This week's blog is an extract from our latest packaging study! As more and more small businesses take advantage of the great opportunities offered by eCommerce, this brings new challenges to the forefront of your business operations. In a channel where packaging needs to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible, how can sustainability factor into the equation? Read on to find out!

Why we need sustainable packaging

We are becoming increasingly reliant on eCommerce to fulfill our retail needs. The ease and convenience of online shopping is persuading ever-increasing numbers of consumers to change their shopping habits from in-store to online. In 2018, UPS shipped 750 million packages during the holiday period alone! Annual eCommerce sales are set to hit $4.5 trillion by 2021, a staggering 246% increase since 2014. The global reach of online shopping has meant some great opportunities for brands, but more eCommerce sales mean more packaging materials – and more waste degrading our planet.

Yet we all know that a target of zero packaging is not realistic. Goods need to be shipped efficiently and be protected during transit. The packaging itself is not the problem; the problem is that the materials we use aren’t designed with the environment in mind.

So, what is the answer to the current crisis? Developing sustainable packaging solutions which are better for the planet, and for business.

What does sustainable packaging mean in practice?

There is no standard definition of sustainable packaging, which makes this somewhat of a moving target for businesses. But the bottom line is pretty simple; a high-quality sustainable alternative has to meet the same needs and achieve the same performance as traditional packaging designs - with the added bonus of protecting the environment.

So, why make the switch?

It’s what consumers want

Consumers are becoming much more conscious of the impact of their purchasing decisions, and they want to know what the brands they like are doing to offset the impact of their operations. The Nielsen Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility found that 55% of respondents would pay extra for goods from companies that are committed to environmental responsibility, and that 52% would check the packaging to measure their impact.

As both a marketing and branding tool for your business, your packaging presents a very public face to your customer. It’s a visual pitch for your brand, and as such says more about your ethos than you might think. Actions always speak louder than words, so a sustainable packaging design tells consumers that you truly walk the walk.

It improves efficiency

Exactly how and why we package goods the way we do is rarely questioned. All of us have received items packaged in pointless plastic bags, or too-big boxes which need to be stuffed with non-recyclable filler. Not only is this unsustainable, it’s also expensive. A packaging revamp is a great opportunity to not only go eco-friendly, but also to cut out unnecessary elements. The end result protects the environment and saves your pocket—a true win-win!

It’s just the right thing to do

Let’s face it: our planet is in a pretty dire state. As some of the biggest perpetrators of waste, businesses have a responsibility to address their footprint. Slowly, we are seeing a more united effort by corporations to take a more socially responsible approach to their operations. This is a promising step towards sustainable packaging becoming the norm across industries. It’s so much better to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem!

Unsustainable packaging designs

Bad: Single-use packaging items

The key reason why plastic is so harmful is that it’s considered ‘single-use’ due to low production costs. It’s a startling fact that a plastic bag has an average use time of just 12 minutes – from the moment it’s received to when it’s thrown away. With this in mind, it’s hard to see those 12 minutes as a reasonable exchange for the 1,000 years it will take that bag to decompose.

What to consider instead:

Reusable packaging - One of the largest short-term fixes to plastic pollution is to encourage the reuse of packaging. We throw away the plastic wrapping on our items because it has no further use. Using a jute (a clothlike material made from vegetable fibers) bag as packaging for your product, by comparison, invites many further opportunities for reuse because it offers intrinsic value to your customer. Because plant fibers are biodegradable, they also provide an eco-friendly disposal option when the time comes.

Bad: Petroleum-based inks

Adding branding elements to your packaging is a great marketing strategy. This means using ink, but not all ink is created alike; this can have a big impact on the overall sustainability of your design. Many traditional inks are made from petroleum because they are relatively easy to produce and have a fast-drying time. However, petroleum is a non-renewable energy source. It also makes the papers and cardboards it gets used on unrecyclable, undermining your sustainability efforts.

What to consider instead:

Soy-based inks - Soy-based inks have been around for a while, but are growing in popularity as an alternative because they are both eco-friendly and affordable. Soybeans are highly sustainable because the crop needs no irrigation, meaning the production process has a low environmental footprint. It can also be easily removed during from papers during the recycling process. Best of all, the colors produced by soy-based ink are more much more vibrant than its petroleum-based counterpart, which will help you in creating an eye-catching packaging design!

Bad: Over-packaging

This can be seen in many industries but is especially common at the luxury end of retail. The common logic is that to justify the price the product must be made to look expensive, and using lots of packaging is a great way to influence this perception. It might look impressive, but it’s totally unnecessary to this end as well, as it creates a huge amount of excess materials for consumers to dispose of. ‘Reduce’ is always the first sustainable option on the table; if the waste isn’t there in the first place, then recycling or reuse options don’t need to be considered!

What to consider instead:

Channeling efficiency - It’s possible to still channel a luxury feel in your product without having to resort to so much packaging (and a lot of extra expense). Replacing cellophane and plasticized gift wrap with tissue paper will allow your product to maintain its flair, whilst minimizing waste that can’t be recycled. Larger packaging elements such as boxes can put quite a dent in your budget, and also add a lot of weight. If you operate an eCommerce store, this likely means a more expensive shipping process. Using mailer envelopes for your smaller orders, and reserving boxes for only larger deliveries, will help to reduce both costs and your environmental footprint.