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Sustainability can’t wait. For brands that utilize retail packaging, the urgency for making sustainable, eco-friendly updates is palpable. In polls, consumers are overwhelmingly voicing their support for brands that utilize eco-friendly practices. Beyond that, many consumers actually hold the expectation that brands are responsible for implementing eco-friendly changes. According to Nielsen’s recent global sustainability report, 81 percent of respondents feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment by implementing sustainability programs. What does it take for a brand to make a legitimate leap to sustainable packaging? According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, sustainable packaging should meet the following criteria:

  • It’s beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its entire life cycle.
  • It meets market criteria for performance and cost.
  • It is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.
  • It optimizes the use of renewable or recycled materials.
  • It’s manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.
  • It’s physically designed to optimize material and energy usage.
  • It’s effectively recovered and utilized in biological/industrial closed-loop cycles.

What steps can retail brands take right now to meet package sustainability standards? The good news for brands looking for base packaging materials that can be tailored for retail packaging is that the hard work of developing eco-friendly solutions has already been done. Ultimately, the process of intersecting brand needs with available resources requires assessment, evaluation and conversion.

Step 1: Analyze Your Positioning

What score would you assign your retail packaging based on how it stands today? An analysis is essential for pivoting to a sustainable packaging strategy. Assigning a score to current packaging practices takes input from multiple sources. Here’s where you should be gathering scoring metrics from:

  • Recommendations from environmental agencies.
  • Local and global government regulations.
  • NGO, consumer and environmental advocacy groups.
  • Self-funded, third-party audits.
  • Local resources for recycling offered versus sources being utilized by your brand.

Another important component of the analysis phase is simply looking at what competitors or similar brands are doing. First, identify any brands that are leading the move to more sustainable packaging within your specific industry or niche. Next, dissect their processes for pivoting to sustainability successfully. While the goal isn’t necessarily to replicate the same packaging, some best practices can be used as inspiration for executing your own packaging updates to fit your brand’s budget, philosophy and capabilities.

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Step 2: Define Sustainability for Your Brand

While many brands want to pivot toward sustainability, there is often confusion about what that looks like in practice. The core sustainability options to choose from are able to be recycled, sourced from recycled goods, able to be reused/repurposed and able to be composted. In some cases, there are overlaps. For instance, a brand that utilizes recycled kraft paper may wrap their products in materials that are simultaneously derived from recycled materials and capable of being recycled. However, others that need the durability and strength of virgin kraft paper for delicate products may choose wrapping that is only recyclable. Brands should try to merge packaging and marketing costs using value-added packaging like branded tote bags.

Step 3: Identify the Specific Problems With Your Current Retail Packaging

Once you’ve established where your packaging stands in the bigger picture based on both industry standards and global attitudes, it’s important to identify the specific issues that are keeping your brand behind the curve. Here are steps for identifying needed points of change within your packaging plan:

  • Identify what percentage of your current packaging roster is made from recycled materials.
  • Identify what percentage of your current packaging roster is made from reusable or compostable materials.
  • Identify the problematic materials within your packaging roster.
  • Confirm that every part of your current packaging is functional and necessary.
  • Build an “impact metric” for identifying the size of the current environmental footprint of your packaging from creation to end point.

Next, brands need to focus on scope when using these findings for action. While some brands might choose to focus on replacing all packaging materials, others may only choose to focus on ejecting high-level offenders like plastics. There is also the question of replacing all packaging versus choosing a mixed-use strategy.

Once current standards have been evaluated, the next step is to create benchmarks. For most brands, getting down to a zero-waste packaging cycle may not be feasible. Even brands that aren’t confident that they can reduce all waste can still make significant strides with small changes to everything from how they source packaging to how final packaging details are applied. For some brands, the goal could be to increase the use of recycled or recyclable materials by 10 to 25 percent.

Step 4: Implement a Sustainable Packaging Strategy

Once objectives have been solidified, it’s time to take on the process of actually making the transition to more sustainable retail packaging. A heavily collaborative endeavor, this phase calls on the input of product experts, product managers, logistics/supply chain experts, packaging specialists and cost accountants. This is where you’re bringing together production, packaging, shipping and consumer experience.

Best Practices for Moving to More Sustainable Packaging

When pivoting to more sustainable materials for retail packaging, it can be difficult to know where to start due to the wide variety of options available. Ultimately, each brand must balance its ambitions with the limitations presented by the products it sells. Factors like product weight, expiration dates, fragility, value or shape can make some eco-friendly materials untenable for some brands. Here’s a look at the best practices to remember when trying to reduce packaging waste by any percentage:

  • Optimize the use of renewable sources over finite/synthetic sources.
  • Prioritize the use of recycled materials over virgin materials for an end-to-end reuse cycle.
  • When virgin materials are used, try to source them from sustainable sources.
  • Source packaging materials created using clean production practices. This includes looking at the water and energy used to create an eco-friendly end product. It also includes evaluating risks associated with potentially toxic and hazardous materials that are used in the production of recycled or recyclable products.
  • When possible, reduce the amount of materials used to package each product. Conduct an analysis to compare how packaging volume varies with different options for packaging materials.
  • When possible, design packaging for reuse. With the availability of lighter, more durable materials that are also very economically feasible, this is a much more affordable option than many brands realize.
  • Design packaging for efficient transportation. The importance of designing boxes to be lighter and more streamlined to take up less room in cargo batches is often overlooked. However, this ultimately reduces fuel usage at every stage of transport. It also reduces shipping costs that brands can pass on to consumers to add value to the purchasing experience.

Of course, all of this leads to a single question that ultimately makes or breaks a brand’s attempt to successfully switch to sustainable packaging. Is this new packaging compatible with our product? To be compatible, packaging must showcase your product in a way that displays the usage and value of your product. It must also allow customers to access and remove the product easily. Packaging that is compatible with your product also provides the durability needed to protect your product. This means having the strength and resiliency to avoid tears, rips and dents during handling. If products are routinely being returned, discounted or removed from shelves due to damage stemming from easily compromised packaging, the wasted materials and costs could quickly undo all of the sustainable efforts a company has invested in.

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Where Your Plan for Sustainable Packaging Comes Full Circle: Messaging

When changing the appearance of your retail packaging, it’s important to let your customers get a glance at the story behind the change. In fact, this can be an important aspect of making the move to sustainability more effective. If your packaging will be taking a drastic turn from heavy plastics and filler materials to something more holistic and understated like kraft paper, make sure your consumers understand the intent behind it. It may also be necessary to use your branding channels to announce the change to ensure that your products can still be recognized. Lastly, it’s important for consumers to have instructions for how to play their role in the chain of sustainability. Items that are eligible for recycling or repurposing should be labeled.

Final Thoughts on How to Convert Your Retail Packaging to Meet Sustainability Standards

When coming to the table to create suitable solutions for retail packaging, brands ultimately must be open to everything. For some brands, this pivot can be done through simple material substitution. This means that they can keep the general size, dimensions and functionality of their existing packaging using eco-friendly substitutions. For other brands, the move to sustainable retail packaging will be a major departure from the existing look and form of their packaging. This will essentially be a rebranding exercise that updates materials, weight and shape for a complete restructuring of product housing.