Documentaries like Seaspiracy, Planet Earth, and An Inconvenient Truth have brought about a sea change in how people view themselves and how their choices impact the environment.

One of the clearest ways this paradigm shift has shown up is in consumer preferences. Nowadays, the words “eco-friendly,” “organic,” and “sustainable” aren’t just considered nice-to-haves when it comes to products. They’re essential. And it goes beyond just the products themselves—the packaging they’re sold in has to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, too.

But what is sustainable packaging, specifically? It’s become a buzzword whose actual definition is elusive and not so clear.

So if you’re an up-and-coming brand that’s still hammering out your product and packaging design, or you’re an established brand looking to evolve to keep pace with the latest consumer preferences, it’s vital that you get a sense of what sustainable packaging is and how it will impact the viability of your business.

What is sustainable packaging? A brief definition

In a nutshell (a nutshell is the ultimate sustainable packaging, by the way!), the term “sustainable packaging” applies to a variety of things, from how packaging materials are sourced to their ability to be reused or recycled, that reduces environmental impact and ecological footprint.

In other words, sustainability is more of a process or a philosophy than a defined term. And it’s a philosophy that hinges on the notion that the choices we make to meet the demands of today should not impede, limit, or prevent the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Is this packaging green? Some questions to consider

Because sustainability applies to the entire supply chain, there isn’t one simple metric you can apply that will tell you whether a form of packaging is “green” or not. Once again, the best way to approach the matter is by applying the philosophy of sustainability.

Here are the types of questions you can start asking to make an informed choice about sustainable packaging:

  • Where and how are these materials sourced? Are they from renewable or non-renewable resources? If it’s cardboard, did it come from a well-managed forest?

  • Is reusable packaging an option for this product?

  • Does the product use an appropriate amount of packaging (i.e., is it over packaged)? Can any of the packaging be reduced in size or eliminated altogether?

  • Will the consumer know that this material can be recycled? Does it require them to break down and separate the package into several pieces for recycling and disposal?

A life cycle analysis (LCA) is another useful tool in determining sustainability. It looks at the environmental impacts that stem from every stage of life of a piece of packaging, from material to distribution to consumer use and end of life, whether it's reusing the packaging, recycling it, or throwing it away. It also includes an estimate of the carbon footprint (also known as greenhouse gas emissions) that the packaging leaves behind.

Although an LCA is a bit of a complex undertaking, it’s well worth the effort to do one, and you can get started with some simple and effective strategies outlined here.

The different types of sustainable packaging

That being said, an LCA is not the be all and end all of sustainability. Like most things, it has its limitations and its oversights. For example, it doesn't take into account important factors like whether the material will end up contributing to ocean pollution or if the materials can break down over time and release toxins into the environment.

This is where your company's specific priorities also come into play in determining the sustainability of your packaging. You may, for instance, make it a company mission to reduce ocean plastic waste. This priority, along with an LCA, will help narrow down your options for your packaging. If your company has a different priority when it comes to sustainability, such as protecting old-growth forests, it may lead to a very different decision when it comes to packaging.

The upshot is that sustainable packaging is more than just a matter of choosing a specific type of material or process. It’s the outcome of ongoing discussions about availability of resources, the impact of process and production, corporate responsibility and ethics, and more.  

The benefits of using sustainable packaging

This may all sound a little overwhelming, so here’s a ray of light to guide you forward on the sometimes mystifying journey toward sustainability. Over and above protecting the environment, sustainable packaging is one of the most important choices you can make to ensure the success of your brand.

Now more than ever, compassion and altruism are alive and well in consumers and they just don’t feel right about buying from brands that don’t make a visible and vocal commitment to saving the planet. They’re so committed to this that they’re willing to pay more for products that use sustainable packaging than those that don’t.

Need help creating sustainable packaging for your products?

It can be exhausting and confusing to sort through all the options for green sustainable packing out there. Impacked cuts through the complexity by allowing you to instantly search, filter, and compare wholesale packaging options from top suppliers, all in one place. .