In recent years, we’ve seen sustainability shift from a long-term corporate objective to a critical company policy. Brands now realise that their environmental approach has a massive impact on customer relationships and their bottom line.

As shoppers push companies to improve their eco-credentials, product packaging seems a logical place for innovation. But it’s still an emerging market – which means there’s no simple solution for creating greener alternatives with the same design and production quality as traditional materials. 

Rather than waiting for the perfect product, however, there are incremental steps that CPG brands can take to make packaging more sustainable. And these steps are enough to show customers that environmental friendliness is an important and valued issue.

Capturing the ‘green pound’

Sustainability isn’t just a moral objective; it makes commercial sense. Half of all shoppers are influenced by a brand’s eco-credentials, according to YouGov/Hearts & Science research, and 36% have foregone buying certain food and drinks because they don’t think the brands are green enough.

When it comes to choosing good brands from bad ones, the packaging is a major deciding factor. A survey released by Deloitte earlier this year revealed that 61% of consumers have tried to limit the amount of single-use plastic they’ve purchased over the past 12 months. Plastic reduction is the most common way in which people are trying to become more sustainable.

And consumer attempts to buy fewer single-use plastic products are being supported at a national level by many governments, who’ve created eco-friendly policies such as banning single-use plastic carrier bags. Some have taken their legislation even further: Mexico City has banned single-use plastics altogether, for example.

What are the major challenges with sustainable packaging? 

Switching to more sustainable packaging options sounds like a no-brainer for brands. But, as with everything, it’s not that simple. And pioneers in this area have encountered several challenges along the way:

  • Product quality – the structural integrity of the packaging is often harder to achieve with recyclable or sustainable materials. The switch from plastic to paper straws is a good example of this. This is because the materials used to make packaging more durable mean it cannot be fully recycled – such as the plastic film added to cardboard to make it waterproof.
  • Unit cost – sustainable packaging isn’t as cheap to produce as standard packaging. Materials are more difficult to source, and production volumes may be smaller compared to the mass manufacturing of traditional packaging materials.
  • Manufacturing processes – while the materials themselves are more sustainable than traditional packaging, the process of manufacturing product bottles, boxes, pots and packets needs to be eco-friendlier too, and this isn’t always the case. For example, water and energy consumption during production needs to be lower than traditional manufacturing, and the carbon footprint of getting materials to brands from the factory needs to be factored in as well.
  • Design and content – changing packaging materials can often impact design and printing, with colours appearing differently on new materials. Ink ingredients can also affect packaging end-of-life, as they may not be suitable for recycling or repulping.

How can we make packaging more environmentally friendly? 

Given the widespread challenges associated with eco-friendly packaging, many brands may be tempted to wait until the perfect solution has been developed. But consumers are forgiving; all they want to see is that brands are trying to make incremental improvements, and that means seeking progress in sustainable packaging, rather than perfection. 


CPG brands are already making bigger commitments to their environmental credentials. A recent McKinsey study showed that 60% of companies are striving towards more recyclable content in their packaging. Others are focussed on reducing its weight. And there are further ways to take eco-friendly action. For example:

  • Reduce unnecessary packaging – how many online orders come in layers and layers of unnecessary plastic and cardboard? While there are packaging regulations in place for consumer safety, many brands could work harder to streamline the amount of packaging per purchase while maintaining industry standards.
  • Make sure the packaging fits the product – another common bugbear is receiving a modestly sized item in a huge box. The cardboard can be recycled, but it has still involved more materials than were necessary, and using larger boxes means fewer items can be carried by couriers per delivery, increasing carbon footprints.
  • Find opportunities to refill and repurpose – many brands are looking at more sustainable ways to meet the needs of regular customers, such as promoting product refill sachets that use substantially less packaging. This is also a smart way to introduce customer subscription services, creating a continuous revenue stream.

    Read more: are subscription boxes the future of customer loyalty?

    Other brands are finding innovative ways to repurpose their packaging; for example, Driftaway Coffee uses 100% compostable soil-to-soil packets for its mailers.
  • Encourage consumers to recycle where possible – there’s a surprising lack of knowledge around what materials can be recycled and what can’t. Including clear logos and guidance on front-of-pack labelling will give consumers the confidence to recycle packaging where appropriate, rather than erring on the side of caution and throwing everything in the bin.
  • Make packaging multi-national – many brands increase their carbon footprint when they expand internationally by producing different packaging for each market. While there needs to be an element of localisation to align with local compliance and consumer needs, optimising design and content can make one set of packaging relevant for multiple regions – for example, countries that share a common language.
  • Support closed loop recycling – rather than relying on downcycling, in which recyclable materials are turned into lower-grade products, brands can explore a closed loop recycling system in which product packaging is collected and repurposed like-for-like. Many of the world’s largest brands including Coca-Cola, Danone, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever have already invested millions of dollars into closed loop technology.

Progress is the better option 

Sometimes brands are afraid to try something different for fear of being criticised for not going far enough. But with appetite for eco-friendly practices at an all-time high, the worst they can do in the consumer’s eyes is sit tight and do nothing.

Packaging innovation is constant, so hopefully one day we will get to the point where ecommerce is supported by a completely sustainable packaging infrastructure. But until then, the better option is progress – and there are multiple options available to brands who want to strive for a greener approach. 

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