A Guide to Sustainable Packaging for Your Store

The rise in the popularity of online shopping in the past two decades has led to a substantial increase in packaging waste.

More than 80 million tons of containers and packaging products — paper, glass, plastics, wood and various other materials — are generated every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Packaging waste has a significant impact on both air and water pollution, endangering the health of humans, animals and the planet.

To address this, brands are increasingly starting to adopt sustainable packaging and other environmentally-friendly practices.

What is Sustainable Packaging?

Sustainable packaging is a type of packaging that’s designed to be less harmful for the environment. Packaging may be considered sustainable due to a number of factors, including materials, production process and reusability.

According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, this particular type of packaging must meet eight criteria:

  1. Beneficial and safe for people throughout its entire life cycle
  2. Meets market needs in terms of cost and performance
  3. Produced and transported using renewable energy
  4. Optimizes the use of renewable and recycled materials
  5. Manufactured with the help of clean production technologies
  6. Made from materials that are healthy for people throughout their entire life cycle
  7. Designed to optimize energy and materials
  8. Recovered and utilized in biological closed-loop cycles

The Importance of Sustainable Packaging

Governments all around the world are taking action against plastic pollution. And consumers themselves are increasingly becoming more diligent about sustainability and related products.

Companies also have a lot to gain from adopting a more environment-friendly approach to doing business. Sustainable packaging, in particular, is a great way to reduce environmental footprint, meet consumer needs and generate more revenue.

Reduce Environmental Footprint

Packaging waste accounts for millions of tons of waste each year in the U.S. alone. Plastic packaging, in particular, is seen as the major culprit for rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Brands that want to reduce their environmental footprint should certainly look into sustainable packaging as the first step in helping to protect the environment.

Answer Consumer Needs

There’s been a big shift in attitudes toward sustainability in recent years. Consumers increasingly care about the future of the environment and want to support companies that protect the environment.

sustainable packaging consumer motivation stats
Source: GlobalWebIndex

Forty-two percent of shoppers say products that use sustainable materials are important to their everyday shopping, while 50% claim to have reduced the amount of disposable plastic they use in the last 12 months.

the importance of sustainable packaging
Source: GlobalWebIndex

Additionally, as many as 81% of consumers think that businesses should help improve the environment.

Generate More Revenue

Seventy-five percent of consumers claim the impact a product’s packaging has on the environment affects their purchasing decision, while 62% state they’re more likely to purchase from brands that use sustainable packaging.

Not only are consumers more likely to purchase products that use sustainable packaging, they’re also willing to pay more for them. This is especially true for younger generations: 73% of millennials and 72% of Gen Zers reported being more than happy to pay a premium for sustainable products.

Additionally, 61% of consumers state that they’re likely to switch over to a brand that’s more environmentally-friendly. There’s also the fact that brands committed to sustainability outperform those that don’t by 4%.

sustainable packaging consumer trends
Source: GlobalWebIndex

5 Types of Sustainable Packaging

A variety of different types of sustainable packaging are available on the market today. All of them come with their own set of advantages and drawbacks — the best ones for your brand will depend on your specific needs and products.

The most popular categories of sustainable packaging used today are:

  • Plastic alternatives
  • Recyclable
  • Reusable
  • Biodegradable and compostable
  • Edible

1. Plastic Alternatives

A number of companies have been exploring plastic alternatives due to increasing concerns about plastic pollution. The two most frequently used plastic alternatives include bioplastic and paper.

Bioplastic

bioplastic sustainable packaging
Source: Dieline

One of the most promising alternatives to plastic is bioplastic. This is a type of material produced from renewable sources such as vegetable oils and fats, sawdust and cornstarch.

Bioplastic packaging is identical to plastic in a number of physical and technical attributes, making it a great substitute for plastic packaging. It’s most commonly used for food products, such as fresh produce or baked goods.

Paper

sustainable packaging paper
Source: Industrial Meeting

Another alternative is paper.

Paper-based packaging has experienced a resurgence in the past few years. With the increased focus on sustainability present among both consumers and businesses, its regained popularity shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Paper is easy to recycle and reuse. It’s also the most recycled material on the planet, with as much as 83% of all paper recycled.

2. Recyclable Packaging

cardboard sustainable packaging
Source: Packhelp

Recyclable packaging can be made from materials such as paper, glass, metal and even plastic. The most commonly used form of recyclable packaging, however, is corrugated cardboard packaging.

Its popularity stems from its many benefits: Cardboard packaging has a high recycling rate, established recycling streams and is fully biodegradable. Thanks to its design, it has no problems keeping items safe during transport.

Cardboard packaging is great at protecting fragile items from damage, as well as keeping moisture away from food products. It’s also highly customizable and can be made in varying sizes and thickness.

3. Reusable Packaging

reusable sustainable packaging
Source: Amasty

Once packaging has served its purpose, the ideal way to deal with it would be to reuse it. Reusing is second only to reducing on the waste hierarchy, and is preferable to recycling.

Reusable packaging tries to address this. However, it requires a different mindset compared to recycling. For it to be viable, consumers need to stop tearing open or throwing away packaging. It needs to be seen as a useful thing you’ll want to keep around.

One of the main players in reusable packaging is Loop, a company that allows consumers to purchase products and then return their containers once emptied to get a refill. The entire process is facilitated with the help of a return delivery service.

4. Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging

compostable sustainable packaging
Source: European Brand and Packaging Design Association

We’ve seen the rise of biodegradable and compostable packaging in recent years. This is packaging made from materials that can be broken down with the help of a biological process (e.g. using bacteria). These are mostly fibrous materials that are compostable and environmentally-friendly, such as cornstarch, sugarcane and coconut.

Two popular examples of biodegradable and compostable packaging include:

  • Biodegradable bags: These bags are made from cornstarch. Their properties allow them to replace regular plastic bags while still maintaining their ability to break down over time.
  • Compostable mailers: Made with plant material such as corn husks. Compostable mailers can be composted commercially as well as at home.

5. Edible Packaging

edible sustainable packaging
Source: APEX

One of the most innovative types of sustainable packaging is edible packaging. As its name implies, this type of packaging can safely be eaten by consumers once it’s no longer needed. Edible packaging is most commonly created using materials such as seaweed, potato starch and milk proteins.

Businesses of all sizes have started to embrace edible packaging in recent years. Companies such as Loliware are using seaweed to create edible water bottles, coffee cups and straws. Others have developed food film, edible bags and even edible cutlery.

Edible packaging is still growing in popularity and is estimated to become a $2 billion market by 2024.

Best Practices for Adopting Sustainable Packaging

Before you start your journey toward adopting sustainable packaging, here are some best practices to ensure a smooth transition to environmentally-friendly packaging.

Start with Low-Hanging Fruit

Sustainable packing aims to minimize wasted space and enable the transport of a larger amount of goods with lower consumption of fossil fuels and fewer carbon emissions. Before going any further, consider if you're using too much packaging — strive to remove any unnecessary packaging and reduce the overall amount of packaging you use. 

In general, you want to use the smallest amount of packaging that allows you to ship your products safely. This will make your packaging more environmentally-friendly and improve its cost-effectiveness. It’s also the easiest and most affordable way to improve the sustainability of your packaging.

Take it Slow

The most important thing you need to remember about adopting sustainable packaging is to take it slow.

Test out sustainable packaging on a single product line before implementing it across your entire offering. This will allow you to gauge consumers’ response and notice any potential issues that may arise, saving you from making a costly mistake.

Make sure to test out different materials and vendors until you find the best fit for your needs.

Set a Goal

Each type of packaging has its advantages and drawbacks. You’ll need to decide what you want to accomplish by adopting sustainable packaging in order to have an easier time choosing the right materials. 

Do you want to reduce carbon emissions, eliminate single-use plastic or make sure your packaging can be easily recycled? Choose a single goal, and then let it guide your decisions. This will ensure your new packaging doesn’t end up doing more harm than good.

Engage and Educate Consumers

The best way to improve the impact of your sustainable packaging is to let consumers know about it. Inform your customers about your new sustainable packaging and your increasing focus on protecting the environment and adopting sustainable practices. You can also try to work sustainability into your marketing campaigns.

Remember, you don’t have to do everything yourself. Let your customers play an active part in adopting more sustainable practices.

Educate them on environmental issues and show them what they can do to help save the environment. Instruct customers on how they can recycle your packaging or give them ideas on how they can reuse it.

All of this will help improve your brand image and attract eco-conscious shoppers.

Encourage Reuse

Single-use packaging made from any sort of material is problematic for the environment. You should actively encourage your customers to reuse packaging.

This is an easy way to make your packaging more sustainable and protect the environment. In a lot of cases, it’s also a lot more effective than focusing on adopting recyclable or biodegradable packaging.

Sustainable Packaging is the Future of Ecommerce Packaging

By adopting sustainable packaging, your brand can reduce its environmental footprint, address growing customer demands and generate more revenue.

There are a variety of types of sustainable packaging you can use, so research which ones will work best for your company. Finally, make sure to spend some time on educating and engaging your customers on sustainable practices to make an even greater impact with your sustainable packaging.

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Boris Mustapic

Boris Mustapic is a writer and content marketing specialist with a decade of experience in the digital marketing industry. Having built his own successful ecommerce business, he likes to share his knowledge with ecommerce enthusiasts. Apart from writing about marketing and ecommerce, Boris also enjoys a good book and a glass of red wine.