Whether you're one to set new year's resolutions or avoid them like the plague, there's no denying that it's a good business practice to enter the new year with a bit of reflection. Taking stock of what the climate was last year and where it is going in the one ahead helps businesses to plan for the challenges to come and position themselves out in front.

While we could never have predicted a global pandemic in 2020, we're proud to see that the packaging trends we highlighted this time last year were pretty on point. While consumers continue to prioritize sustainability, they also expect that brands can juggle the demand for an enjoyable unboxing experience that doesn't harm the planet.

Now ecommerce is firmly embraced, thanks to our global shared Covid-19 experience in 2020, you can bet that consumers will have higher expectations from brands in 2021. They will tolerate no more excuses for companies who are lagging behind in the packaging experience.

In this article, we're going to explore the packaging trends taking center stage in 2021, starting seriously with the topic of sustainability and then moving into the more fun visual aesthetics that are going to be big in the year ahead.

In 2020, we saw environmentally conscious packaging taking higher priority amongst businesses and their consumers. And 2021 is the year that this goes even more into hyper-drive. Consumers are in a precarious position. They want convenience (online shopping, easy delivery, packaging that will keep their products safe), but they also want to practice sustainability, and that means keeping the environment clean. Too much plastic and poor choices on packaging options can cause consumer backlash, no matter how well-loved your brand is.

In 2019, Nielson released a report that found 73 percent of consumers would change their consumption practices to reduce their impact on the environment. What that means for brands is that consumers are willing to turn to or away from your brand, depending on whether or not you are offering environmentally conscious solutions to them.

Sustainability is key

Sustainable packaging is no longer “nice to have”; it is an expectation. Brands who fail to deliver sustainable packaging materials will see consumers slip away and bad PR increase. You only have to follow #amazonpackaging on Twitter to get a sense of how consumers are mobilized to criticize environmentally unconscious packaging choices. And rightly so.

With so many eco-friendly options now available, there are really no excuses left. Today it's possible to find sustainable materials like cornstarch, seaweed packaging, recycled paper, and bioplastics that can be used. 2021 is the year that every business needs to think about their carbon footprint and how to be part of the circular economy.

And it’s not just young consumers (like millennials) who are driving these trends. The majority of shoppers are pro-sustainability. It's time for brands to get on board.

The continued rise of recycled plastic

Recycled plastic will continue to make waves in 2021. These materials, which give plastics a second life, can be used as product wrappers as well as shipping materials. noissue’s recycled mailers, for instance, work great for shipping clothing and accessories. These mailers even have a second adhesive strip so they can be used again, thereby further minimizing waste.

Lotus Wrapping Co, which sells reusable fabric gift wrap kits is one example of a merchant using recycled mailers. Lotus’ choice to use noissue is perfectly in line with the brand's values around reusable items.

Sustainability = accountability for the packaging industry

Another trend we can expect to see in 2021 is more accountability being placed on the packaging industry to provide better solutions. It's not only brands who will suffer for making unsustainable choices. As consumers wise up to the supply chain behind unsustainable packaging practices, producers of environmentally un-friendly packaging products will be singled out and called to make amends.

Those who don't adapt will be facing the economic impact of retailers and e-commerce organizations turning away from their solutions. The more brands apply pressure to their providers, the better the solutions will be in the future, and the more you can feel positive about the contribution you've had to this change.

2. Minimalist packaging design

With sustainability being the biggest trend in product packaging at the moment, it's no wonder that minimalism is also part of the desired design elements. Consumers have asked for less planet polluting packaging, and with that, minimalist packaging design is its own hot trend.

Minimalist ecommerce product packaging

Online shoppers are perhaps the most serious about sustainability and minimal packaging. As consumers become savvier with online shopping, they expect less fancy stuff from the unboxing experience and more by way of minimal packaging.

Ecommerce vendors would be wise to focus on a minimalist approach to packaging. Don't overuse packaging materials, leading to more waste. Your brand identity is stronger for being minimal in the packaging used than for oversupplying stickers, branded packaging, and other non-essentials.

The example below, shared by Status.co is a great example of minimalist packaging in action. Rather than bulky boxes with tons of fillers, Status uses thin and sleek boxes that fit snuggly with each other.

If you have a brand story that you really want to dive deeper into, it could be worth looking at QR codes so that interested consumers can go deeper with you, but they don't have to see it all when they open their box. More on that in our "smart packaging trends."

Minimalism meets graphic design

Minimalism works both in limiting the quantity of packaging materials going into your packages, as well as as a design trend. Minimalism is often represented in a monochromatic style: minimal colors, minimal graphics, but maximum aesthetic power.

To execute this packaging design trend well, brands should look at their brand identity and explore how design elements can be introduced into a clean, minimal style that effectively represents your brand story.

Minimalism is all about a “less is more” approach. Cut out the unnecessary copy from marketers and go for messaging that subliminally reaches your audience. Small graphics that reflect that your packaging is recyclable and that you care about the environment will go a lot further than big logos and lots of copy.

Smart packaging is an exciting new trend that tags onto the "smart revolution." We have smartphones, smartwatches, smart homes, and now we have smart packaging.

Smart ecommerce packaging

Amazon is undeniably the leader in the ecommerce space, so they are worth paying attention to when it comes to smart packaging and distribution technology. If you have a lot of inventory to keep track of, smart packaging through RFID technology is one incredibly useful way to automate data collection, optimize stock levels, and reduce product waste.

Through RFID tags, you can keep track of what inventory from your computer, rather than having to sort it all physically, saving you time and allowing you to put promotions on items that need to be sold fast.

QR codes for extra messaging

QR codes on your packaging is a really great way to get more messaging to the customers who want it without bombarding those who don't. For example, if you're using packaging that can be recycled, you could add a QR code that gives tips on re-using or recycling that packaging. You could also have a QR code where customers can learn about the supply chain their items have gone through. Skincare brands could educate customers on the shelf life of their products. Or you could link to a background of your brand.

The possibilities are really limitless with QR codes, and they've been around for long enough that most customers are familiar with how they work and will appreciate that you're supplied the information online rather than on paper.

If you're already sustainable and smart, you might be wondering what other packaging trends are out there that can set your brand apart this year.

Social media worthy graphics

While we hope the pandemic will get better in 2021, it's certain that we'll still be at home for quite some time. That means social media is going to continue to be a big part of most marketers' strategy, and fun graphics on the packaging is a simple way to encourage social sharing.

Typography, bold retro patterns, and relatable illustrations are all going to be a big hit this year, and these graphics have the power to get your products out to the people by way of the people they relate to. Work with color gradients that do well on Instagram and encourage tagging by offering hashtags on your products.

Personalized packaging

One of the biggest ecommerce trends in 2020 was personalized experiences for customers. This trend extends to ecommerce packaging as well. We all know how mad people went for the Coca-Cola campaign that put names on bottles so that people could find their own. While their packaging was certainly not of a material that is appropriate for 2021, this campaign idea touches on a big opportunity to make your customers feel valued and get involved in a bit of fun.

This could be executed to use customer purchasing behavior or online behavior (which every marketer should be gathering) to select packaging that is most likely to appeal to that customer. You could use the illustrations, retro graphics, and typography options and divide them into categories of the type of customer who tends to prefer which. These little touches can go a long way in building brand loyalty.

Leading innovation

2021 is the year to re-think everything. You need to be bold to stand out, and that means looking at innovation.

When designing new packaging, think about how this can stand out from what everyone else is doing. Food packaging could be made from food waste or biodegradable packaging. You could have a packaging system that contributes to the circular economy by asking customers to send back used bottles to be re-filled and reused.

Final words

Sustainability is undoubtedly the focus that every business should have in 2021. If you're not packaging your products in sustainable materials, your graphics and fun additions aren't going to blind your customers to the un-sustainable packaging choices.

Thankfully, it's never been easier to adopt sustainable practices while enjoying all the flexibility and freedom to inject your brand's unique personality onto your packaging.

For 2021, make the environment your number one – and then it's time to have fun.