Reduce, recycle, reuse has become an important motto as climate change rapidly becomes a problem for the planet. One important way retailers can participate in this is by using sustainable packaging.

Sustainable packaging is packaging that has been made with some attempt to be eco-friendly. This typically means that at least some part of the packaging material is recyclable or compostable. It should be noted that sustainable packaging is not a regulated term and therefore can be used to refer even to packaging with a minute amount of sustainability.

Why you should invest in sustainable and reusable packaging

Sustainable packaging is crucial for companies to use for a number of reasons.

  • First and foremost, sustainable packaging will help save our planet. There is so much plastic in our oceans that the Pacific Ocean has a trash island known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Patch is so large that scientists have been unable to trawl it to estimate how much debris makes up the island. By 2050, there is expected to be more plastic than fish in our oceans.
  • It can inspire customer loyalty. As more customers become aware of the dangers of climate change, they prefer to purchase from brands that are lowering their footprint. 95% of US consumers want to make more sustainable purchasing decisions. 47% have actually stopped purchasing from a brand because they weren’t adhering to the customer’s personal values. Using sustainable packaging and implementing other eco-friendly practices is just a good idea for business.
  • Last but not least, sustainable packaging can be extremely cost-effective. The technology has become priced so that any company can use sustainable materials, not just the ones with big budgets. There are plenty of good sustainable packaging options on the market.

What are packaging materials?

Packaging materials are what you use to protect your orders during shipping. Packaging refers to both the outer layer that is directly handled by a postal carrier, as well as the inner protective layer that only the end customer sees. Such aspects of packaging include:

  • The box or bag
  • Tape
  • Glue
  • Stamps
  • Ink
  • Protective internal packaging like tissue paper

There are sustainable options for each of these things. Consider the following:

1. Compostable mailers

A top-notch alternative to regular plastic mailers (and occasionally boxes) is the compostable mailer, which is made from a plastic polymer that is compostable.

Compostable plastic is a sub-type of biodegradable plastic. In order to achieve the compostable label, the US requires that a material disintegrate within twelve weeks of disposal and then further biodegrade at least 90% in the first 180 days. noissue’s compostable mailers go a step farther and are compostable in a home compost as well as in an industrial facility.

Compostable mailers are increasing in popularity as they’ve decreased in price. They’re accessible to companies of all sizes these days.

Dominique.ec, for instance, is a small brand that was able to launch with compostable mailers right away.

Flying West Roasters, a coffee roaster and cafe in Australia, also sends out their coffee in compostable packaging. The packaging is one of their efforts to improve the environment. They also sell a line of ceramic cups to replace their single-use coffee cups.

2. Recyclable mailers

With the sheer amount of plastic already in existence, it only makes sense to re-use what you can. For starters, you could choose to continue to use mailers until they are no longer usable.

However, that obviously comes with a number of huge hassles like needing customers to send an empty bag back. This may work well for a company that works within a circular economy, like Rent the Runway, but other companies may find the challenge insurmountable.

That’s where noissue’s recycled mailers come in. The mailers are made out of previously recycled plastics, keeping more plastic out of the ocean and extending the plastic’s life cycle.

AnnabelleTaylorCo, a home goods shop on Etsy, uses recycled mailers.

3. Kraft mailers

A third type of eco-friendly mailer is a kraft mailer. These are made from kraft paper.

Kraft paper is essentially a very thin, flexible cardboard, and is completely recyclable. (noissue’s kraft mailers are also compostable!) Unlike the other two mailer types on this list, kraft mailers more closely resemble an envelope than a bag, since the paper is rather stiff. That makes them an ideal fit for small items like makeup, socks, or trading cards.

Matcha Nude, a matcha seller, actually packages the matcha product itself inside a kraft mailer-style package. (They then ship the bags in compostable mailers.)

4. Sustainable inks

Did you know that ink is made from petroleum? And of course, ink is generally all over packaging, from the visuals you print on a box to your stamps. In fact, petroleum-based ink can even potentially render something un-compostable!

Fortunately, biodegradable vegetable-based inks are now highly accessible and arguably better than petroleum-based. Vegetable-based ink provides a more intense color with less ink. And because it uses less ink, it’s also a cheaper alternative. Most commonly, these inks are made with soy or linseed oil, but flaxseed and canola oil bases can be found, too.

Alluvian, a skincare company committed to sustainable products, started using algae ink on their packaging in 2017.

Beyond trying to have your mailers, boxes, etc. printed with renewable ink, you should try to ensure that any ink you place on the packages is also sustainable. To that end, you can use noissue’s earth-friendly stamps. The stamps themselves are made with wood or at least 65% re-used plastics, while the ink cartridges or pads use soy-based ink.

Check out how Mintymentaiko uses the wooden stamps to place their logo onto items sustainably.

5. Eco-friendly tape

Custom packing tape is often used to add branding to a package. However, many packing tapes are made of some type of plastic, making them a poor choice for the environment.

The most reliably eco-friendly alternative to normal packing tape is water-activated tape. This is a strip of paper that has an adhesive on one side that is water-activated.

Lilasuds, a sustainable eCommerce soap crafter, uses completely biodegradable packaging to finish off their eco-friendly mission. Noissue’s water-activated custom packing tape is a key part of making sure their packages are just as beautiful as they are good for the planet.

6. Environmentally-conscious stickers

Stickers are another common method of adding a branded touch to packaging. Often companies use custom stickers to seal tissue wrapping, for instance. Like tape, stickers  are many times made of plastic and printed with petroleum-based inks.

Instead, opt for custom stickers made with acid-free paper and soy-based inks.

AmyHastingsTextiles uses eco-friendly custom stickers to share their youthful, bright branding on all of their packages.

7. Cornstarch-based packing peanuts

The protective packaging materials you use within the box or mailer are just as important as what’s on the outside. Styrofoam peanuts have historically been a lightweight protective solution for shipping.

However, styrofoam is another petroleum-based product. Not only do those packing peanuts scatter themselves all over the room, but also landfills and oceans. A clever alternative is to use cornstarch-based packing peanuts.

Cornstarch-based peanuts are not only biodegradable, they’re also water-soluble and edible. They’re actually made using the same machine that creates Cheetos. (Seriously – check out this recipe to turn your packing peanuts into cheese puffs.)

Skincare retailer Lush, actually switched to starch-based peanuts from popcorn when they realized the peanuts weighed less. The peanuts also use less energy to produce. Overall, peanuts reduce packaging waste immensely.

8. Mushroom packaging

One of the newer innovations in the packaging space is growing your packaging rather than making it. Mushroom packaging is made out of a mixture of fungus sprouts and agriculture residue. Because it’s grown to the product it will carry, mushroom packaging fits around each product like a glove. Mushroom packaging is not only compostable in home composts, but it’s also flame-resistant and stronger than styrofoam.

Check out how it’s grown in this fascinating video below.

Mushroom packaging is still in its early days, but it should become a highly cost-effective type of packaging in the near future.

Currently, both Dell and IKEA are the two biggest names using mushroom packaging. However, smaller companies are hopping on board.

Keap, for instance, is a candle company focused on sustainability. Every aspect of their work is compostable or re-usable, so switching to compostable packaging only made sense. Now candles are shipped nestled inside custom-grown protective packaging.

9. Use recycled paper stuffings for void-filler

When it comes to void-filler and protective packaging, there are a huge amount of eco-friendly paper choices.

  • Tissue paper can be used as both a void-filler and a wrapping material. It’s recyclable and often available in custom prints. (Just be sure to get soy-ink prints!)
  • GreenWrap, which is a compostable bubble wrap alternative. It’s made of three layers: two layers of kraft paper cut into hexagons, with a layer of tissue sandwiched between them.
  • Crinkle paper, which is shreds of accordion-pressed paper. It’s compostable and resembles confetti.

Daphne The Trees, an Etsy shop devoted to hygge and the cottagecore aesthetic, uses custom printed recyclable tissue to add a whimsical touch to their packaging without compromising the earth.

10. Paper Can Clips

The plastic rings that hold a six-pack of canned drinks together has been a well-known source of environmental stress for some time. For years, though, there hasn’t been a great alternative for binding cans together.

However, companies have begun experimenting with paper bindings for their packaging design. For instance, Coca-Cola uses KeelClip bindings.

Image source: KeelClip

Carlsberg, a beer company, even developed their own Snap Packs to eliminate the plastic packaging. The Snap Packs use an innovative glue to hold the cans together and save 1200 tons of plastic waste per year.

Image source: Carlsberg

There’s no need for retailers to create their own special glue, though. Estrella Damm recently switched to very simple cardboard holders by LatCub that get the job done.

Image source: Estrella Damm

Bonus: Partner with a carbon-neutral shipping company

To maximize your positive environmental impact, think beyond your packaging. There are more and more shipping companies that are either carbon-neutral or working on becoming carbon-neutral. That means they offset all emissions made by their shipping activities (often by planting trees). Some shipping companies to check out:

  • Sendle is a 100% carbon-neutral shipping company operating in the US and Australia.
  • UPS has partnered with CarbonNeutral.com to offset its carbon footprint. When customers participate in the program, every ton of carbon is offset equally elsewhere. As a note, you do need to opt-in to the program by paying a per-package fee.
  • Maersk is a company working on becoming carbon neutral right from the start. Rather than offset emissions, they’re powering their delivery fleet with a biofuel that emits relatively little carbon. Fast-fashion powerhouse, H&M actually uses Maersk.

Try out sustainability for your packaging materials

Eco-friendly packaging isn’t a pricey investment only big companies can afford to impress their customers. In 2021, even the smallest retailer can upgrade part or all of their packaging to something that’s good for the environment and for their budget.