Last updated: Packed with purpose: Sustainable packaging examples, stats, and how-to tips

Packed with purpose: Sustainable packaging examples, stats, and how-to tips

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Today’s business environment demands a commitment to sustainability. As concern for environmental issues heightens, customers are demanding that companies demonstrate their commitment by adopting more eco-friendly business practices. For those in CPG and e-commerce, that means exploring sustainable packaging solutions.

The pending U.N. Plastics Treaty, which has been in development since 2022 increases the pressure to change. This treaty aims to forge a legally binding global agreement to address plastic pollution. Their goal is to have a draft of the agreement completed by the end of this year, and while it’s still in the works, it already has companies looking for ways to reduce their plastics footprint.

According to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), approximately 36% of all plastics produced are used in packaging. This includes single-use items (such as food and beverage containers), 85% of which end up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

The treaty has garnered widespread consumer support. According to a survey published by Greenpeace International earlier this year:

  • 80% of consumers support cutting the production of plastic to stop plastic pollution
  • 90% believe governments and corporations should be required to transition away from single-use plastics

According to Nielsen IQ, consumers are putting their money where their mouths are: From 2018 to 2022, sales of products with sustainability claims grew 34% more that those without claims. Another study shows that 85% of global consumers have shifted their buying behavior to be greener and more sustainable—and they’re willing to pay more to do so.

Between potential legal regulations and heightened consumer demand, more and more companies are looking to reduce their environmental impact. And they’re starting by exploring sustainable packaging.

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What is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is packaging that’s designed to have minimal environmental impact throughout its lifecycle, while still being functional. This involves using materials and techniques that are environmentally friendly, from production to disposal.

There are various ways to approach sustainable package design. Some of the most popular strategies include:

  1. Recycled + recyclable packaging: Using materials that have been recycled and/or can be recycled to reduce waste and resource consumption
  2. Biodegradable + compostable packaging: Using materials that break down naturally without harming the environment
  3. Minimalist packaging: Streamlining package design to reduce the amount of materials used to what’s absolutely necessary
  4. Renewable materials packaging: Using resources that can be replenished naturally over time, such as paper or bioplastics
  5. Reusable + refillable packaging: Designing packaging to be reused again and again, or repurposed entirely

Some brands have taken even more innovative, extreme approaches to sustainability, offering plantable or even edible packaging to promote a zero-waste commitment.

Each of these approaches comes with its own set of pros and cons. For example, “renewable” doesn’t always mean “sustainable.” While using renewable resources reduces our reliance on plastics, over-farming and over-harvesting can have other negative environmental repercussions.

As the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), explains: “It is important to note that sustainability for packaging is first and foremost an approach, rather than a descriptor of a specific package material or format. There is no such thing as a perpetually ‘sustainable package’ – sustainability depends on tradeoffs in the materials, format and design of a package.”

Which is to say, businesses looking to adopt sustainable packaging practices should understand it’s about making thoughtful choices, rather than finding a perfect solution. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all sustainable package; it’s about evaluating the best options for your specific needs and continuously improving your packaging strategies.

Brands going green: Examples of sustainable packaging

With so many ways to approach sustainable packaging and cutting-edge advances, there are many examples businesses can look to for inspiration. Here are some ways brands are doing it today.

Allbirds

Sustainability has been at the core of Allbirds’ story from day one. From the materials they use in their products to their transportation logistics, they are open and transparent about their efforts.

Their packaging is no exception. They’ve minimized their packaging by designing “a shoebox, a shopping bag, and a mailer all in one.” And the materials they do use are FSC Certified to be made of 100% recycled content (for their footwear) or recyclable (for their apparel).

B.A.R.E. SOAPS

Another mission-based and sustainable-first brand, B.A.R.E. Soaps are made from sustainably-sourced, plant-based ingredients. Their packaging comes with a little added surprise: it’s plantable.

Each bar of soap comes wrapped in plantable seed paper from Botanical Paperworks, featuring seeds for one of six types of flowers (all USDA and CFIA approved for planting in the US, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, Australia and other countries around the world.)

Their website lists the different flowers featured, with information about each.

 

Boxed Water

Boxed Water’s entire mission is to take on “Big Plastic” as a sustainable alternative to plastic water bottles. Their packaging is made from 92% renewable materials, and 100% recyclable and refillable. Not only that, but they ship their cartons flat and empty to filling stations close to where they’ll be sold, meaning they can fit a lot more cartons per shipment, reducing the transport footprint.

Puma 

Even though Puma’s Clever Little Bag made its debut back in 2012, it’s still regularly featured on lists dedicated to sustainable packaging. Part shoe box, part shopping bag, the design eliminates the need for an additional shopping bag. It’s reusable and recyclable, and its production uses drastically less water, fuel and energy.

Samsung

Large electronics require large packages to ensure they’re shipped safely and delivered intact, meaning there’s no way around those big cardboard boxed. So, Samsung took a different approach to extending the life of their packaging.

Several of their larger items, including TVs, monitors and other home appliances, are shipped in boxes specifically designed to be upcycled into a variety of household items, including a desk shelf, a TV console, a magazine rack, a wine rack—even a cat tunnel.

Seed

Subscription-based probiotics brand Seed is hyper-aware and transparent that by manufacturing and producing products, they’re having an impact on the environment. Plus, probiotics (as with many vitamins and supplements) have specific packaging requirements in order to maintain the efficacy of the products (they need to be kept cool, dry and protected from sun exposure).

Seed’s packaging is made from a variety of materials, including biodegradable algae paper (for their shipping boxes, which can be recycled), biodegradable paper foam for their trays (which can be recycled or composted), and refillable glass jars (which can be recycled, but are meant to be refilled and reused).

Customers’ first orders include the glass jar and travel jar, while subsequent shipments come in biofilm sachets, “designed to protect from oxygen and moisture,” (and which can be industrial composted).

They also offer subscribers the option to order larger, less frequent shipments through their Sustainable Refill Program. Customers can save 10-15% on these larger orders, as an incentive to further reduce their footprint.

Sustainable packaging best practices

As businesses take a green approach to packaging, there are some best practices they should keep in mind.

1. Think inside the box, on the box, and beyond the box

When we think of sustainable packaging, we tend to think of the big shipping box. But so many elements go into packaging—from filler materials, to shrink wrap, to the ink printed on the box itself.

As one packaging company says, “It is all well and good having recyclable packaging materials, but if they are printed on with petroleum-based inks, they will ultimately no longer be truly sustainable.”

Brands should go beyond the box and consider the impact of each packaging element. Consider using soy or vegetable-based inks for branding. And look into compostable options for packing peanuts, mailers and even bubble wrap.

2. More clarity, less greenwashing

Consumers want to do what’s right by the environment, but it can be hard to navigate vague, empty-feeling marketing claims. As consumers grow more aware and weary of greenwashing, they can become easily overwhelmed and less confident in their decisions.

Even Gen Z, the group most likely to respond favorably to sustainable brands, reports a lack of confidence when navigating their options.

To help build consumer confidence, brands embracing more sustainable packaging solutions should include clear instructions on how to responsibly dispose of their packaging—whether it’s recyclable, compostable, or meant to be returned. They also should include clear, easy to find information about how their packaging is sustainable, and the impact they’re making.

3. Set clear goals and measure your impact

Set and communicate clear, measurable goals for the environmental impact you want to have. This can be based on where you see the largest opportunity for change in your industry, what’s most important to your target audience, or even tied to your larger mission.

Having a clear and tangible goal helps keep you grounded, motivated, and accountable for change. And it allows you to evolve and adapt your strategy along the way as needed.

Step up for sustainability

As businesses strive to meet the growing demands of environmentally conscious consumers, adopting sustainable packaging practices becomes essential.

By understanding what sustainable packaging entails and implementing best practices, businesses can reduce their environmental impact, comply with emerging regulations, and build stronger relationships with their customers.

In a world where sustainability is increasingly becoming the standard, those who lead the way in sustainable packaging will not only protect the planet, but position themselves as forward-thinking leaders in their industry.

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