Sustainable Packaging and Your Business
Have you and/or your company made the decision to move to more eco-friendly packaging? Or to become a more sustainable company overall? Or perhaps you are already an earth-conscious business and want to ensure you’re making the right decisions for yourself and the planet.
People often come to us asking questions such as “what packaging is most sustainable” or “what material is best for the planet”? What it seems like folks are looking for is an agreed upon and objective framework for evaluating what options are better for the planet so they can easily make decisions.
Unfortunately, there is no real framework like that. In this article, we provide a summary of how to think about sustainability (and sustainable packaging in particular) decisions for your business. Then, we share tips for how you can establish sustainability priorities that make the most sense for your business. We then provide examples of sustainable packaging guidelines from a few major brands, highlighting commonalities and differences across these guidelines.
Do you want concrete guidance and packaging recommendations? If so, get in touch! Once we learn more about what you are selling and your basic sustainability goals, we can create an eco-friendly packaging solution that is good for the planet, your brand and your customers. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to start the conversation!
Summary of Guidance
One of the first questions we typically get is - what type of packaging material should I use for my ecommerce shipments? Should I go paper (mailers or boxes), plastic, bioplastic, fiber (other than wood, such as hemp or straw), or something else entirely? Is renewable preferred? Is recycled content preferred? Is compostable or recyclable preferred?
We have detailed insights on each of these questions throughout our Sustainable Packaging Resource Center to help you become an expert in these questions.
But even after knowing the facts, there is no one singular better answer to these questions.
“It depends” -- on your business, your product and your specific sustainability areas of focus.
Here’s a brief summary of why we say that. A Life Cycle Analysis (often referred to as LCA) is a complex but fairly common approach to making sustainability related decisions like those outlined above. An LCA assesses the environmental impacts associated with every stage of a product's life - from the extraction and manufacturing of the raw material, to distribution, to company and end consumer use, and disposal (or recycling or composting).
A Life Cycle Analysis will always put forth an estimate for the greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. the carbon footprint) of a product across its entire lifecycle. Depending on the tool being used for the LCA, outputs may also cover other environmental impacts, including fossil fuel consumption and water consumption.
Many sustainable business leaders have decided to evaluate and make decisions based purely on environmental impact as measured by Life Cycle Analysis. This would be an excellent systematic, data-driven strategy that is sure to open your eyes to eco-impacts you never anticipated and lead to a more sustainable operation overall.
If your business sells products that should be shipped in mailers, you may be wondering if you should go with plastic or paper (i.e. poly mailers or poly bubble mailers, or kraft mailers or padded mailers). By and large, a purely LCA driven approach to decision making will almost always select a recycled poly or bubble mailer, over its paper counterpart. This is because plastic packaging is much lighter weight and uses much less material, so the carbon footprint of manufacturing the material, shipping material, storing it, etc is much lower on a per package basis.
However, LCAs do have limitations as they do not take into account other important aspects of sustainability. For example, LCAs do not necessarily account for whether or not a material is made out of renewable resources, or whether or not the material can result in marine plastic pollution (which is one of the most talked about issues in sustainability today), or what kind of toxins may be emitted by a material in its end of life stages.
When you start to layer these types of other factors in, it is easy to see why two companies that are equally committed to the environment could make vastly different packaging decisions.
We therefore recommend that companies embarking on a sustainability strategy (or even just an eco-friendly packaging strategy) take the time to map out their own priorities and develop a framework to guide their decision making. You might decide to use LCAs as the main way to drive eco decisions, or you might decide to focus on other things (such as Zero Waste or ensuring your products do not lead to ocean plastic pollution).
See the next section - Steps To Creating Your Own Sustainability Priorities - for guidance on how to develop your company’s framework and the last section - Get Inspired With Sustainable Packaging Guidelines From Major Brands - for inspiring sustainable packaging principles from other businesses.
Rest assured though...there are SOME absolutes!
- The number one function of packaging is to protect your product in transit. Avoid damages and unnecessary returns, which have a very negative environmental impact. As such, choose the packaging style that best achieves this goal. For some, this will mean that a box is essential and for others, a mailer would be ideal.
- Select packaging that supports and strengthens your company's brand (a second critical function of packaging), helping your eco-minded company flourish and thrive.
- Use as little material as possible and ship as little excess air as possible, while still achieving the above two goals.
- If you choose non-renewable (such as plastic) based packaging, use as much recycled material as possible and - in particular - as much post-consumer waste as possible.
- If you choose renewable material based packaging that can be made with recycled material (such as traditional corrugated or paper), use as much recycled material as possible and - in particular - as much post-consumer waste as possible. When you can’t source recycled, look for raw, virgin materials that are grown responsibly and are not contributing to deforestation, habitat destruction or excessive pollution. Certifications like Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can help you verify how source material was produced.
- If you choose renewable material based packaging that cannot currently be made with recycled material (such as bioplastic), confirm that the raw inputs are produced as sustainably as possible. In the case of corn-based plastic, look for material made with corn grown without excessive fertilizers and pesticides. Organic or NonGMO certifications can help you verify this.
- Once you select your packaging solution, understand the best way for it to be disposed - Recycle (curbside or other drop off), Compost (industrial or home), or Landfill. Then, design your entire package to work with that end of life option. For example, if your main packaging solution is optimally designed for recycling, look for labels, tape, and void fill that also work well in the recycling supply chain.
- Most importantly, be accurate and clear with your customers on how they should dispose of their packaging, and what (if anything) needs to be removed before disposal (such as tape or stickers).
Steps To Creating Your Own Sustainability Priorities and Guidelines
Sustainability priorities should outline what your company means by the word "sustainable." Some companies will even set specific goals around their various sustainability priorities. If you have multiple sustainability priorities, it is important that there is an order of importance to them, as they will often conflict with each other (sometimes in unexpected ways).
Examples of priorities include:
- Minimize our greenhouse gas emissions (carbon footprint) by X% in the next five years
- Strive towards zero waste, diverting 100% of waste we generate to either recycling or composting in five years
- Minimize our water usage, cutting water waste by 25% in two years
- Conduct business in ways that improve the issue of marine plastic pollution
- Minimize company’s reliance on fossil fuels
- Eliminate the use and emissions of chemicals that are known or suspected hazards to human health, animal welfare, lands and waterways
- Identify and eliminate any damage our business operations is having on animal welfare and wildlife habitat destruction
Sustainability or sustainable packaging guidelines are more prescriptive. They are developed directly from sustainability priorities, but are detailed enough to allow for packaging choices to be made seamlessly. Like priorities, these guidelines should be listed in order of importance, as they may be in conflict at times, and any non-negotiables should be listed as such.
Examples of points that might be made in sustainable packaging guidelines include:
- Packaging should contain as much recycled content as possible, and with maximum possible levels of post-consumer recycled content
- The entire contents of the package must be recyclable, and must be accepted by the majority of curbside recycling services across the US
- When virgin material must be used in paper based material, find FSC or SFI certified sources
- Do not use oxo-biodegradable material, or any other petroleum based poly with an additive to enhance degradation / biodegradation
- Avoid the use of chemicals we have explicitly listed as harmful to the planet by GreenScreen (https://www.greenscreenchemicals.org/)
So...how do you create your own priorities and guidelines?
There isn’t a standard approach, but here’s what we recommend. Work with your team to review a few important questions.
First, what environmental concerns are you particularly passionate about? Ocean pollution? Animal habitat destruction? Climate change? Global deforestation? Minimizing waste? Improving soils and preserving lands? Organic and sustainable agriculture? Different environmental issues are closely intertwined but I always find it incredibly powerful to get more specific than “I want to have a positive ecological impact.”
Second, are there environmental issues that are core to your business or your customer base? Perhaps you make jewelry and rely on a steady, safe and ecologically and humanely extracted set of minerals or gems. Or you produce essential oils and rely on supply of organic and sustainably produced herbs and fruits? Or you create swimwear and serve a customer base that is deeply passionate about oceans and marine wildlife.
This exercise will likely lead to a list of issue areas.
Then, take stock in what you know about these issues (and if you’re not that knowledgeable, take the time to learn through books, articles, documentaries and more). As you think through the root causes and impact of the environmental issues you are most focused on, you’ll be ready to begin drafting and refining priorities.
Get Inspired With Sustainable Packaging Guidelines From Major Brands
Here are examples of sustainability principles and packaging guidelines for four major brands. The brands vary in how fundamental sustainability is to their business, but all have put resources into this process, particularly as it relates to sustainable packaging. These examples are meant to illustrate different approaches and perspectives, and to inspire you to take the next step (not to suggest that any are superior to the other).
Method is a home and body soap brand created by founders who set out to change the world by creating beautiful cleaning products that are as kind to the planet as they are tough on dirt. They have a variety of resources on their site and blog discussing their sustainability principles, including:
- An overview of the ethical philosophies that drive their business
- A visual depiction of how Method Home defines sustainability
- An overview of the four core tenants driving Method’s packaging philosophy
I'm a huge fan of Method's philosophies and approach, and am particularly struck by the clear prioritization they have made (versus trying to assume "sustainable packaging" means everything eco-minded). In particular, they are focused on minimizing waste through their: (1) cradle to cradle philosophy that aims to make bottles from bottles by designing packaging that can be easily made from recycled bottles and then be easily recycled back into bottles. (2) product lines based on reusable packaging, and (3) innovative packaging line that uses waste recovered from oceans.
Pagatonia is a leading outdoor gear company whose mission statement is to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
They are a true activist company - a member of 1% For The Planet (which was launched by Patagonia’s founder), a supporter and funder of individual grassroots environmental activists worldwide, a workplace that strongly encourages employee activism, and an active defender of nature through company-led campaigns and protests. It is, therefore, no surprise that Patagonia has detailed policy and implementation guidelines for the packaging and merchandising of its products.
Like everything Patagonia does, they take a very measured, researched and thoughtful approach to their packaging standards. Their focus starts with minimizing the amount of materials used, then on ensuring reusability or recyclability, and then on sourcing as much recycled content (in particular, post consumer waste). They have banned specific chemicals from their packaging that are known hazards to human, land and water health.
They have also taken the unique step of banning compostable bioplastics (PLA in particular), a stance that is very well researched and rooted in their principles of doing the least harm (and focusing on recycled content and recyclability) but is not common in the world of sustainable packaging today.
Kellogg is a multinational food manufacturing company, best known for its long-standing breakfast cereal products. While Kellogg as a brand does not conjure eco-principles the way Method and Patagonia might, the company has established a commitment to sustainability and set clear 2020 sustainability goals.
Because it is a food company, and a company highly dependent on grain production in particular, many of its goals focus on issues within farming - sustainable agriculture, responsible food sourcing, support of smallholder farms and women farmers, and water consumption. They also have a focus on responsible and minimal use of natural resources, including energy and timber for packaging.
Wal-mart is the world’s largest retailer, and as such, has tremendous influence on millions of companies that sell through their stores. It’s sustainability statement is as follows:
Working with others, we aspire to reshape the way we work to achieve significant and lasting improvement in environmental and social outcomes, in a way that also improves our business. Our approach accelerates us towards our three aspirational goals: to create zero waste, operate with 100% renewable energy and sell products that sustain our resources and the environment. We are using our strengths to not only further work in our own operations, but to also help create a more sustainable value chain.
As is highlighted multiple times in their sustainability statement, Walmart has decided to focus largely on the eco impact it can have is by influencing their vendors to be more sustainable.
To that end, they have an extensive set of resources to guide the operations of their vendors including their Sustainable Packaging Playbook.
The playbook is rooted largely in Life Cycle Analysis, which guides vendors to assess the carbon footprint and environmental impact of each step in a material’s life span - from cradle to grave. Companies are asked to assess the sourcing of packaging materials, manufacturing, distribution, use and end of life. They also encourage vendors to use a packaging Life Cycle Analysis tool called Compass (http://trayak.com/compass/) to get a concrete assessment of their packaging. This Life Cycle Analysis approach makes sense for a company like Walmart. The diversity of products they sell and customers they serve means it would be difficult to put forth the level of specificity that Patagonia has in place. Instead, they see a Life Cycle Analysis as a common way to guide all vendors towards the most sustainable options possible.