In a previous post, I talked about how packaged-goods maker Unilever, in pursuit of a communication-friendly office space, wound up with one of the greenest headquarters anywhere. I’ll continue my three-part tour of Hamburg’s extraordinary, offhand approach to sustainability with a story of how a branding exercise turned into an exemplary piece of sustainable design.

The story begins with Deutsche See, one of Europe’s biggest fish-processing companies, which was looking for a distinctive new package for its fresh fish. The company wanted something that made Deutsche See’s products stand out in the grocery store, a readily identifiable package that distinguished its haddock fillets and salmon steaks from all the others in the refrigerated case. The company also wanted the new package to perform better — to keep the fish looking as fresh and unmolested as possible until purchase.

Deutsche See enlisted feldmann+schultchen, a cutting-edge marketing and design firm based in Hamburg, to create the new package. Now, feldmann+schultchen is very much a high-concept, big-idea firm — its best known work in Germany was the rebranding of a staid old Hamburg beer called Astra, creating a heart-and-anchor logo for the beer that so perfectly encapsulated the city’s sailors-at-the-tattoo-parlor past that many Astra drinkers now believe it to be the “original” trademark of Astra’s 19th-century forefather, St Pauli Brewery.

Such is the holistic total-brand approach to their work that when you talk to feldmann+schultchen's partners about it, they tend to spend a lot of time good-naturedly musing as to whether they’re a product design firm, a brand management firm or an ad agency. Because the answer is that they are all of the above, all at once.

High concept they may be, but there’s nothing particularly sustainability-bent in f+s’ approach to design, and when Deutsche See hired the firm to re-invent its packaging, its primary goal was to differentiate itself amid a grocery-aisle sea of superficially identical fish fillets. There was no intent, in other words, to make fish packaging more efficient, let alone to reinvent the way Deutsche See brought its seafood to market on more sustainable lines.

Stage one of this transformation was feldmann+schultchen’s new grocery-store packaging. The firm has never lacked for ambition — the company's pitch to Astra was that they wanted to give it a brand as iconic as Nike's swoosh — and in redesigning Deutsche See’s fillet trays, they wanted to develop something that was, as Arne Schultchen put it, “as easily recognizable as a bottle of Coke.”

In pursuit of this lofty goal, though, the team began with practicalities. In particular, they noticed that conventional flat fish packages tended to get bowed upward by the pressure of the shrink wrap as it was heat-shrunk into place on the production line, ruining the look of the fish and sometimes even smushing the fillets with the package itself. Their insight: What if the package was pre-bent? What if indeed you bent up the sides of the tray, turned them into a sea-wave configuration, and used the package’s distinct shape itself as the brand? The resulting “wavepack” was a huge hit, a highly distinctive, award-winning design that just happened to also reduce the amount of fish that got wasted due to bent packaging.

Deutsche See's iconic wavepack, which turns the package itself into the brand.

The next phase of f+s’ branding campaign with Deutsche See was the point where the intrinsic logic of sustainability came more fully into play. Again, the goal was brand-oriented, not green-minded; Deutsche See wanted a distinctive package. Namely, a new fish crate. Fish is brought to the grocery store in big plastic tubs, which are often stinky, smudged-up old things that hugely detract from the attractiveness of the product even during the brief time they are visible to consumers while grocery cases are being restocked. What’s more, conventional plastic tubs can be wasteful — if the ice they're filled with melts before the fish packages get unloaded, water can inundate the packages and ruin the contents. And the tubs themselves rarely last more than a few trips before the fish-scented meltwater renders them unfit for re-use.

The inventive minds at feldmann+schultchen had been presented with a branding challenge, but they quickly recognized it as a design failure. And to get to the better-branded fish crate, they decided they had to re-invent the whole thing.

Again they seized on the sea-wave shape, redesigning the plastic bin as an undulating translucent-blue homage to the sea. “The ideal,” Arne Schultchen told me, “would be a slice of the ocean.”

This wasn’t just stylish and clever, but imminently practical. As feldmann+schultchen's designers played around with curvy crates, they realized they could be stacked more easily than conventional plastic tubs, and the curves would keep them stable, eliminating the need for sharp-edged interior notches, which sometimes perforated the seafood packages. The curves also allowed for a slight offset in the way the bottom of one crate lined up against the one underneath it, which permitted a small patch of space for drainage. With no fishy water trapped inside, feldmann+s’ new bins could be re-used indefinitely.

Here’s the resulting product:

Deutsche See's stylish Fischkiste ("fish crate"): shipping container as design icon

From a branding standpoint, Deutsche See’s bins are a triumph, instantly recognizable and associated with a product of superior quality. Not only did it win many design awards, but on high-end cooking shows in Germany, fish fillets are now sometimes brought out onto the set in the stylish bins as a kind of boast that there is a premium product being used.

But more than this, the new fish crates are paragons of sustainability’s baseline practicality. Sustainability is not about doing good for its own sake or giving up on performance in the name of eco-friendliness. It’s about solving problems better. If your problem is an ugly, easily damaged and quick-to-wear-out package, the solution might be to make it work better, smarter, more efficient, with less waste. Brand value is built more durably, after all, on genuine quality. And most of what we think of as hallmarks of quality — endurance, performance, efficiency, elegance, simple practicality — are also virtues of sustainability. Small wonder then, that without even intending to do so, feldmann+schultchen turned Deutsche See into a sustainable packaging pacesetter.

Also on MNN: The holy approach to corporate responsibility

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All photos by Chris Turner

When you make a product better, you're embracing sustainability
The German seafood wholesaler Deutsche See went looking for a better brand, but instead it found a more sustainable packing crate. Sustainability, it turns out,