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17 November 2023 • Resources

Sustainable packaging: Definition, benefits, and tips for small businesses

Sustainable packaging: Definition, benefits, and tips for small businesses

In a time when many people's buying habits are trending towards more conscious consumption, ecommerce companies around the world are looking to how they can accommodate this increasingly common consumer behavior.

In this article, we take a look at sustainable packaging—a vital cornerstone in the global shift towards eco-friendly practices. Discover how innovative materials, thoughtful design, and ethical production methods are reshaping the packaging landscape. From reducing environmental impact to fostering a circular economy, we unravel the complexities of sustainable packaging.

Implementing sustainable packaging for your own ecommerce business is a journey that goes beyond protection and convenience. It aims to create a harmonious balance between human needs and the well-being of our planet. 

What is considered sustainable packaging? 

Sustainable packaging refers to the use of materials and design practices that minimize the environmental effects of packaging throughout its life cycle. This includes sourcing eco-friendly materials, reducing waste, optimizing production processes, and ensuring recyclability or biodegradability. 

The goal is to create packaging that has a lower environmental footprint. Whether companies ship their products in boxes, bags, or other containers, they must consider factors like resource use, energy consumption, and waste generation if they want to make their packaging more sustainable. Sustainable packaging aims to balance the need for product protection with environmental responsibility, contributing to long-term ecological and social well-being.

Why is sustainable packaging important in ecommerce?

Online retailers should prioritize sustainable packaging for both environmental and business reasons. Eco-friendly ecommerce packaging reduces the ecological footprint by minimizing waste, conserving resources, and lowering carbon emissions associated with production and disposal.

Consumers increasingly value sustainability, and using eco-friendly packaging enhances a company's reputation and attracts environmentally conscious customers. For example, in a 2022 Statista study of online shoppers in the US, 25% of respondents stated that sustainable packaging was a packaging factor that made them want to buy from an online store.

Moreover, as governments and regulatory bodies focus on environmental issues, adopting sustainable practices can preemptively address potential regulations and demonstrate corporate responsibility.

From a business perspective, sustainable packaging can also lower shipping costs and contribute to operational efficiency. Embracing eco-friendly packaging aligns with the global shift toward sustainability, fostering a positive brand image, meeting consumer expectations, and ensuring long-term competitiveness in the evolving retail landscape.

How do you make your packaging eco-friendly? 9 Tips

Whether you're preparing to launch a new online store or want to improve the sustainability of your existing venture, your packaging is a great place to start when it comes to achieving a sustainable business model in ecommerce. Here are our best tips to help you create a top-notch eco-friendly packaging strategy and reduce harm to the environment! 

1. Opt for materials that are better for the environment

When it comes to working towards making your ecommerce packaging more sustainable, the first element that you will want to examine is your choice of material. Amid growing worries about climate change and plastic pollution, sustainable packaging emerges as a compelling remedy. 

Conventional packaging elements like plastic and styrofoam are giving way to substitutes such as recycled paper, cardboard, plant-based plastics, and compostable materials. These alternatives not only decrease carbon footprints but also foster a circular economy, completing the cycle through recycling and composting initiatives.

Fortunately, there are numerous eco-friendly packaging options to consider for your online store's orders:

  • Recycled materials: Choose packaging made from recycled content, such as recycled cardboard or paper. This reduces the demand for new raw materials.
  • Biodegradable materials: Opt for packaging that breaks down naturally, lessening negative repercussions for the planet. Materials like cornstarch-based plastics are examples of biodegradable options.
  • Compostable packaging: Compostable materials can be broken down in a composting environment, contributing to nutrient-rich soil rather than adding to landfill waste.
  • FSC-certified paper: Choose packaging materials certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), indicating responsible forest management practices.
  • Water-based Inks: Use inks that are water-based and have lower environmental impact compared to traditional solvent-based inks.

When evaluating different material options, note that you'll need to consider the products you sell, particularly if your ecommerce site offers food products and/or particularly fragile goods. The materials used must be able to keep the package's contents protected, and there's the additional requirement of ensuring that you use food-safe materials for any food-related items.

2. Aim for minimalism

For many online shoppers, unboxing their orders once they receive them is an essential part of the overall customer experience and can influence whether they continue to buy from a brand in the future. Products carefully wrapped in colorful tissue paper, bubble wrap, and/or a plastic zippered pouch and then placed in cardboard boxes filled with plastic packing peanuts plus free goodies galore can all help to make the unboxing experience enjoyable for your customers. 

However, using excessive materials to package isn't a must to make buyers happy. Statista's 2022 survey of online shoppers based in the UK and the US determined that 64% of respondents agreed with the idea that brands should cut back on the amount of packaging they use.

Many commonly used packaging elements aren't really needed to safely get your orders from Point A to Point B and will likely end up in sitting in the landfill. It can therefore be a good idea to opt for a minimalist approach with your packaging, striking the right balance between delighting your customers and avoiding waste.

Consider streamlining packaging design to use fewer materials. Avoid excess layers and unnecessary components, focusing on simplicity.

If going the minimalist route isn't for you, think about how you might be able to at least reduce the packaging for your products. Right-size packaging to minimize material usage and transportation space, reducing both costs and environmental impact.

3. Partner with eco-friendly packaging suppliers

Once you know what kind of sustainable materials you want to start incorporating into your packaging, be they recycled, biodegradable, etc., it's beneficial to establish partnerships with trustworthy suppliers who can provide you with these materials on a regular basis. Choose suppliers committed to environmentally conscious practices, ensuring that materials align with your sustainability goals.

Don't be afraid to ask questions to understand their production processes and certifications. Work on building a long-term relationship to foster continuous improvement and align your brand with reputable partners, reinforcing your commitment to sustainable packaging practices. Remember that regular communication and shared values contribute to a mutually beneficial and environmentally responsible business partnership.

4. Start small

Yes, striving for full-on eco-friendliness is admirable and a great goal to have. However, if you go all out from the get-go, stocking up on lots of new packaging materials, only to find out that they aren't the best fit for your products, this can mean a significant waste in terms of money and supplies, leading to the opposite of what you hoped to achieve with your green initiative! 

Regardless if your company sells a single product or a few hundred items, it's advisable not to fully embrace packaging sustainability without testing the concept first. This can be achieved by sampling various packaging options and containers. 

Ordering a sample pack allows you to personally assess the quality of the packaging. Once you are confident that it's a viable option for your business, you can proceed to placing larger orders.

5. Ensure an optimized supply chain

Sustainable packaging goes beyond the final product, encompassing the optimization of the entire supply chain. Prioritizing a holistic approach strategy guarantees the integration of sustainability into every facet of how you package customer orders.

Besides reducing negative effects on the environment, an optimized supply chain often leads to cost savings, making sustainable practices more economically viable for businesses. What's more, a well-optimized supply chain enables quicker response to changing market demands, helping your business adapt to evolving customer preferences and sustainability requirements. It can also enhance your brand image, demonstrating commitment to environmental responsibility and meeting the expectations of eco-conscious buyers.

There are several steps you can take that will help in optimizing your ecommerce business's supply chain:

  • Build strong partnerships and communicate openly: Work closely with suppliers committed to sustainability, remembering that transparency and collaboration facilitate the sharing of ideas and best practices, involving multiple perspectives and expertise, allowing for a diverse and comprehensive evaluation.
  • Aim for efficient transportation: Optimize packaging dimensions to minimize material usage and transportation space, reducing carbon emissions. Consolidate shipments, use fuel-efficient transportation modes, and explore eco-friendly logistics options.
  • Optimize inventory management: Implement efficient inventory management practices to minimize excess stock and reduce waste. Conduct a lifecycle analysis of your products and packaging to identify areas for improvement.

6. Modify your pricing if needed

Adjusting pricing when implementing eco-friendly packaging for your ecommerce business is crucial to cover the potentially higher costs associated with sustainable materials. While environmentally friendly options may be more expensive, keep in mind that sustainability is becoming an ever-more critical issue for customers. 

Communicating the positive consequences and transparency in pricing adjustments can justify the change, aligning with consumer preferences and ensuring the long-term viability of green initiatives. It demonstrates a commitment to sustainability and helps build trust with conscious consumers willing to support environmentally responsible brands.

7. Employ the FIFO strategy

There's a good chance that you might be itching to start using your new eco-friendly packaging as soon as possible. If you still have perfectly usable materials to use up, though, it goes against the aims of sustainability to let them go to waste.

It's therefore a good idea to implement the FIFO (first in, first out) strategy for your company's packaging design because it ensures that older packaging materials are used first, minimizing waste and promoting sustainability. By prioritizing the utilization of existing stock before transitioning to newer, eco-friendly materials, brands can reduce environmental impact while efficiently managing their inventory and gradually integrating sustainable practices.

8. Create a recycling program for customers

Encourage customers to return packaging materials for recycling or offer take-back programs for specific components. Provide clear instructions and incentives to promote participation. Collaborate with recycling facilities to ensure proper disposal.

Using recyclable material and launching a recycling program can not only minimize the harmful effects on Mother Earth but also foster customer engagement and loyalty, showcasing your commitment to sustainability. Transparent communication about these initiatives strengthens your brand image and encourages responsible consumer behavior.

9. Spread the word about your new green packaging design

A brand advocating for the environment captures global attention. It's a moral stance that can distinguish your brand amidst competitors. Integrate sustainability into your marketing campaigns, ensuring that your commitment to environmental causes is communicated effectively.

Let people know that your brand actively contributes to environmental well-being, emphasizing your dedication to making a positive impact. Clearly communicate the eco-friendly aspects of the packaging to educate and engage consumers in sustainable practices.

What are additional solutions to make your business more eco-friendly?

As you've seen in this article, embracing sustainable packaging is not merely a choice; it's a strategic imperative for ecommerce businesses in an era of heightened environmental consciousness. The adoption of eco-friendly materials, coupled with supply chain optimization and innovative practices, not only aligns with global sustainability goals but also resonates with conscientious consumers. 

That being said, while utilizing sustainable packaging is an excellent step in the right direction, you don't need to stop there. There are plenty of additional ways to boost the eco-friendliness of your business. 

Look to your product catalog itself, for example. You might create a goal to gradually transition to offering products that are sustainably sourced, ethically produced, and environmentally friendly, featuring components that are partly or fully recyclable.

If you make your products yourself, another action you can take is to make them on demand, only creating a product when a shopper completes an order on your website. Although this means a longer amount of time that your customers will need to wait to receive their orders, this can prevent you using materials and supplies needlessly and having a surplus of items that are sitting around waiting to be sold, which in turn then saves you money. 

In addition, you can choose to offer more sustainable shipping options on your website. Although today's online shoppers are used to receiving their orders in the blink of an eye, super fast shipping isn't that great for the planet.

When companies offer a same-day or even next-day shipping service, for instance, this often results in partially empty delivery vehicles on the road, resulting in higher carbon emissions. This is made even worse if a package is traveling by air. Consider only allowing people to select standard shipping when making a purchase from your store or at least giving them the option, making standard shipping cheaper or even free to increase its attractiveness to shoppers

By making a commitment to eco-friendly practices, ecommerce businesses not only contribute to a healthier planet but also secure a competitive edge in a market where ethical choices increasingly shape consumer preferences. Incorporating sustainable packaging and other actions that are better for the environment is not just a responsibility—it's an investment in a greener future and long-lasting customer loyalty!

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