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Sustainable Packaging: Types and Examples

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Recycling logo on a cell phone

There’s no question that sustainable packaging has become a top priority for both brands and consumers alike. New sustainable packaging materials continue to emerge thanks to various innovations and a laser focus on creating eco-friendly options. As a business owner in 2022, you have to embrace sustainability in all its forms. It’s no longer acceptable to do the bare minimum. Conscious consumers see straight through it. It’s about creating with longevity and impact in mind.

That being said, “sustainability” isn’t a quick fix. It requires a new level of investment, re-evaluating the various elements of your business in a new light. If your company creates products that require packaging, it’s probably one of the best places to start. That’s why we’ve put together the ultimate guide to sustainable packaging, including some of our favorite sustainable packaging examples to inspire you.

What does it mean to be sustainable?

While eco-friendly packaging is a great place to start, let’s take a step back and look at sustainability as a whole. “Sustainability” is a concept most people are familiar with. It’s thrown around a little too quickly as businesses and brands try to improve their environmental status. It’s become trendy to be sustainable, meaning many companies misuse the phrase, so much so that it’s somewhat lost its spark.

However, sustainability, at its core, is an incredibly good thing. Looking past the perks it brings in marketing, it is undoubtedly something companies should continue to strive for in every sense of the word.

Okay, so what does sustainability actually mean? If you look at the definition as broadly as possible, “sustainability” refers to the ability to maintain or support a process over time continuously. Take it a level deeper, and it’s about fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising on the needs of future generations. It’s the ultimate balance between economic growth, environmental consciousness, and social well-being.

The four pillars of sustainability

Most people refer to the three pillars of sustainability. Yet, a paper by Robert Goodland from the World Bank included a fourth pillar, one that’s worth noting. According to Goodland, the four pillars that fall under the sustainability umbrella include; human, social, economic, and environmental.

When referring to sustainability, it may help to specify which type you’re dealing with. As a business owner, it can feel overwhelming to tackle all four at once and a little less intimidating to prioritize one. In reality, they’re completely intertwined. We’ve broken down each pillar below to give you a better understanding. Your ultimate goal should be to build a business that incorporates all four.

1. Human Sustainability

Human sustainability seeks to maintain and improve the human capital in society. This includes investments in health and education systems, better access to services, improved nutrition, and skills development programs. There’s no question that natural resources and spaces are limited, making it crucial to find a balance between growth and economic well-being for everyone.

As a business owner, human sustainability refers to a fundamental respect for human capital. It focuses on the importance of anyone involved in making products, providing services, or the broader stakeholders. Communities around the globe can experience the adverse effects of a business’ activities if they’re not acknowledging human sustainability.

2. Social Sustainability

Social sustainability aims to strengthen the cohesion and stability of specific social groups. It’s about preserving social capital by investing and creating services that support our society. The concept itself supports a much larger view, referring to communities, cultures, and globalization. In essence, social sustainability aims to improve social quality. It’s heavily supported by sustainable development, with equality at the forefront.

To operate as a business with social sustainability, you need to identify and manage the impact your business has on people. Social and human sustainability go hand in hand, ultimately referring to the quality of life.

3. Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability refers to a stable economy, an economy that’s resilient to uncertainty. In a business context, it can safeguard your operations in the face of change. For example, if there is a potential rise in energy or water costs, your business can maintain company profitability over time. Yes, you still prioritize growth, but with a lens of quality over quantity. If the growth negatively impacts ecological and human systems, it’s re-evaluated and adjusted accordingly.

This is what makes economic sustainability so crucial. As a business owner, it’s so important to shift the narrative from “growth at all costs” to “growth with an understanding of the actual costs,” offsetting your impact at every turn.

4. Environmental Sustainability

Last but not least, we have environmental sustainability. At its core, ecological sustainability is the responsibility to conserve natural resources and protect global ecosystems to support the health and well-being of both present and future generations. It focuses on natural capital like land, air, water, and minerals.

Initiatives and programs are considered environmentally sustainable if they successfully ensure the population’s needs are met without the risk of compromising the future.

What is sustainable packaging?

Broadly speaking, sustainable packaging is packaging that’s better for the environment. It’s earth-friendly or eco-friendly. Top sustainable packaging manufacturers will conduct a full life cycle assessment on their product, defining its total impact.

As a business owner, you’re probably asking yourself, “okay cool, so what are the best types of sustainable packaging?” As it stands, there is no set framework for sustainable packaging. You’ll need to look at your product and its packaging, including the shipping materials, and evaluate it from top to bottom with a fine-tooth comb.

Generally, the following sustainable packaging criteria are the most important:

  • Is the packaging beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its lifecycle?

  • Does the packaging meet the market criteria for performance and cost?

  • Is the packaging sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy?

  • Does the packaging optimize the use of renewable or recycled source materials?

  • Is the packaging manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices?

  • Is the packaging made from materials that are considered “healthy” throughout its life cycle?

  • Is the packaging physically designed to optimize materials and energy?

  • Is the packaging effectively recovered in a biological or industrial closed-loop process?

How can sustainable packaging positively impact your business?

While sustainable product packaging has obvious benefits for the environment, it has other advantages for your business. From an environmental standpoint, sustainable packaging helps to limit your carbon footprint, reduce the amount of plastic in the world and promote materials with fewer allergens and toxins.

Looking at it with your business hat on, it can positively impact the following:

1. Expand your customer base and boost brand loyalty

We’ve alluded to this already, but it’s evident that being a more sustainable brand helps with customer acquisition. Today’s consumers are hyper-conscious, making purchasing decisions based on impact. They’ll happily boycott brands that support sectors such as fast fashion, spending more money to fund something sustainable.

A survey by CGS of 1000 American consumers revealed that almost 70% of them consider sustainability “somewhat important,” with 47% confirming that they’d be willing to pay up to 25% more for sustainable products. Further research by Nielsen found that 48% of consumers are willing to change their habits to lower their impact, so much so that sustainable product sales have grown by nearly 20% since 2014.

2. Consolidated storage & reduced shipping costs

Reducing packaging materials and minimizing waste are two fundamentals of sustainable packaging. Get this right, and it will naturally lead to more efficient storage for your products. You can limit the required space, reducing storage costs and even opening up some room for more products.

On top of that, you could lower your shipping costs by shipping smaller packages. Sustainable packaging solutions can lead to unknown efficiencies with a significant impact. You can completely transform your bottom line by saving something as little as $5 on every delivery.

Different types of sustainable packaging

Whether it’s sustainable packaging for shipping or custom sustainable packaging, there are a few types to consider. We’ve included a few of our favorite examples to inspire you.

1. Compostable & Biodegradable Packaging

Compostable or biodegradable packaging refers to a material that can naturally decompose back into the earth without leaving any toxic residue. This type of packaging is usually made from plant-based materials.

To truly be considered compostable, the material should be able to break down in a home environment within 180 days and 90 days in commercial composting conditions.

Derived from all naturally occurring materials, Cruz Foam is a sustainable packaging solution worth noting. It’s the perfect example of compostable and biodegradable packaging. In 2021, this styrofoam alternative passed ASTM D6400 and D6868 testing with a 97.9% biodegradation rate. As it breaks down, the material produces high-quality organic waste. This can be used as a nutrient-rich compost and biogas for electricity.

Want to find out more? Try Cruz Foam today!

2. Recycled Packaging

Sustainable packaging solutions can also come in the form of recycled packaging. Using recycled materials for your packaging can help conserve natural resources while reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. It’s an opportunity to give a second life to plastics already in circulation or prioritize other materials that consumers can reuse.

Brands like RePack sell packaging that you can send back after delivery. Once the goods are emptied, the packaging can be folded into an envelope, sent back, and reused for the next package.

3. Glassine Packaging

Some products require transparent materials. If this is the case, glassine - a smooth and glossy paper - is a promising alternative. Glassine is manufactured from wood pulp, making it both recyclable and biodegradable.

The Belle Candle Company uses glassine to wrap its luxury candles before sending them to customers. It’s a sustainable solution that replaces the commonly used single-use plastic in this scenario.

4. Kraft Paper Packaging

Like glassine, kraft paper is manufactured from wood pulp. Kraft materials use all types of wood, including pine, which is typically left out when creating standard paper products. The chemicals used to make kraft paper can be reused, making the manufacturing process itself more sustainable.

Brands like Function of Beauty, who are working towards long-term sustainability, have recently shifted all shipping packaging to 100% recycled kraft boxes. While there’s still a way to go to reach fully sustainable packaging, it’s a step in the right direction.

5. Cornstarch Packaging

You can use cornstarch to create styrofoam alternatives to replace things like packing peanuts or bubble wrap. Many businesses rely on these single-use plastics to prevent their products from getting damaged during delivery. A cornstarch alternative eliminates the harmful toxins usually present, making it biodegradable and more sustainable.

Nature’s brands switched to biodegradable packing peanuts, prioritizing the safety and sustainability of their packaging products. Many other brands are headed that direction.The non-toxic alternative is safer for kids and pets. To dispose of the packing peanuts, you simply dissolve them in water or add them to the compost heap if you live in a warmer climate. It is important to remember that just because something is biodegradable does not mean it is necessarily compostable. Some biodegradable packing peanuts may need specific conditions to compost.

6. Cellulose Packaging

Cellulose packaging is made from natural sources like hemp, wood, and cotton. On top of that, the material is biodegradable and compostable. Cellulose alternatives are often used to replace plastic food packaging. Like plastic, it is moisture-resistant.

Sungrown packaging is a Californian-based business that manufactures hemp cellulose-based boxes for cannabis companies. They’re 100% plastic-free.

7. Mushroom Packaging

Yes, you read that right. Styrofoam alternatives made out of mushrooms, or rather mycelium, are now a thing. The result is a sturdy packaging material that helps to keep products in place.

The razor company Well Kept uses a custom-made mushroom packaging box to house its product, replacing what would have been a plastic casing. As an added perk, the material is lightweight, ultimately reducing shipping costs.

The Takeaway

There are more and more types of sustainable packaging that continue to emerge. What’s more, business owners worldwide are making sustainability a fundamental focus. Understanding the genuine impact of your products or packaging is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s essential. While the upfront investment may be intimidating, the long-term gain is undeniable for you, the consumer, and the world.


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