Meet the man charged with shaping the future of packaging at Packaging Innovations 2024.
When packaging designer turned Principal Lecturer Peter Macqueen ushers up to 60 BSc students from the UK's only packaging degree course through the doors of Packaging Innovations in February, his story will have come full circle.
There was nothing serendipitous about his arrival on the packaging scene at age 17, and it will be quite a deliberate choice once again when he shows up at the two-day exhibition with his cohort of future changemakers. The combined purchasing power of the companies that entrust their future hopes in Macqueen is estimated at over £15 billion, so while they unassumingly walk the floor of the NEC, their respective impacts will be felt for decades to come.
"In the late 90s, when I identified packaging as a sector, it was at least partly due to stability and opportunity, and that's fairly unusual for a 17-year-old kid to mark out," said Macqueen. "I didn't want to enter a part of an industry where there wasn't market stability. Packaging is globally unusual in how it operates because of the socioeconomic and technical functions of packaging. It's always somewhere between 5 to 7% of all manufacturing. Anywhere manufacturing happens, packaging happens. So, as long as there is manufacturing and retail, packaging will remain a vital sector."
After brief spells at Dyson and Hasbro towards the end of his BA Hons course in Design and Packaging at Cranfield University, Macqueen enjoyed the best part of a decade at Smurfit Kappa, where he worked north, south, east and west, seeing the supply chain across the country, working in heavy-duty, point of sale, and high-quality post-print markets.
Then came the opportunity to move up to Sheffield Hallam University. Not to work in education but in the university's award-winning research-led consultancy, Design Futures.
"Well, I'm quite unusual," he quipped with a wry smile. "The vast majority of people are accidental packaging professionals. It's not a sector that many people actively direct themselves towards. In my late teens, I identified packaging as an attractive industry and specifically studied packaging design at university.
"I was among the last cohorts to complete that course in 2001, and then for the next 20 years, there were no undergraduate degrees in packaging, whether packaging technology or packaging design. So, I'm sort of one of the last sets through, and I think that's one of the things that gave me a passion to see that reborn."
Now at the helm of the Higher Degree Apprenticeship Packaging Profession BSc (Hons) at Sheffield Hallam University, Macqueen is charged with honing the next generation's skills, creating a clear pathway into packaging in the process. Thankfully, the programme, which also had the backing of big-name brands, retailers and packaging manufacturers, has earned remarkable kudos in a whistle-stopping four -year period.
Making packaging a career choice for school leavers has always been a widely accepted challenge, and the man tasked with shaping the industry's future from the inside out firmly believes that careers in packaging can throw up opportunities aplenty – his personal trajectory is a case in point.
Perception is reality
Macqueen, who regularly lectures the university's conventional undergraduate product design students, admitted they were quite often surprised to find out that there is a packaging course. And they're certainly surprised to find out there's a Packaging Lecturer inside the university.
But why is that the case? And are perceptions changing?
"We're a bit too apologetic as a sector for what we do," added Macqueen. "Packaging's reputation took a real nosedive rightfully in the aftermath of the BBC Blue Planet II series, and from that moment, so many parts of the industry - not just people working in polymer science or polymer-related sectors, but right across the industry - we took a pasting for our activities, regardless of the logical standpoint. There was a pushback against packaging's very existence, which largely stems from a public misunderstanding of the benefits and actual reality of what packaging does. It's not just consumer packaging, although most people's experiences are from what they bring home from the supermarket or the shops. It's not just your take-home piece of packaging; it's the entire functioning of capitalism. It's a truly vital and, consequently, a vibrant sector. It's diverse and really broad. It's not necessarily seen as a shining star of an industry to go into. Still, I honestly believe that's largely through a lack of awareness rather than the fact that, inherently, packaging isn't attractive.
"The reality is that people remember bad packaging, and packaging as a sector tends to be defined by those personal interactions as much as by the professional ones.?Maybe it's partly that.
"When guest lecturing to regular design students at Hallam, I ask, 'Would you be interested in a career in packaging?' and out of a room of 40-50 people, I'll be lucky if I get one hand up in the whole room," he adds. "By the time I've finished selling the sector's benefits despite its challenges, you could normally bet that around a quarter of that room would seriously consider taking it as the direction of travel, even if, previous to that, they were looking at something completely different. It's not hard to change people's minds, so long as you're honest with them."
"We're also guilty of sometimes not addressing elephants in the room. There have been issues with the packaging sector, certainly in FMCG goods and retail, where we make claims that ultimately don't always fully stack up or we make claims against each other. That leaves people confused about what's right and what's wrong. I think being well-armed with a better understanding and a more solid message to the public of the benefits of packaging is powerful. And it's one of the things we're doing on the course."
And it's an ambitious course at that. Macqueen suggests it's arguably three degrees wrapped up in one.
He continued: "There's an R&D design degree in there; there's very much a material science component, part of which is taught by the Department of Engineering to ensure that people have that granular factual knowledge about the science of the materials. And there's a huge MBA component with business development tucked away inside. It's a huge degree in terms of the kind of activities, and that reflects the breadth and variety of the average packaging professional's role."
Plotting a new course
Just as is the case with all apprenticeships, the packaging industry designed the curriculum that Macqueen teaches. Trailblazer groups of companies, including everybody from 3M to Smurfit Kappa, Alexia Packaging, Glaxo Smith Kline and Nestle, influenced the programme Macqueen and his team deliver.
But as the course prepares to start its fifth intake in January, some companies have put people in every cohort. The first ten graduates who completed the programme in July are already being promoted into senior roles inside their organisations, much earlier than anticipated, because of the impact they were able to achieve through the programme.
But despite all that success in a relatively short time, Macqueen is far from content.
"I do think there's an underlying reason why we haven't had that jump-start from the beginning of the course," he said. "And I think maybe it stems from something I've said several times so far: the perception that the packaging industry is a singular entity, like the steel or nuclear industries. It might be very contentious, but there is no 'one' packaging industry. There is no one specific activity; it's effectively an alliance, with those working in corrugated having a very different environment from those working in thermoplastics and those working in metals or glass. And often, there's very little interaction between those sectors. The skills can often seem very executive and material-specific.
"And I think over the years that fragmentation - that segmentation - has been one of the contributing factors to the civil wars going on inside the packaging sector that make us vulnerable to the external reputation that we have, and that's why we have become neutral in this. We don't teach that plastics are bad and must be eliminated. We don't teach that paper is good and must be promoted at all costs. We take an evidence-based and impact-oriented approach that individual students should be able to use the evidence from their workplace to support their decisions. One of the ambitions of the course is to empower professionals to stand up and fight their corner using facts, not fiction."
Macqueen isn't the one who asks the students to work so hard, or so he says. It's the industry that asks it. When you pursue such a demanding position, like working in packaging, he likens it to choosing to poke the hornet's nest regularly.
He said: "It does require that three-pronged attack mode that you have to understand the business aspects, you have to understand the science, and you also have to have that individual innovation and adaptability that gives you a chance to respond in a creative, impactful way. So, it's not that I'm giving them three degrees; it's inherent because anybody working effectively in packaging does all of those things on a day-to-day basis."
Seeing change as an opportunity
It would have been remiss not to enquire about the complexities and, therefore, chances of genuine innovation in the sector, particularly having spent so many years at the coalface himself and now running the rule over those who will undoubtedly affect any future change.
But given the seemingly endless list of obstacles, what chance did this self-styled, 'slightly worryingly enthusiastic packaging educator' give it?
"Extremely hard, but not impossible," he retorted. "What we have to teach is preparedness, dealing with ambiguity, and adaptability to change. The crucial underpinning right from day one is teaching context, and we tend to address the granular sides of problems. And we think the best way of doing it on the course is to address the context of the issue. So that might not necessarily mean changing the packaging but changing how you make people understand how to dispose of the packaging. You change something in the supply chain that allows packaging to be returned more effectively. And most of the time, that can be a more effective intervention than just changing the pack.
"But we encourage people to have a whole level of systems thinking. So rather than thinking of R&D as a process of here's a brief to develop a pack against, you think of it more as a context. We need to change the system to adapt to this shift in context. So, it probably sounds a bit high level, but it's easier than it sounds sometimes, but it does have an interdependency on understanding the big picture. Real interventions, holistic interventions, need holistic knowledge, and that's the big difference when it comes to the R&D process. When it comes to the innovation process here, we don't ask people to confine their innovation to just the design process. It's looking at the product's life cycle and where that innovation can come from.
"The dial is moving so quickly on everything from the tech we're working with to how we communicate with customers. The way we use our visual communications on packs, to the way we communicate with our customers for recycling systems. We alluded earlier to the rapid change in legislation, EPR around the corner, and DRS coming, too. All these things are changing so rapidly, so quickly. Alongside this, the public understanding is shifting. You cannot stand still. It's not an option.
"One of the key lectures I give is, again, around context and understanding what we mean by context. The viability of a pack, the viability of the material, and the viability of the solution change every time you change the context it is used in. A pack being consumed in a hermetically-sealed environment like a football stadium is very different from being consumed 30 metres away in the street outside that stadium because the recovery systems are different. The ability to control the flow of those materials is different. So, you must understand the context not just of your product, but the environment you're releasing it into and the systems and controls it's involved in."
In truth, a 45-minute Microsoft Teams call wasn't enough time to soak up the wisdom and insight on offer. Thankfully, Macqueen gets another chance to impart his knowledge to interested observers when taking to the stage to address the thousands of visitors at Packaging Innovations in February. And look out for his students, too! Say hello and explain what brings you to the event. They are the future before our eyes and mustn't pass us by.