Of all the things I’ve purchased during the pandemic, the most useful has been a box cutter. Until last summer, I had put off buying one for more than 15 years, through no fewer than nine apartment moves’ worth of unpacking with dull scissors and countless struggles against shipping boxes bound by tape reinforced with tiny threads. This knife entered my life as a tool for some minor home repairs, but it’s scarcely exited my right hand since. It doesn’t even have a place to be put away. It is never away.
For more than a year, I have wielded my box cutter like a machete in a jungle of packaging, disassembling boxes taller than I am and smaller than the palm of my hand. I’ve ordered things online that I might have previously picked up on the way home from work, as well as a slew of things that I needed or wanted as life changed: disposable masks, sweatpants to replace the pairs that sprouted holes, a desk chair after my sciatic nerve began to throb. Many of the boxes those items came in contained other boxes that also needed to be broken down. In the at-home hair-dye kit I ordered to cover my roots while salons were closed, for example, almost everything inside the box (itself sheathed in a cardboard sleeve) came in its own, smaller box—the tube of hair dye, the disposable gloves, even the single-use plastic bonnet.
That’s to say nothing of the crumpled brown paper, the air-filled clear-plastic buffers, the little cardboard inserts used to hold a product within an exterior box’s transparent window, the generic thank-you-for-your-purchase cards, the stickers and refrigerator magnets that come tucked inside orders from venture-backed lifestyle brands. No matter how much I have tried to consolidate orders; to buy in unglamorous, low-waste bulk; or to just go without, the cardboard and paper and plastic keep piling up. A certain amount of it is necessary for transportation purposes, but much of it is just for show, with no way to opt out of being in the audience.
I would be giving myself too much credit if I claimed that I hated creating all this refuse. I hate looking at it in a sad, flattened stack in the corner of my apartment, hate that there isn’t an obvious use for almost any of it, hate that it’s a physical manifestation of my occasionally poor impulse control. But opening up a brand-new purchase is the carefully orchestrated emotional crescendo of the consumer experience, and it has the power to give basically anyone a dopamine hit. These opportunities used to be more isolated—maybe you went to the grocery store once a week and the mall a couple of times a month. Now, if you have an internet connection and a credit card, something new to open can always be on the way. It feels good to dig through all those layers and unearth a little treat, no matter if it’s just hair dye or sweatpants. Even the most mundane of purchases has taken on a matryoshka-like quality.
This phenomenon has only accelerated as Americans have shifted more of their consumption online, where they can’t touch or smell or otherwise size things up the way they would in a store. On the internet, packaged products are often judged by how attractive they look in photos, and there’s no shortage of alternatives on offer. As the sheer number of consumer choices has grown exponentially, the purposes that packaging serves have grown more intricate. At this peculiar moment in American consumer history, the experience of opening and handling a purchase can be more important than the thing itself.
According to Thomas Hine, the author of The Total Package: The Secret History and Hidden Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Other Persuasive Containers, packaging isn’t just a product of consumer culture; it helped create that culture. Before industrial production spread packaged goods across the United States in the late 19th century, most people grew or made most of the things they needed; what they couldn’t make, they bought from general stores or local peddlers. You’d take a sack into the store and ask for however much flour or sugar you needed, you’d negotiate a price, and the shopkeeper would scoop your purchase into your sack.
Mass production replaced this more quaint shopping experience, but only with the help of packaging. Goods pre-bundled in predictable quantities allowed for fixed pricing, and branding gave the impression of standardized quality. “The promise of packaging is that you don’t have to worry about the process that brings a product into being,” Hine writes. “You can make a good decision without even having to think about it.”
The boxes and bottles in which things are packaged give us a heuristic for decisions that would otherwise be complicated. Hine argues that this has long been crucial to creating demand that matches the scale of what modern manufacturers can produce. And these days, they can produce a lot—from 1997 to 2019, the annual net value of the goods manufactured globally nearly tripled, to more than $13 trillion. “How many fewer items would be purchased on impulse if you couldn’t see and grab the package off a shelf?” he asks. Thanks to packaging, shoppers can look for brand names they already trust, read labels to compare their options, and use visual cues to figure out which products are for them.
For these tactics to be effective, a person has to have internalized the logic of marketing—you have to know, on some level, the aesthetic signifiers that indicate that a brand is trying to get the attention of someone like you. I’m a 35-year-old white female college graduate with disposable income who lives in a big, liberal city, which means that although I am more of a jewel-tone person myself, I know that companies that swathe their products in murky pale pinks and sage greens are more or less opening their trench coats to show me their wares.
Sometimes, packaging arbitrage is the raison d’être for a whole company. Dollar Shave Club, the direct-to-consumer start-up, didn’t make or even design its own razors. Instead, it bought inexpensive ones from the Korean brand Dorco, wrapped them in slick, Millennial-bait branding, and found a sector of the market that hadn’t yet been spoken to by the old guard of Schick and Gillette. In 2016, Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club for a reported price tag of $1 billion.
Carefully considered packaging is one way new brands can claw market share away from existing juggernauts, Samantha Bergeron, the owner of Uncover Research, told me. Her firm helps clients such as Target and Amazon measure consumer sentiment toward new products and concepts, including how the minute details of packaging design influence shoppers’ thoughts and choices. There’s not much genuinely new under the sun, but some things can be made to look new in compelling ways.
Bergeron singled out the cleaning-products brand Method, which hit the market in 2001, as a prime example of the difference that appearance can make for even the most quotidian goods. In a grocery-store aisle dominated by the opaque white, silver, and blue bottles—the colors of cleanliness!—that bear generations-old names such as Clorox and Lysol, Method was “packaged beautifully and became a sensation,” she told me. Even if you’re not familiar with the brand name, you’d likely recognize its super-simple clear-plastic bottles, most of which hold soaps and cleaners in cheerful shades of pink, purple, orange, green, or blue. At a time when many shoppers were beginning to be suspicious about the vague scourge of “chemicals” and search for more eco-friendly cleaning supplies, Method responded to their concerns and, perhaps more important, looked like it did, too—the bottles are, quite literally, transparent.
When you buy a bottle of Method cleaner, you’re choosing to buy the emotional value that its packaging creates as much as you’re choosing to buy the cleaner itself. You are probably paying for the belief that Method’s cleaner is more appropriate for a person like you—stylish, discerning—than are the alternatives in bottles festooned with cartoon suds mascots or logos that haven’t been significantly redesigned in decades. It looks modern, it looks considered, it looks expensive—even if it’s the same price as the cleaners from all the other brands. That’s differentiation, baby.
Manufacturers’ capacity to produce consumer goods has become so enormous that, for people with money, there are seemingly endless versions of every product in every category. That means new things become mundane very quickly, so product and packaging developers are constantly trying to figure out how to make things worth a second look. If everything around you seems more designed than it used to be—uncluttered labels, sans serif fonts, clean lines, matte finishes—that’s why.
In the past two decades, this premium on aesthetics has created a packaging arms race. Packaging is now typically developed right alongside the product that will go inside it, not as a last step before the product meets the public. “Designing an experience and a beautiful package is kind of the price of entry,” Bergeron said. “Making sure that package sends the right message about the brand and the product and speaks to the right consumer, that’s where the really hard work comes in.”
When Thomas Hine wrote his history of product packaging in the 1990s, the stuff largely hid in plain sight, an ignored if crucial mediator in scores of everyday decisions. Its role has changed considerably since then, as American culture and commerce have moved online and, with the help of smartphones and social media, become much more visual. Regular people are conversant in the language of branding now—they consciously package themselves, their social-media presences, and their creative output for sale. They’re tougher critics of those who do it for a living.
As consumers have become more sophisticated, packaging “has become a product in itself,” Stuart Harvey Lee, the creative director and owner of the design-and-branding firm Prime Studio, told me. When people leave reviews of their purchases online, he pointed out, they frequently include their opinions about packaging—and not just when the container is essential to the use of the product, as it is for, say, lipstick. They critique how the packaging looks and feels, both physically and emotionally; there’s no better compliment than when someone says a package feels expensive.
Opening something really fancy is often a lengthy process, taking you through layers of boxes and ribbons and tissue and storage containers modeled philosophically on the wooden display boxes that encase fine watches, or the thick, soft protective sacks that drawstring shut around designer handbags. With the right packaging, this moment can feel a bit like Christmas morning.
Anyone with a smartphone can now see these premium details up close, no purchase necessary, because packaging is also a form of entertainment. YouTubers and Instagram influencers don’t just show followers their shiny new toys; they “unbox” them, taking viewers through the layers of packaging so they get to vicariously live the full emotional experience of having just bought something new.
But in a time when educated, worldly people—the same ones who likely have enough disposable income to be prized consumers—are growing more concerned about climate change and expressing support for the measures necessary to stop it, why do they also gush about how expensive thick paper feels? Why do they love getting a cotton tote bag they’ll never use again when they buy a new dress, instead of a less resource-intense and fully recyclable paper shopping bag? For small purchases, why do they expect to be given a bag at all?
Packaging designers have to thread this needle, giving people both what they insist they want and what their actions indicate they actually want. For some companies, this means figuring out how to make packaging sustainable; for others, it means making their stuff look that way. Any company can adopt the aesthetic signifiers of sustainability (think earth tones and clean design). Brands that don’t care about waste are free to use the same colors and fonts as the companies that do.
At its best, well-designed packaging means that some stuff doesn’t get discarded at all, because it’s sturdy and beautiful enough to be repurposed. This isn’t a new concept—Bonne Maman jam jars have been used as everything from wineglasses to spice storage for ages, and opening what looks like a butter-cookie tin to find your mom’s sewing supplies might be one of the most universal experiences of 20th-century American childhood. But these packaging methods, Stuart Lee points out, tend to be more expensive than their more modern and less sustainable counterparts, such as the single-use plastics that now encase many cookies at the grocery store. That means those reusable containers are usually paired with goods marketed to people who aren’t “price sensitive.” When sustainability is a consumer choice, access to it accrues to those who already have lots of choices.
Choice is, of course, the whole point, and the whole problem. Americans have far more consumer variety than the human brain can really contend with, and more than any objective measure of need could conceivably support. But the consumer market isn’t searching for equilibrium, and it’s certainly not looking to provide everyone with the things they need. Instead, the sheer volume of what can be produced necessitates the creation of ever greater demand among people who can pay. That’s why none of this seems to slow down, and why it’s difficult to reduce your own participation in it, even if the tall stack of cardboard in your recycling bin troubles you. Consumerism is how Americans construct their identities, express their opinions, and mediate the drudgery of everyday life. And companies know that almost anything you value can be alchemized into branding—including your desire to use less packaging.
This article appears in the December 2021 print edition with the headline “Unwrappers’ Delight.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.