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Sustainable Packaging Design: 5 Ways to Go Green While Staying On-Brand

Sustainable packaging design is a topic more small businesses have been thinking seriously about in recent years.

Gone are the days of simply using recycled materials. Savvy brands are making a genuine commitment to greening their packaging to reduce their impact on the planet and connect with environmentally conscious customers.

Sustainable packaging doesn't have to be a design compromise. It doesn't even always have to cost more. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities to make your packaging attractive, functional, and memorable, all while telling a story that connects you to your customers through shared values.

You may be wondering: what exactly is “sustainable packaging?”

Sustainable packaging is safe for the planet, recyclable, and has a limited environmental impact.

According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, packaging has to meet certain requirements to be considered sustainable. These include:

A. Being beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle B. Meeting market criteria for performance and cost C. Being sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy D. Optimizing the use of renewable or recycled source materials E. Being manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices F. Being made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle G. Being physically designed to optimize materials and energy H. Being effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed-loop cycles

So, even the Sustainable Packaging Coalition agrees that packaging shouldn't just be eco-friendly; it should also be cost-effective and function well.

As a designer working with small businesses, I love the challenge of designing packaging that helps brands look great and stand out, all while doing right by the earth.

Why are more businesses interested in sustainable packaging design?

The short answer is: because consumers care.

In research by Global Web Index, 61% of United States consumers surveyed want to support companies that protect the environment. In the same survey, over half of the respondents noted that the following packaging features were important to them: packaging that is recyclable, reusable, and as minimal as possible.

All that said, these same consumers are also wary of greenwashing. 53% of Americans never or only sometimes believe a company's environmental friendliness claims, according to 2021 research by Greenprint.

The takeaway? If you are serious about sustainable packaging design, go the extra mile to message your commitment clearly to your customers. It can go a long way toward reducing skepticism and building brand trust.

If you're ready to make a move toward greener packaging, you may be wondering where to begin. Here are five ways to increase sustainability without compromising design and functionality!

1. Eco-Conscious Packaging

The first thing to consider is the primary material you use for your product packaging.

Paper is a more renewable and biodegradable option than plastic. So, if paper or cardboard serve your purposes, they can be great material choices.

A benefit to choosing recycled paper as the base of your packaging design is that it can be styled to look more artisan and personal. The consumer trend toward handmade goods makes this a design choice worth getting behind.

Don't just use any paper. Instead, choose materials that are recycled and sustainably sourced. Look for certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to ensure that the paper was harvested in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

When plastic is a necessity, more sustainable types of plastic can be used. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a commonly used type of recyclable plastic. An even more eco-friendly choice is bioplastics. Bioplastics are made from renewable, biodegradable sources like starches and proteins (instead of petroleum).

Ask your designer:

  • Will recycled paper or cardboard will work for our product?

  • Can we use FSC certified paper packaging materials?

  • What are our sustainable plastic options are if plastic packaging is a must?

2. Greener Ink Choices

The ink you use to print on your packaging is another factor to consider. Traditional dyes and inks contain harmful chemicals and are derived from oil and petroleum, but there are fantastic alternatives.

Soy-based inks are created from abundantly available soybean oil, and they break down naturally. Flaxseed, linseed, and canola oil are other bases.

Thankfully, you don't need to worry about the quality of your design or cost when using these vegetable oil-based inks. Soy-based inks require less ink and produce more vibrant colors, so they are often less expensive and look incredible.

Water-based inks are another great option, but it can be harder to find printers that offer them since they require different printing equipment. They deliver the same results as other inks at a similar price point but reduce harmful VOCs and are better for the environment.

Ask your designer:

  • What are our ink choices, and what are the costs for each?

  • Do you know a printer that can use water-based inks?

3. Functional and Minimalist Packaging to Reduce Waste

When greening your packaging design, don’t compromise on customer experience for the sake of sustainability.

The meal kit service SunBasket, for example, has a strong values commitment to protecting the planet. Because of this, they use very minimal paper packaging for ingredients. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to produce getting smashed or bruised. Not great. Yet, for other products, minimalist packaging can be a perfect choice.

Consider the product and work with your designer to find packaging solutions that reduce environmental impact while still delivering an excellent experience and protecting your product.

Refillable packaging, consisting of a replenishable parent package, is an option for some products. Reusable packaging is another option to consider. I recently heard a Talenti gelato ad that specifically called out how to reuse their signature plastic tubs to store pantry or craft items. Brilliant.

I particularly love helping clients dream up creative and on-brand ways to give their packaging a second life. It’s inspiring to see brands like Bloom Chocolates dress up their botanical sweets in plantable wrappers. Even companies like Melissa & Doug Toys find little ways to keep boxes from being immediately tossed. Despite the excessive plastic interior packaging they use, they make their hand-puppet box double as a cardboard puppet theater. It's a step!

Ask your designer:

  • How can we get creative with the functionality of our packaging?

  • What do we need to do to ensure the product is well-protected?

  • Would refillable or reusable packaging options work for us?

4. Sustainable Shipping Containers

Have you ever received a giant box from Amazon with a single tiny item and a million plastic packing bubbles in it? That’s the opposite of sustainable shipping.

You may not immediately think of design when it comes to shipping your product, but there is a lot your designer can do to make your shipping materials gorgeous and greener.

Recycled plastic mailers are a baseline option, but you can do better with things like Kraft paper mailers that are 100% recyclable.

Another option for shipping is the use of compostable mailers. Compostable mailers are biodegradable plastic that US regulations require decomposing within twelve weeks of disposal and then further break down by at least 90% within the first six months.

Certain products and business models can even consider reusable mailers. For example, I love the reusable fabric mailers used by the designer garment rental service Rent the Runway.

Ask your designer:

  • What shipping materials will fit our brand image?

  • Which materials will protect our product during the shipping process?

  • Is our product or business model a good fit for reusable mailers?

5. Earth-Friendly Packing Materials

Along with the shipping container, you’ll need to make some choices about packing materials.

Instead of plastic packing tape, which doesn’t break down, you might consider more sustainable options. Water-activated tape is an excellent choice because it's completely biodegradable. It's made of paper strips that are adhered with water.

Instead of Styrofoam, there are other types of protective filler that can look nicer and provide the same level of protection. Corn foam and even mushroom fiber are now becoming more popular. Mushrooms can even be grown to meet the specific shape of whatever you are shipping—crazy!

Recycled tissue paper, GreenWrap, and crinkle paper are greener and more attractive alternatives to packing peanuts and bubble wrap. Tissue paper can often be printed with custom designs or branding using soy-based ink.

Finally, instead of stickers, you could think about using soy-based or water-based ink stamps to add a touch of personalization or branding to your package.

Ask your designer:

  • What void filler would work best for shipping our product?

  • Can we custom print recycled tissue paper or water-activated tape with our branding?

  • Where might custom stamps enhance our packaging design?

Are you interested in exploring sustainable packaging design?

Contact me to learn about the options and design process.


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