A complete guide to using sustainable packaging for your eCommerce store

This is a guest post from Jake Rheude, Director of Marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment, an eCommerce fulfillment warehouse.

The concept of “going green” isn’t just idealistic anymore—modern customers care about sustainability. 81 percent of people worldwide believe companies should help improve the environment. Sales of products that were marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster between 2013 and 2018 than other products; in more than 90 percent of product categories, products marketed as sustainable grew faster than comparable non-sustainable competitors. And three-quarters of people are buying more environmentally-friendly products now than they have in the past.

The question for retailers is—where do you start? Packaging and infill seems like a good place, but also challenging one. You’re already working to ensure your packaging is functional and attractive—and now you have to worry about sustainability? It can feel like a lot.

You probably have questions. Like, isn’t cardboard already recyclable? What about mailers? Which is better, recyclable or compostable? In this article, we’ll cover the basics of sustainability and review your options to help you find greener alternatives for all the facets of your packaging.

Recyclable, compostable, biodegradable—what’s the difference?

They all sound good, right? And in truth, they are all better than simply throwing everything in the trash—but there is a pretty clear hierarchy of benefit to the planet.

Biodegradable

Biodegradable is generally a good step in the right direction, but it is the weakest of the three options. When an item is biodegradable, it means that it will eventually break down—key word “eventually.” There is no time limit imposed. It could break down quickly, or it could take decades, and there is no stipulation imposed on how fast it must be able to break down to be considered biodegradable.

However, there is a stipulation that the material can’t cause harm to the environment once it breaks down. This means something biodegradable can be constructed from man-made materials or naturally-occurring materials, as long as they don’t harm the environment once they’ve biodegraded.

Biodegradable wine packaging.
An example of biodegradable wine packaging. Via: Packaging Europe.

The other technicality with biodegradable materials is that plastics can be labeled as biodegradable. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastics need more oxygen to break down than most landfills can provide and they aren’t compostable, meaning they’re often no better than the trash you were trying to avoid creating in the first place.

Again, biodegradable materials are still a great step in the right direction, but if you decide to go this route, prioritize materials that biodegrade quickly (and let your customers know that).

Compostable

Compostable is a step above biodegradable. These are packages that will break down into natural materials within 90 days when exposed to enough oxygen. More people are choosing to have their own compost bins at home, and many cities have composting facilities. Composting is quite simple: with a good balance of dry and wet organic materials and access to oxygen, the materials will break down into usable soil.

Dell's compostable packaging.
Dell’s compostable laptop packaging. Via: Treehugger.

The main drawback to compostable materials is what happens if they get thrown away by accident. A landfill is basically the antithesis of a composting facility, as it is filled with inorganic materials and offers very little access to oxygen—so compostable materials just become like any other type of trash. If you use compostable materials, encourage your customers to dispose of them properly.

Another downside is that compost should be reserved for materials that degrade into valuable nutrients that make up healthy soil. It’s very rare that compostable packaging components will add anything to the soil, and they’ll frequently contain trace amounts of harmful materials that can build up over time (like at a larger composting facility). For eCommerce packaging, compostable is a decent option—and better than biodegradable—but it’s not the best.

Recyclable

Finally, the top tier: recyclable materials. When in doubt, aim for recyclable materials, or even better, materials that are already made from recycled components. In theory, recyclable materials can be broken down and reused, reducing our need for new materials and giving them new life over and over again.

Recycling boxes that remind you to recycle.
Package Free Shop makes it clear that its boxes are recyclable. Via: Lumi.

The biggest drawback to recyclable packaging actually has nothing to do with the material itself, but confusion and misinformation about what can be recycled.

You may know that many plastics can be recycled, as well as glass, cardboard, paper, and metal. However, the problem lies with people partaking in what we call “wishful recycling.” When they don’t know if something can be recycled, they chuck it in the bin and hope for the best. Unfortunately, one improperly recycled component can be enough to ruin a whole batch of recycled materials. The best way you can combat this is to be extremely clear about what can and can’t be recycled so that your customers can be better recyclers.

What about reduce, reuse, recycle?

Many of us grew up hearing the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and it holds true to this day. If you bring the reduce, reuse, recycle mindset into your packaging, your customers will notice. Here are some ways you can incorporate it:

  • Reduce. Think carefully about each piece of your packaging experience, from box to infill. Is it necessary? Will your consumers be able to use it? Consider ditching the bows and opt for useful extras (like stickers, pins, or samples), or even giving your customers the option to opt-out of packaging extras at checkout.
  • Reuse. Encourage your customers to reuse the different components of the packaging, and give them tips on how to do so.
  • Recycle. Make recycling instructions clear and easy to follow for each component in the packaging to eliminate the guesswork and, hopefully, curb incorrect recycling attempts.

Sustainable packaging options for eCommerce businesses

As you know, there are a lot of different components to your packaging—and believe it or not, each and every one has a sustainable option. As an added bonus, sustainable packaging is becoming so popular that prices have come down quite a bit—in most cases, they’re now within the realm of non-sustainable packaging. Here are some ideas to make every piece of your packaging more sustainable.

The box

Thankfully you’re probably already using the best option for your box: cardboard. Cardboard, a paper product, is typically both recyclable and compostable. It takes energy to recycle, but it takes a lot more to cut down a new tree and make a new box. It’s good to encourage your consumers to recycle or reuse the box you send. 

However, if you want to go even greener, there are a couple of options. The first is to use cardboard boxes that are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled content. That way you support current recycling efforts and encourage future ones. The second is to find a company that prints the boxes using non-toxic ink. Most common inks are made from chemicals and metals that cannot be recycled, so they’ll typically wind up a sludgy byproduct from the recycling process. If you use a soy, water, or even algae-based ink, you mitigate your environmental impact even further.

Aromatica's soy ink packaging.
Aromatica prints its packages using soy ink. Via: Aromatica.

The bag

If you primarily use mailers, you probably know that they are usually not recyclable, compostable, or even biodegradable—so they go straight in the trash. Typical poly mailers are made from #2 or #4 plastic, which are not accepted by curbside recycling. They are technically recyclable, but only at certain locations (for instance, some big box stores have started accepting poly mailer drop-offs). But let’s get real: As much as your customers would love for you to start using eco-friendly packaging, only a small percentage of them are going to be motivated enough to search for, find, and travel to a destination that accepts your classic poly mailers. Is there another way?

Thankfully, you have options. To echo what we said about cardboard boxes, a 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper mailer is your best option (and non-toxic inks are even better). Mailers need to be sealed in some way, so another important component of a sustainable package is ensuring that the adhesive is non-toxic. If you don’t want to use paper mailers, a 100 percent recycled poly mailer is your next best option, though those will need to be taken to special recycling facilities.

The infill

It’s time to say goodbye to packing peanuts (your customers probably can’t stand them anyway) and bubble wrap (your customers will miss popping them, but eliminating them is for the greater good). Go for a recyclable infill instead. Options include 3D cardboard shapes, recycled shredded paper, kraft paper, recycled tissue paper, and more. Once you narrow down what you need the infill for—to serve an important functional purpose or just for decoration—you can decide which infill best suits your needs.

Here’s an example from ButcherBox, which switched out styrofoam inserts for compostable thermal coolers.

The inserts

Many eCommerce stores like including an insert or two in their packages, like a business card or a card with a coupon code. You should, again, print those on 100 percent post-consumer recycled material. If you want to go a step further, a fun option for a simple insert is printing on plantable paper. There are a few companies that offer this, and your customers can plant the paper in the ground, water it, and grow themselves some flowers. This could be a unique option to inject some personality into your packaging that goes a step above and beyond recycled paper.

Customization

Finally, you might be wondering if the future of eCommerce packaging is plain brown kraft paper. While that’s definitely an option (and a cost-effective one) there are plenty of opportunities to customize and liven up your sustainable packaging. Many companies, including EcoEnclose, UPrinting, and NoIssueTissue offer custom-printed boxes, mailers, tissue paper, stickers, tape, and more that are all eco-friendly.

But what about the cost?

While we did say earlier that the prices on sustainable packaging materials have come down and are “within the realm” of non-sustainable—in most cases, they’re still going to be more expensive. For example, the 6-inch-by-9-inch recycled poly mailers from EcoEnclose are around 12 to 14 cents each; mailers made out of non-sustainable materials can be found for as little as seven cents each.

But if you widen your view, the cost comparison becomes a bit more nuanced.

First, one of the most sustainable moves you can make is to use less packaging. The less waste there is, the better, period—which means you can cut down on the extra stuff in the box (and focus on making what you keep as eco-friendly as you can). You may find that your pared down, but more focused and sustainable, unboxing experience costs the same as your original offering.

Second, there’s no law that states you must completely switch over to entirely sustainable packaging options all at once. That can present a daunting increase to your costs. Instead, try slowly switching over, piece by piece. When you make the most manageable changes first and gradually move towards a completely sustainable packaging experience, the process becomes a lot more doable and a lot less intimidating. It also gives you a chance to gauge the response from your customers and get feedback on the changes you make.

And finally, consumers are highly prioritizing shopping from companies that commit to sustainability. In fact, two-thirds of customers are more willing to pay more to buy things from an environmentally-friendly brand. By spending a little more on sustainable packaging, it could actually end up increasing your number of conversions and the value of those conversions—and more than pay for itself. In that sense, when you buy sustainable packaging, it also doubles as a marketing investment.

Key takeaways

In this day and age, knowing what we know about plastics, microplastics, toxic chemicals, and everything else that pollutes this Earth, shifting to a sustainable framework is crucial—yet it’s still intimidating and potentially overwhelming for many eCommerce businesses. So many old-fashioned packaging practices are deeply integrated into our current way of doing things that it’s often hard to parse them out.

But there are sustainable options out there for you—and they definitely matter to your customers.

First, you should know the differences between your sustainable packaging options.

  • Biodegradable packaging is a good step in the right direction, but the weakest of the options because there’s no time constraint on how long it will take for an item to break down.
  • Compostable packaging is better, but your customers will need to make sure they properly compost the package—otherwise it can just wind up in a landfill.
  • Recyclable packaging is the best, as it can be broken down and reused over and over again.

From there, you can figure out how to use sustainable materials for every element of your packaging.

  • The box.  Cardboard is already recyclable, but you can take things further by using boxes made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled content and printing on the boxes with chemical-free inks.
  • The bag. Typical poly mailers aren’t easily recyclable, so opt for a cardboard mailer with a non-toxic adhesive.
  • The infill. Use 3D cardboard shapes, recycled shredded paper, kraft paper, recycled tissue paper, or whatever else fits your need.
  • The inserts. Print your inserts on 100 percent post-consumer recycled material, or take it even further and print on a plant-based paper that a customer can grow into flowers.
  • Customization. Remember that sustainable doesn’t have to mean boring. There are plenty of companies that can create customized eco-friendly packaging materials for you.

And when you do start using more sustainable materials in your packaging, make sure to let your customers know. It’s win-win-win: You help the environment, it makes your customers happy and lets them know that your values align with theirs, and it can increase your sales. 

Jake Rheude
Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an eCommerce fulfillment warehouse. He has years of experience in eCommerce and business development. In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.

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