If you haven't yet read the Outdoor Industry Association's piece on how outdoor brands are tackling product packaging challenges, we highly recommend doing that now.
Author Helen Olsson brilliantly showcases packaging innovations that a range of brands are exploring, while recognizing the nuanced issues behind the question of what it means for a packaging solution to be truly sustainable.
The article sparked great dialogue and reflection within our own team and here, we share five themes from the article that can help you clarify your own sustainable packaging goals. With each theme, we share some guidance on what this might mean for you and your business.
1. ‘Sustainability’ isn’t perfectly defined: There are 11 sustainable packaging examples showcased in the article, each of them illustrating a different focus of sustainability. Some brands are focused on reusability while others prioritize compostability (or even dissolvability) and the use of renewable materials; some on eliminating material while others are focused on using plant-based materials. For example, Outerknown uses sugarcane based poly bags that are recyclable with traditional plastic bags for wholesale distribution. Icebreaker is moving to a water soluble version of a poly bag. And prAna and REI are working to eliminate the need for the poly bag altogether.
The eco-impact of these initiatives can be assessed using metrics like carbon emissions, waste diverted, water saved, marine pollution contribution, etc. However, even within a cohesive industry like sustainable packaging, there is no singular environmental goal that can be used to compare two different solutions.
Recently, our team attended a workshop led by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and they echoed these sentiments, suggesting that they don't put forth one specific metric for companies. Instead, they prefer that some companies focus on carbon footprint reduction, some on waste diversion and others on minimizing water use (and so forth), because this approach leads to elevated creativity and innovation.
We recommend establishing a clear vision for what sustainability means for your business. Looking for guidance on how to do this? Check out Sustainability and Your Business.
2. Misleading or incomplete terms are still used to describe eco-innovations: It is difficult to communicate eco-friendly packaging innovations in ways that are pithy and understandable while still doing justice to the many nuances in the space. As a result, phrases are often used or data are put forth that make the equation seem simpler than it actually is.
For example, reusable ecommerce packaging is an exciting innovation and one EcoEnclose is eager to see expand. That said, the article suggested that using 2,500 reusable mailers would replace 5 million single-use mailers (saving 6.8 million gallons of water, 166,000 gallons of oil, and 100,000 rolls of tape). This analysis assumes that a single reusable mailer would be used 2,000 times. This may be technically possible, but the true likelihood of a reusable mailer being returned this many times is probably low.
A 2018 Danish study found that a plastic reusable bag with virgin material must be used 37 times in order to be more eco-friendly than a flimsy, single-use plastic bag. So the question on reusable ecommerce packaging should be whether or not we can expect that customers will return a reusable mailer enough times such that it truly is more sustainable than the single-use alternative (taking into account the return shipping footprint as well as the materials footprint).
One description of water soluble poly bags suggested that this type of bioplastic material won’t cause unnecessary harm to the environment, no matter where it ends up. This broad statement reinforces a mainstream perception about compostable and water soluble plastic; however, it is important to recognize that this material is not a panacea and could certainly have negative consequences. If it ends up the landfill (the most likely end of life scenario) it will likely behave like any other plastic. If it ends up in the recycling bin, which is not an uncommon place for people to toss plastic bags, it can cause issues and contamination. Even water soluble plastic takes time to biodegrade in a marine environment, so were it to end up as ocean litter (which may be more likely for this material because customers hear the message that it presents no ocean pollution concern) it could be of danger to the environment before it fully breaks down.
What does this mean for you? When you hear about eco-friendly options, ask questions to make sure you truly understand the facts before taking initial information at face value. Don't get so bogged down with the complexities of sustainability choices that you aren't able to make a decision, but be informed enough to make smart decisions you are proud to share with your customes.
3. A growing focus on "non-sexy" changes: PEARL iZUMi took the step of making their hang tag as small as possible (while still being large enough to be recycled) to fit all the required information on it. This single change saves 68,082 gallons of water, and 4,503 gallons of oil annually. In looking to reduce or even eliminate the need for poly bags, REI, prAna and Toad & Co are focused on things like how their apparel is folded. By rolling or tightly folding apparel, REI and prAna can avoid using poly bags to separate and organize pieces, and Toad & Co can reduce the size of bags needed.
Many of these changes go unnoticed by most consumers, but their environmental impact is still massive. It is refreshing to see initiatives that are driven by a company's true commitment to sustainability, without as much regard to how it impacts the brand or customer experience.
Businesses of all sizes can reduce their footprint by making small changes, such as reducing the amount of materials used, moving to a more efficient shipping or freight method, or finding a way to recycle that one material you aren't sure what to do with. These steps may not be big or marketable, but they do make an environmental difference.
4. Growth of recycling (versus downcycling): It's no secret that here at EcoEnclose, we are obsessed with recycling and recycled material. The process of recycling means that the raw materials that went into something aren't wasted at the end of its life. And using recycled content means that the process of recycling can actually exist, because there is a market interested in purchasing bales of recycled material. However, the unfortunate fact is that plastic is still often downcycled into composite lumber and other durable materials. We love seeing initiatives, like those of Columbia Sportswear and Nike, which seek to build a closed loop recycling system, where their plastic shopping bags are made from previously recycled plastic bags.
For us and any company out there, this trend is a helpful reminder of the forward progress being made. Just a few years ago, we were told that you can't make recycled poly mailers. Now, not only are we making them 100% recycled, we are also learning how to use more and more post-consumer waste in these poly bags. So if you are told something isn't possible, see that as the beginning of your journey, not the end. Keep looking for innovations and new technology, and consider when you might be able to design something new yourself to meet your needs.
5. Don't underestimate consumers: Our team has attended a number of sustainable packaging workshops and the prevailing sentiment is that US consumers are unwilling to do more than the bare minimum to responsibly dispose of their packaging. However, trends that suggest a growing market of individuals who go above and beyond to ensure their packaging ends up in the exact right place when given clear directions and resources to do so. One of our favorite examples is The North Face’s partnership with TerraCycle to institute a poly bag recycling program. Their customers have since brought over 4 million poly bags back to the store to be recycled. Additionally, Toad & Co instituted a reusable mailers program and found that over 95% of mailers came back.
How can your company take advantage of this rising consumer engagement? Send them specific, clear instructions on how to responsibly dispose of your packaging, product and anything else you are shipping them. Let them know if and how to recycle, whether they can send things back to you, or ideas on how to reuse packaging. Not only will this help minimize the waste generated by your company, it will also help your customers connect with your brand, recognizing your company as one that truly wants to do right by the environment.
We are grateful for organizations like the Outdoor Industry Association and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition that help ecologically focused companies innovate, collaborate and share insights! It is always exciting to learn what kinds of steps sustainable brands are taking to improve their ecological footprint. That said, it often feels as though the "coolest" new developments are coming from large, well resourced brands. We hope we've illuminated ways that businesses of any size can take advantage of ecofriendly packaging trends.
What sustainable packaging ideas are you most excited about in 2019?