Sustainability is a big buzzword in business at the moment – and for good reason.
Although very few business processes are entirely sustainable, we need to make big collective efforts to reduce the negative impact we have on the environment. This is why many businesses are facing pressure from customers and the government to make better choices when it comes to their products and processes.
In this article, we take a look at a major, but often overlooked aspect of business that can often be significantly more sustainable – packaging. We’ll cover what sustainable packaging is, why it is important, and then provide 10 top tips for how to source and use sustainable packaging for your own business.
So, if a greener business appeals to you – read on!
What do we actually mean when we use the term “sustainable packaging”?
Well, in its broadest sense, we define sustainability as the ability to maintain a process continuously over time.
However, in modern media, the term “sustainability” is typically used to refer to processes that do not deplete our environment of resources. For example, fossil fuels are not considered sustainable as there is a finite amount of them. Whereas, solar energy is typically described as sustainable because the sun gives ‘infinite’ energy.
So, “sustainable packaging” is the term used to describe packaging which uses fewer resources in its creation. This could be anything from the packaging of the product itself and the packaging used to keep the product safe in transit to packaging inserts.
As all packaging requires energy and materials, in reality, “sustainable packaging” is actually “packaging that is more sustainable than other options” – but that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily!
Over the past few years, ecommerce has grown at a staggering rate – a rate that has been further fuelled by the pandemic. Read all the latest ecommerce statistics here. Although this explosive growth is fantastic for businesses, society and economies, unless there is also further development in sustainable business practices, these benefits may be short-lived.
Therefore, sustainable packaging is a crucial part of a bright, profitable future.
But there are other benefits to offering sustainable packaging than just the ethical ones. Often, sustainable packaging can be a good marketing tool, helping you to appeal to a growing audience of environmentally-minded customers. See the best green marketing examples here.
Taking a sustainable approach to packaging can also save your business money.
Luckily, there are already some fantastic options for businesses that want to invest in more sustainable packaging. In the next section, we’ll show you the best way to use sustainable packaging for your own business…
It’s easy to get excited about sustainable packaging – jumping straight into the best options and materials out there (more on that in a bit). However, this approach often leads to business owners and online entrepreneurs missing a simple step.
Reducing the amount of packaging you use can be a smart way to make your packaging process more sustainable. Start by assessing the packaging you currently use to ship items, then ask yourself “do we really need this?”
Of course, you need enough packaging to ensure your items are shipped safely to your customers. Yet, often businesses needlessly use additional packaging which is surplus to requirement.
This approach is also the best way to reduce your packaging costs and increase the profit made on each item you sell.
When assessing the sustainability of your packaging, use the “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach. This approach shows you, in order, the best way to create more sustainable business practices. It first looks to reduce the packaging you use, then assesses whether you can reuse packaging before finally offering a recyclable option.
We interviewed The Wrinkly Elephant, a natural soap company, and spoke about the importance (and challenge) of packaging products sustainably.
In the spirit of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, the natural next step when looking to create more sustainable packaging is to encourage customers to reuse their packaging in some way.
Your advice can be fairly straightforward or it can be creative. Here are a few ways that customers may be able to reuse packaging:
- Use it to send future items
- Use cardboard for kids or adult crafting
- Use plastic containers as plant pots
- Use glass containers as a vase
- Use cardboard scraps in home compost
For businesses that want to make sustainability a core value, try engaging customers on how they reuse your packaging. This can be a great way to get them to buy into your mission and can even produce some great User Generated Content (UGC) that can be shared across your social media channels.
Using packaging that started life as something else can be a great way to take a more sustainable approach. After all, it’s all very well encouraging people to recycle their packaging, but if nobody is using the products created from the recycling process then there’s no benefit at all!
Source packaging that is made fully or partially from recycled materials. You may need to do some research for packaging that works specifically for your product – there are plenty of options out there such as Earthpack which offers a range of recycled packaging options.
Offering your customers the ability to recycle your packaging is a good way to reduce the damage your business has on the environment. Many materials are now recyclable, so you have plenty of options to choose from.
However, it is worth doing a little research on recyclable packaging because some packaging will take considerably more energy to recycle than others, making it a less sustainable process.
Some materials are also only recyclable in certain locations, which can make it difficult for customers to actually recycle the packaging you send them.
Using recyclable packaging is only a sustainable practice if your customers physically take the time to recycle it. So, it can also be beneficial to include instructions and tips on your packaging.
This may include a breakdown of which parts of your packaging are recyclable, and details on how customers can recycle those parts.
As a business, it is easy to focus on the final product when looking at ways to make your packaging more sustainable. However, many businesses also deal with packaging from their suppliers, which all adds to the overall impact of a product on the environment.
Working with your suppliers to ensure that their packaging is as sustainable as possible is another good way to further improve your green credentials.
Alternatively, you can actively seek out new suppliers that use sustainable packaging if your current suppliers are not willing to make changes.
We’ve already mentioned how using less packaging is a great way to limit the amount of waste created when making and delivering your products. In addition to this, reducing the size and weight of your packaging can also lessen the impact your products have on the environment.
This is because smaller packages use less energy when moving from place to place. Not only that, but it can help you to save money, too, as you won’t need to spend as much on transportation. This makes it sustainable and cheap! It can be seen in the popularity of concentrated products such as drinks and cleaning solutions.
Dealing with returns is a regular occurrence for most businesses. This can mean that products are packaged twice – once for delivery to the customer and another for the return. Of course, this adds additional waste to the process.
Designing your packaging so it can easily be used for returns will limit the possibility of additional waste. This can be as simple as applying a reusable sticky tape for resealing the package, or making it clear where users can open the package to keep it intact.
If you sell products that customers buy on a regular basis, then encouraging them to make bulk purchases is a great strategy for improving sustainability. This is because you can usually use less packaging for multiple products than you would if you delivered those products individually.
Top Tip!You could encourage this type of buying behavior by offering discounts on bulk orders.
Amazon has made a big push toward packaging sustainability in recent years. In fact, they claim to have “reduced packaging weight per shipment by over 36% and eliminated more than 1 million tons of packaging”.
Amazon packaging is also largely made of cardboard which can be composted and widely recycled.
Clothing retailer H&M has made a big commitment to make its packaging sustainability better. Their website states that they are aiming to make all their packaging from 100% recycled or other sustainable materials by 2030.
Similarly to H&M, Ikea has made a big commitment to more sustainable packaging. They have announced that they are aiming to phase out all plastic from consumer products by 2028.
It is clear that sustainable packaging is a key part of the continued successful growth of the ecommerce space. Businesses that jump on this growing trend early will be able to establish best practices whilst appealing to an audience that is interested in sustainable brands.
There are many different approaches to sustainable packaging, many of which we have outlined in this guide – try those which are applicable to your brand and find those which work for you.