Sustainable Packaging: The Basics of Environmentally Friendly Packaging

In recent years, the concept of sustainability has become more than just a buzzword. With the rise of triple bottom line businesses, more and more consumers are expecting companies to do their part when it comes to sustainability. With unprecedented action taken by governments at the UN’s 2015 climate change summit, new government regulations aren’t far behind.

When it comes to improving your company’s sustainability, a great place to start is with your packaging. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition states that sustainable packaging “is economically robust and provides benefit throughout its life cycle”. In simpler terms, sustainable packaging is effective during its life span, it can be reused or recycled afterwards, and overall, it’s affordable. So, from a practical perspective, what actions can you take to join the green packaging movement?

1. Back to Basics: Reuse & Recycle

Named one of the fastest growing privately owned companies in the United States by Inc. Magazine, Ecobox started its business selling used boxes in 1993. Today, they’re still selling used boxes, as well as other eco-friendly products such as biodegradable peanuts.

According to the general manager, Bryan Franklin, all of their boxes are made of “30 per cent [recycled] materials, and are 100 per cent recyclable.” Ecobox encourages the reuse of its boxes by buying them back from their own customers. This is a way “to stop them from going to the landfill” said Franklin.

Ecobox is not the only company that encourages box reuse. Moving Box Exchange connects people who are looking for free boxes with people who no longer need theirs.

If your company is planning on using eco-friendlier packaging, one method to consider is buying back used boxes from your own customers. Customers would appreciate both having the money back, and your green resourcefulness.

EcoEnclose was started by Erin Kimmett, as a sustainable shipping solution for cloth baby diapers. Even though her first company was dedicated to sustainability, Kimmett knew that most shipping companies were not. Therefore, she started another company: EcoEnclose, dedicated to sustainable packaging.

One of the tips Kimmett gives to people starting their own green business is to make sure your customers know you are doing it. She says “Communicate to your customers that you’re going the extra mile in everything you do.”

Other green shipping companies such as Treecycle or Buygreen market themselves with names highlighting their purpose. However, you must be careful with your statements. Businesses promoting themselves as “green” or “environmentally friendly” are prone to scrutiny. Even if one of the company’s business practices is environmentally friendly, if other business practices are not, it can paint the entire company as hypocritical or deceptive. A study by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) stated that  “90% of consumers would stop buying products from a company if they learned it was using deceptive or irresponsible business practices”. Furthermore, “over half claimed they had in fact stopped buying a product or service in the past 12 months because of such behaviour.”

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2. Are Materials Sustainable Throughout Their Life Cycle?

A case study on sustainable packaging affirmed that the life cycle of a material is essential when deciding its usage. Paper bags may seem more eco-friendly than plastic bags, yet, that is not always the case.

For example, paper bags will only be friendlier to the environment if they are correctly composted. Otherwise, they will produce 60% more greenhouse gas emissions than an uncomposted plastic bag. Paper bags also consume 40% more energy when produced and generate 80% more solid waste.

It is necessary to think of the end user when choosing your packaging. If the country you are shipping to does not have the resources to recycle paper bags, then it is better to find alternatives.

Bryan Franklin has been working at Ecobox for nine years. “Find the right materials for your products and offer those products to the public,” he advised. “That’s all we’ve been doing,” he said. And they have been very successful at it.

Bubblefast’s chief financial officer, Mark Levin, said not all the green materials they used sold very well.  “Paper mailers are too flimsy,” he explained. While companies such as Ecobox have built businesses on selling used boxes, it’s important to ensure that the packaging you use will still hold up to the rigors of the job. Make sure you evaluate reused or green materials using the same standards you would for any other type of packaging material.

For example, a recycled packaging material may appear to be the most eco-friendly packaging choice. But if it doesn’t offer adequate protection to the products, and the products are damaged as a result, that can do more environmental damage than good. Now you must consider the environmental cost of disposing of damaged products, and manufacturing and re-shipping replacements.

Your company needs to consider different options and put them on the market. Soon you will learn which ones are useful and which ones are not. To choose the best possible option, take into account size, weight and need of protection.

3. Be Economically Sustainable

If your sustainable packaging is not affordable, it won’t matter how good it is for the environment. Thankfully, the demand for green packaging is here, and with it, the willingness to pay a little extra.

Bubblefast is a US company dedicated to packaging goods sold online. When the company first started in 1999, it offered one product: Bubble cushioning. Over the years, customers started asking for green packaging, explained chief financial officer, Mark Levin. Today, Bubblefast consumers’ favourite packaging include biodegradable poly made out of 100% recyclable polyolefin plastic, and 100% biodegradable packing peanuts.

A 2014 study by Neilsen found that worldwide, people are willing to pay more for goods and services from companies committed to social responsibility. The study revealed that on average, there was an annual sale increase of 2% “for products with sustainability claims on the packaging and a lift of 5% for products that promoted sustainability actions through marketing programs.” Sales rose only 1% for companies which did not make any sustainability claims.

A 2015 survey by McKinsey found that customers in the US are willing to pay up to 25% more for green packaging. BDC’s study also suggested Canadians are also willing to pay more to companies committed to a social and environmental cause.  However, Levin told us “Customers are willing to pay a bit, not a lot more.” Hence, it is important for you to offer green products without jeopardizing your finances.

If you are ready to take the next step, we encourage you to take a look into the Sustainable Packaging Coalition or the World Packaging Organization for more information on sustainable packaging.