with many elements of packaging there is not a ‘one size fits all solution’, we have to adapt and continue to evolve but, as this demonstrates, some of the solutions from the past are worth considering and still have a lot to offer us and our planet.

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