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How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line

By Katelan Cunningham · October 20, 2020

In this new interview series, we talk to the teams behind innovative packaging solutions that challenge wasteful patterns of consumption.

By eliminating water from 6 household cleaning products, Seventh Generation was able to launch their Zero Plastic line this summer. We talked to the team at Seventh Generations about why they chose tin-plated steel, what they learned from early consumer feedback, and how they designed for easy adoption. 

Seventh Generation's Zero Plastic packaging team:

Joe Giallanella, Team Lead
Chelsea Oullette, Brand
Kay Gebhardt, Sustainability
Kelly Murosky, Packaging
Meghan Kohlmeyer, Formulation
Ali McMurtrie, Consumer Insights
Chris Norcross, Supply Chain
Dave Folkman, Finance engineer

Packaging engineer's makeshift home lab bench for testing and analysis. How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line

Packaging engineer's makeshift home lab bench for testing and analysis.

What was the project brief? What were your key goals?

    Seventh Generation’s mission is to transform the world into a healthy, sustainable and equitable place for the next seven generations and with that guiding us, we know it’s our responsibility to lead the homecare industry away from single-use plastic waste. Seventh Generation has set two critical goals for 2025 focused on plastic packaging reduction and zero-waste.

    1. We are working toward 100% of materials being reusable and reused, recyclable and recycled, or biodegradable and degraded.
    2. We are working toward 50% of laundry detergent sold in non-plastic packaging.

    In order to accelerate toward our 2025 goals, Seventh Generation created a dedicated growth incubator to explore new product lines.

    These initiatives are intent on disrupting the trajectory of our business – and the broader industry – with new products and packaging solutions. The team is equipped to produce disruptive, scalable innovation product lines that cut across categories, explore training a new consumer behavior, and consider new channel opportunities, with innovation on a fast-track. The Zero Plastic line is the first line to launch from this team.

    At what point did you decide to forego liquid in order to make plastic-free work?

      The idea was born when we had a companywide ideation session. We embarked on a weeklong, cross-functional sprint where we created prototypes, consulted with subject matter experts, and engaged with consumers. This was the pivotal moment where we confirmed that a dry-locked formulation strategy would provide us the flexibility to bring zero plastic products to the market.

      Sifter top ideation concepts. How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line

      Sifter top ideation concepts.

      What are the challenges of designing plastic-free packaging?

        Plastics are prevalent in consumer goods packaging because they are durable, lightweight, cheap, versatile, easy to source, have great barrier properties… and the list goes on. Finding a replacement material with all these characteristics is no easy task. Our choice to remove liquids from our formulations was key in finding a plastic-free packaging solution. However, we still needed to find a replacement package that could provide a proper moisture barrier to protect the product and stand up to the rigors of ecommerce shipping. We also had to expand our supplier network as sourcing steel containers was completely new to us.

        What phase of the project came with the most unforeseen surprises?

        From the outset of this project, our goal was to prioritize speed-to-market so we could get products in consumers’ hands and hear their feedback. We began production just as COVID-19 was unfolding globally, which created a number of unforeseen challenges and delays. Ultimately, we decided to postpone our launch by a few months, to ensure we were able to proceed safely, with precautions in place, and at a time when we felt it was appropriate to announce the new product.

        What we discovered was that the pandemic cast a light on the inextricable link between product consumption and the environment. As it turned out, this was an opportune time to unveil a plastic-free line to consumers who were eager to make a real shift in their usage and cleaning behaviors. It also helped that the compact size of our products came at a time when consumers are cleaning more often at home and valuing their limited storage space!

        What form factors/designs did you eliminate in the development process?

          We originally looked at cartons, pouches, rigid boxes, and some more novel packaging technologies such as molded fiber, mycelium, and cork. Speed to market was important to us, so we ultimately decided to move forward with off-the-shelf packaging technologies.

          Cumulative material sent to landfills in the US (millions of tons)

          What other materials were being considered to replace plastic and why didn’t you choose them?

            Since our main project goal was to offer consumers a completely plastic-free product solution, it narrowed down our options pretty quickly. We were originally exploring paper-based packaging, but the existing technologies we tested could not provide enough moisture barrier protection to achieve an adequate product shelf life.

            In order to attain the required moisture barrier on the paper packaging, it would have required either a plastic coating or a non-recyclable wax coating. We wanted to offer the consumer something that was both plastic-free and widely recyclable so we quickly pivoted to tin-plated steel canisters when our original paper solution did not work out.

            In what ways did steel outperform aluminum?

              We looked at the LCA (lifecycle analysis) data for steel vs aluminum and we found that steel had lesser effects on our environment. Our LCA data showed that steel has lower GHG emissions and energy use when processed, compared to aluminum. Steel also has slightly higher recycling rates than aluminum in the US and, per the Steel Recycling Institute, is the most recycled material in North America.

              When using recycled paper or plastic, you can expect changes in texture and color consistency. What sacrifices to quality come with using steel?

                Unlike other materials, steel can be infinitely recycled without a loss of quality or strength, meaning that it maintains strength throughout closed-loop recycling. Recycled steel can also be used across multiple industries in a variety of applications which helps promote the circularity and reuse of the material.

                How did you decide what gauge of steel would offer enough protection while minimizing weight?

                We worked with our canister supplier and their expertise to specify a gauge of steel that would be as thin as possible, while still maintaining enough structural integrity to allow us to ship the packaging through ecommerce. To verify that we had the proper gauge specified, we conducted qualification tests such as drop testing and ISTA E-comm certification testing to ensure the canisters could stand up to the rigors of shipping and everyday use.

                 How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line
                 How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line

                What designs did you prototype and how did you change the design after seeing it in its physical form?

                We chose to move forward with a cylindrical form factor so that it would be easy for the consumers to dispense our new powder cleaner formulations. We 3D printed several iterations of the canister to lock in our diameter and hand feel. To reduce supply chain complexities and to harmonize the number of components needed, we wanted to launch our six new products — both tablets and powders — all in the same sized canisters. We used our 3D models to find a canister size that would work for our 36ct tablets and our powders before locking final canister dimensions.

                We also modeled and 3D printed several designs of our sifter top insert. The sifter top insert is a press fit steel insert that can be found on our powder SKUs to help control dosing. The 3D printed samples allowed us to test the sifter hole designs and dosing quantities with employees before locking the design. 

                After you decided on the material, What parts of the design/aesthetic were of the highest priority?

                  We went for a straightforward, pragmatic approach to the package design. By combining the Seventh Generation leaf logo with the Zero Plastic mark, we sought to communicate clearly to consumers what they were getting — a safe and effective cleaning solution from the brand they trust, now without any plastic in the product. Everything you need and nothing you don’t.

                  The uniform approach to the packaging also helped demonstrate that this was a full platform of cleaning products, meant for use across the home, and the three simple usage instructions on each pack made for easy adoption of the new line.

                   How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line

                  When you tested with consumers, what were your findings? What attributes were successful? Any surprises?

                  The most important thing we learned from testing among consumers was that they are simultaneously A) ready for home care products that aren’t packaged in plastic AND B) that they need those products to work effortlessly for them. An example of this occurred early on in the process when we were exploring a product that would work as a dish soaking tablet. We were initially excited because it was a straightforward way to create a product for handwashing dishes, without a plastic bottle. However, when we talked to consumers about it, every single one mentioned that they rarely fill their sink up with dishes to soak, and rather wash them a few at a time as they use them.

                  This was an important moment to us because it served as a reminder that the product must first and foremost address the chore that the consumer is seeking to complete – not just be free of plastic. From there, we modified our plans and stuck to dishwasher tablets for our initial launch.

                  This insight is woven throughout the product line – we made sure to include claims on each product that speak to the category drivers. Phrases like “enzymes to fight stains,” “cleans away stuck on messes,” and “foaming lather washes hands clean,” help reassure the user that these products will work in the way they need them to. Our goal was to make it easy for users to make the switch, and the packaging speaks loud and clear regarding our step away from plastic.

                  “The pandemic cast a light on the inextricable link between product consumption and the environment.”

                   How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line
                   How Seventh Generation designed their Zero Plastic cleaning line


                  What data are you tracking to measure performance of this new system?

                    We have an incredibly robust learning plan in place to ensure we understand if people are interested in this platform, how they use our products, and ways we can optimize our product, packaging, and communications. In working with Grove Collaborative, our launch partner, we are monitoring sales rates, price sensitivity, and repurchase rates among other metrics. We are also contacting every person who purchases this product and asking for their feedback and insights through an online survey and in-person interviews.

                    Have you and your team considered refillable packaging?

                      We are working on developing refill products so our customers can hang on to their canisters and replace the tablets or powders when they run out. Refills are not available now, but we know it is something our customers are asking for and we hope to offer a solution soon.

                      How has your design/prototyping process changed in the pandemic?

                        Before the pandemic, we were already utilizing 3D modeling and 3D printing technologies. With the pandemic, these technologies have become increasingly more important as we look to share and review designs virtually. Once we lock a design, we still need to qualify and test the components to ensure it is meeting our packaging standards. In the early days of the pandemic we had to bring the packaging R&D lab to our homes. Our packaging engineer set up a mini lab bench in her house so that she can conduct various qualification tests and component analysis from home.

                        What’s your approach to gathering ideas and prioritizing them in this cross-functional setting?

                        For this project we followed agile project management tactics which allowed us to manage the project through an iterative approach that incorporates continuous feedback from the cross-functional team. The work was split in to a series of small sprints that enabled quick responsiveness to change and allowed us to pivot or adapt the project when issues arose.

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