A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Packaging
by Ryan Szporer
Going green may be something to be proud of in this day and age. In the world of packaging and design though, it’s not necessarily going far enough. It’s all about being “sustainable” instead.
What Is Sustainable Packaging?
While a product that’s labeled as “green” carries a positive, eco-friendly connotation, it’s vague by standards set by the Federal Trade Commission. For example, “green” generally means one of or some combination of the following:
- Ozone-safe/ friendly
- Made from recycled content
- Made with renewable energy
- Made with renewable materials
“Green” may sound good, but each of the above actually conveys something tangible. According to Diana Fryc, Director of Operation of Retail Voodoo, using compostable packaging is just one step.
“Aside from compostable packaging, there is still a strong desire to reduce the size of packages, continued desire to use fewer adhesives and continued use of the post-consumer recycled material,” she says. “Lighter materials to save on shipping costs and form factors that maximize shelf space bottles will also continue.”
In fact, packaging that’s “sustainable” is understood to meet a long list of specific criteria, featuring many of those same characteristics. To further illustrate this point, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has developed its own criteria for what defines sustainable packaging:
- Sourced from materials that each remain healthy throughout the lifecycle.
- Manufactured using clean technologies and best practices, to optimize materials and energy, thereby meeting/ exceeding competitive performance and cost standards.
- Transported efficiently via fossil fuel alternatives, helping to develop renewable energy markets.
- Recycled, recovered, and utilized in closed biological/ industrial loop cycles.
Of course, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the Consumer Goods Forum, and CEN all have alternative packaging standards. So, there aren’t any hard, fast rules for what constitutes sustainable packaging, globally speaking. There are guidelines, though.
Following them all is obviously a tall order, but this guide will help you to at least get your feet wet en route to integrating sustainable packaging into your own company’s supply chain.
The Need for Sustainable Packaging
There’s little denying the benefits of sustainable packaging. There are financial benefits in store for any corporation moving in that direction. That’s not just due to the increased back-end efficiency and economies of scale that results from such a move. If marketed correctly, sustainably packaged products have been proven likely to sell more.
Obviously, a company shouldn’t make the switch simply to appease its conscience. All things being equal, it just makes sense to waste less and promote a brighter future filled with less trash all around.
“Packaging is a polluting factor,” says Andreas Kioroglou, the CEO of Matador Design. “Creative design will [start to] take into account… factors like the reduction of the carbon footprint of packaged goods throughout the supply chain and designs that will extend the packaging lifecycle.”
Even if out of self-preservation, to avoid having to navigate through streams of waste every morning on one’s way to the factory, most everyone should be on board with that notion. Seas of empty plastic water bottles shouldn’t appear in anyone’s idea of a better future, least of all their present.
Of course, all things are not equal. Over the long term, as alluded to earlier, sustainable packaging solutions lead to higher profits relative to with one’s current process. The only thing holding companies back is an inevitable headache that results from transitioning to a new and improved one.
Taking Action Towards Sustainability
Change, even for the better, isn’t necessarily easy. The argument up to this point has revolved around early adopters being gently directed into pursuing a sustainable packaging strategy out of self-interest. However, there’s a good chance they’ll eventually be pushed by regulatory forces in the future. It may not be that far off, even in America, where some states have passed legislation on the matter.
Whoever hasn’t made the switch by the point at which regulations become widespread will have no choice but to. In other words, think of it as a pre-emptive strike, getting in on the ground floor before the elevator goes up without you and you have to take the stairs. The sky’s the limit regarding sustainable packaging, and you may as well start the ascent now if you’re going to have to eventually.
All it takes is an idea at first. The sea of empty water bottles is in part what inspired a new trend: boxed water. New companies in the sector are starting up everywhere. For our purposes, boxed water is good, but not necessarily a perfect example of sustainable packaging.
For example, Boxed Water Is Better packaging is:
- Three-quarters recyclable.
- Made from bisphenol A-free paper and sourced from a forest contributed to by the company.
- Shipped flat, for more potential inventory on each truck.
A competing brand, Just Water packaging, is meanwhile:
- Manufactured using 52% less greenhouse gas emissions than a traditional water bottle.
- Used to package a product that is ethically traded from towns with excess watershed yields.
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Transitioning to Sustainable Packaging
However, not all companies are just starting out. For the companies already in existence, it’s about altering the course. Once you’ve committed to making the leap, it’s important to determine your ultimate goals. While the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s criteria listed above favors a circular economy(or closed loop, which relies on renewable energy), it’s by no means the only choice.
Another is to develop packaging with a linear lifecycle. There, packaging ultimately ends up as trash instead of biologically degrading. It can also be considered eco-efficient, depending on other production factors. It also means bigger short-term gains. The closed loop means more risk and long-term investment, but a higher potential payoff through legitimately sustainable packaging.
Remember, these are all guidelines. However far you can go is dependent on a variety of factors, including the resources at your disposal and the wishes of your customers. Executing the strategy can be just as multi-pronged:
- Get buy-in: Empower your employees to take charge and get them more emotionally invested in the outcome of the change in strategy. You can also get buy-in from the public. Communicate the change in your corporate philosophy. Done right, like McDonald’s has in announcing much the same tack, it can only improve your image as a forward-thinking company.
- Choose the right materials: It goes beyond selecting materials that are recyclable… even materials that are renewable. While renewable feedstocks are one sustainable direction in which to go, there are other things to consider. For example, how their functionality compares to that of traditional materials. “Sustainable” is great, but it means little if the packaging doesn’t do what it needs to.
“A growing number of soup and sauce producers are turning to bags as opposed to jars or tin cans because bags are ultimately cheaper to source,” says Jackie Irvine, Inside Sales Coordinator of PlexPack. “They can be nitrogen flushed and/ or vacuumed to maintain shelf stability.”
Additional materials to be used include micro-fibrillated cellulose, molded fiber, and aqueous barrier coatings. That’s not to mention the need to be aware of their origins. For example, Mattel once came under fire for using paper linked to the destruction of Indonesian rainforests. That would run counter to any goals of building up corporate goodwill.
- Get to designing: It will be a long process, but thoroughness in evaluating each required packaging component will go a long way towards ensuring an overall sustainable design. Simple ones, made from single materials without secondary and tertiary packaging are easily disassembled and recyclable. That also means minimal glue when possible. Creating packaging that is reusable and multi-functional also wins you points from a sustainability perspective and with customers.
“We recently partnered with a holistic loose-leaf tea company to design their retail packaging and environmental responsibility was a must,” says Drew Davies, Owner of Oxide Design Co. “Without breaking the bank, we were able to source traditional gusseted bags, but made out of a fully compostable laminate. It allowed for shelf stability, bright full-color packaging, and eco-friendly sustainability.”
Meanwhile, invaluable Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools help firms determine just how sustainable any design they come up with will be. It all comes back to that ideal closed loop
- Invest in quality control: Emphasis on the “quality”. Quality control processes are critical, especially when rolling out drastically different packaging that can contribute to product spoilage. Automating quality control and eliminating proofing fatigue, human error, and errors, in general, can also contribute to long-term sustainability.
“Big data is another trend where capturing data about the packaging your produce can help optimize processes and make sure you’re not creating additional waste and reducing potential reprints,” says Jonathan Hou, Director of Technology of GlobalVision.
Going from “Green”… to “Sustainable”
The global packaging industry is projected to be worth $997 billion by 2020, which would result from steady year-over-year growth. Innovation will logically end up being one driver of that valuation, just as it is currently in the manufactured good sectors directly reliant on it. That’s simply the nature of a free-market economy in which consumers reward the cutting edge.
As a result, it’s no longer a matter of going green. It’s arguably not even about going sustainable. It’s about striving to reach sustainability. As the exact definition of “sustainable” is a fast and moving target, it’s more a matter of taking steps towards attaining that goal. It’s about the only course of action.
“Today’s consumers are interested in the story behind the products they use,” says Alycia Moffat, Graphic Designer at Uniful Design.” This means more brands are looking at the entire lifecycle of their product and the sustainability of their packaging materials and processes.
“In previous years, brands may have focused on just one aspect of sustainable packaging. [Moving forward] companies will be looking at their packaging process as a whole, such as sustainable printing techniques, refills, bulk purchasing options, as well as partnerships with eco-friendly vendors and initiatives.”
Empires aren’t built in a day, but every day brings with it newly laid roads, presumably leading towards a brighter future. Granted, Rome didn’t last, but this is one scenario in which firms are invited to learn from past mistakes, including their own.
In sharp contrast, doing nothing is arguably worse than complacency. That’s especially true in the face of a rapidly changing industrial landscape, featuring competitors reaping the benefits of already having deployed their own sustainability strategies.
In a period of three years, the number of firms listed on the S&P 500 that included sustainability issues in their Securities and Exchange Commission filings increased from 5% to 25%. That in and of itself may not be a testament to how successful sustainability can be, but it is of how the times are becoming more eco-friendly. Joining in on the success means changing with those times, or, perhaps more accurately, “adapting.” Both customers and the companies behind the products they consume stand to benefit from the large-scale evolution of packaging, which is taking place right before our eyes.