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Ask a Sustainability Expert: How Do I Find the Most Eco-Friendly Packaging?

If you're a small brand (or curious consumer) trying to decide which kind of packaging is best for the planet, this will help.
sustainable packaging poly bag plastic

Even for fashion and beauty lovers who think sustainability is important, wading through all the sometimes-conflicting information about it can be tricky. To combat the confusion, we're asking scientists, researchers and other authorities to answer all your most pressing questions in our column Ask a Sustainability Expert.

Dear Fashionista: How do I identify the most eco-friendly packaging for retail and shipping? I run a small clothing brand and am trying to do right by the planet.

We all know that packaging — even though it protects clothes and adds distinct Christmas morning vibes to the experience of getting a fresh outfit — is horrible for the planet. In the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 380 billion plastic bags and wraps are consumed each year. Little of it is recycled. And felling a tree to make a single-use box or using tapes, stickers and glues that will outlive our great-grandchildren aren't much better.

Luckily, in conversations with multiple brands and packaging experts, what's clear is that 'sustainable' packaging is getting easier to find and source, and commonsense approaches available to companies of all sizes can be as impactful and sometimes even more effective that hyped-up innovations. There's an entry point for everyone.

Minimize packaging, but not too much

Stripping packaging down to its well-designed elements is an easy win for brands, and experts agree it's the best place to start. 

"Question every piece of your packaging to see if it is absolutely necessary," says Prashant Jagtap, founder of Trayak, a consultancy that offers tools for brands looking to reduce their environmental impacts. Several brands I spoke to advise stripping back extraneous components like multiple hang tags, small pieces of plastic, paper or metal (like the bits used to hold garments in place) and excessive tissue paper, then look at your overall packaging profile.

At Mara Hoffman, a womenswear brand with most of its business in wholesale, the company started its sustainable packaging journey by cutting back to one double-sided hangtag, eliminating tissue paper at the factory level (where garments are often folded with tissue in the middle), and streamlining the bulk packaging used by their factories in shipments to retailers. 

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"That made for smaller shipments, and we weren't generating excess waste," says Dana Davis, the company's VP of Sustainability.

If brands have the budget to redesign packaging, Jagtap says the next step is to reduce the weight and size of the overall package (known as "light-weighting") and try to move in the direction of having versatile packaging that can serve multiple purposes. 

"See if you can design a retail package that can serve as a shipping package," he advises. A growing number of sustainability-focused footwear companies, like Allbirds and Rothy's, have designed a single box for shipping and retail to avoid the box-within-a-box problem.

Finally, get packaging nice and lean, but stop short of increasing your damage rate, which is the percentage of products that break or tear during transport. 

"You don't want to damage your product, in which case you're wasting your packaging and your product," says Jagtap.

Apply 'life cycle thinking'

The next step is deciding what materials to use in packaging moving forward. Do you choose the corrugated cardboard box from sustainably managed forests or the backyard compostable bio-based plastic bag? There is a swirl of options, and none are perfect. But the experts insist that you don't need a PhD in materials science to green your packaging. You just have to be ready to accept tradeoffs. 

"There are many paths to becoming a more sustainable company, and not all are compatible with each other," writes Stephan Ango, co-founder of Lumi, a software platform and supply chain management tool that helps brands source more sustainable packaging materials.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the leading industry group on this subject, publishes guidelines and free resources on what counts as sustainable packaging. Brands can also turn to forest conservation group Canopy's EcoPaper Database, which lists paper companies that offer a high recycled content and Forest Stewardship Council-certified products. Running a life cycle analysis on packaging options can help brands visualize the impacts of different packaging choices without having to pilot them in the real world, and provides hard numbers to explain the materials used to investors and consumers.

sustainable mailer packaging eco-friendly

Recently, Thredup, the online thrift store, switched their kraft paper mailers back to recycled poly bags for small orders, after running a comparison between the two. 

"We found that the poly mailers require three and a half times less energy than it took to make our previous kraft mailers," says Madeline Aaronson, Thredup's Organic Growth Manager. They also calculated that five times as many poly mailers can fit into a shipping truck than the company's paper mailers, adding up to large emissions savings. 

"We know there are drawbacks to plastics, but we couldn't ignore the energy savings on poly bags," says Aaronson.

Let brand values guide you

Every packaging material has its drawbacks and advantages. Use company values to guide tough decisions. Is reducing overall carbon emissions your goal? Is it eliminating all single-use plastics? It is making sure every bit of packaging gets recycled? 

"Companies should make decisions that best match their mission, products and commitment to the longterm health of the planet," writes Lumi's Ango. (Lumi's website shows how brands like Reformation, Patagonia and Allbirds make their packaging decisions.)

Knickey, an organic cotton underwear line, is committed to being as plastic-free as they can be, for example. Its paper packaging reflects that ethos. 

"Our boxes are made from recycled content, printed with low-impact inks and sealed with paper tape [or] biodegradable adhesives certified to the Forest Stewardship Council," writes Cayla O'Connell Davis, CEO and Founder, via email.

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What's most important is "life cycle thinking," which means thinking through how to reduce the impact of manufacturing packaging materials and designing packaging that is either renewable, reusable or widely recyclable in curbside programs.

"The best immediate step that can be taken is to have high percentage recycled content in any of these packages," says Bridget Anderson, the New York Department of Sanitation's Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability. 

That can include rethinking components like hang tags, shoe inserts and any brand information or return instructions shipped with the package to include single-material recycled paper, in addition to eliminating small single-use plastic components (like the plastic that attaches hang tags to garments) that can't be recycled. Assessing inks, adhesives, tapes and stickers to make sure they're easy to recycle, or don't impede recyclability, is a good next step.

The plastic problem stumbles towards solutions

Even if the customer never sees them, almost all apparel is shipped out of factories in thin, flexible "poly bags," otherwise known as low-density polyethylene (LDPE), or plastic #4, which is in the same family as the notorious plastic grocery bag. According to Fashion for Good, a sustainable fashion accelerator, there are 180 billion poly bags produced annually for apparel products, and less than 15% of them are collected for recycling. Poly bags are one of the fashion industry's biggest barriers to sustainable packaging. And finding alternatives is bedeviling.

A widely circulated 2014 case study by Patagonia found that alternatives to poly bags, including kraft paper mailers, increased their damage rate too much to be viable. There are bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging options, but these innovations have come with tradeoffs for some brands. 

"We have gone through three different suppliers of biodegradable or home-compostable poly bags and are still struggling to find a good solution," says Noah COO Beau Wollens via email. The cassava starch-based bags they're currently piloting are tearing open during transport, he says.

Compostable plastic bags are also creating problems for American cities. Industrial composting isn't common and the bags often end up in the landfill or recycling bins where they can contaminate the plastic recycling stream, says Anderson, the New York Department of Sanitation representative. Two brands we spoke with are moving away from compostable bags. Likewise, oxo-degradable plastics, designed to break down when exposed to oxygen, water or air, aren't breaking down as advertised; the EU is considering a ban on them.

Most small sustainable brands consider these sustainable packaging's growing pains, and they're committed to keep trying alternatives to traditional plastic. 

"Ultimately, we are not satisfied. We do not want to be using a plastic," says Kathleen Talbot, Reformation's Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of Operations. The company is currently shifting from compostable to recycled poly mailers. "And a lot of brands would say something similar, especially for those working in apparel who feel a bit tethered to that poly bag." 

In the meantime, recycled and recyclable poly bags are getting easier to source (Thredup and Reformation both use them). And Fashion for Good launched a pilot program late last year to scale up poly bag recycling and to overcome technical challenges, like the fact that inks and adhesives on poly bags make them difficult to recycle at the moment.

There's also continued innovation around biodegradable and bio-based plastics. Reformation's new poly bags are made with an added polymer that allows the plastic to break down if it does end up in the garbage (also known as "breakdown plastic"). 

"If it does go to the landfill, you have that breakdown polymer, and it will behave very similarly to a compostable bag," says Talbot.

Mara Hoffman says they might have found the answer to the poly bag conundrum. Last month, the brand started switching to a paper-based glassine bag, which is recyclable and biodegradable. Like a poly bag, the glassine bag is see-through, which is important for brands shipping and organizing their merchandise. 

"We're really excited about it," says Davis. "This feels like a long-term solution for us."

Reusable is the wave of the future

A potential next frontier is packaging that can be reused dozens of times or more and is collected and shipped out again by the retailer. 

"Rather than having a cardboard box or a plastic bag, which is sent once and then disposed of, these can be sent back and used over and over again," says Fashion for Good's Ashley Holding, a sustainable packaging expert. 

Some exciting examples: U.S.-based Returnity creates zippable cloth bags and containers that can be shipped back with a return label. Other examples include Repack, which uses a plastic-based reusable bag that can be folded down to letter size and shipped back to retailers. And Toad & Co started using reusable packaging made by Limeloop, a California-based startup, in 2018.

To get started now, brands can design their existing packaging or components to have multiple lives. Knickey's shipping boxes are reusable for their underwear recycling program. Mara Hoffman ships its swimsuits in compostable poly bags that zip up, so they can be reused. 

"If the customer is traveling, she can put her swimsuit in it or her lotions," says Davis. 

It's worth keeping in mind, though, that if consumers are just tossing these reusable items anyway, the added weight and durability might come with higher environmental impacts.

Communicate your packaging journey

Sustainable packaging is complicated and shoppers have strong opinions on the subject. It helps to communicate packaging decisions to customers and explain how sustainability is driving the switch. 

"We look at it as a bigger education opportunity for our whole community when it comes to the types of packaging that they're receiving every day," says Thredup's Aaronson. The company uses Instagram stories and highlights to explain some of their packaging decisions to their half a million followers.

Educating consumers about how to properly recycle packaging is important, too. Brands should give clear, explicit instructions on how to recycle paper and plastic mailers.

It's also a good idea to revisit packaging on a regular basis, as the space is fast-evolving. According to a survey by Crunchbase, a website that tracks venture funding, the top 20 sustainable packaging startups have raised a record-breaking $850 million in the last three years, meaning more innovations are coming. And just because a certain solution doesn't exist today doesn't mean it won't in the near future. 

"You want to stay idealistic," says Reformation's Talbot, "and you want to keep pushing for what's better and what's really changing the future of packaging."

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