How to Offer Sustainable Packaging for Your Online Store

Make the jump to sustainable packaging and eco-friendly shipping practices.

Every time you ship a product the packaging either gets thrown in the landfill or recycling bin. This means that your business creates waste on a regular basis, and it's even possible that those recyclable materials don't end up getting recycled or reused. Luckily, switching to sustainable packaging could lead to advantages for both you and your customers, not to mention a strong environmental impact.

In this article, you'll learn about sustainable packaging for your ecommerce business, along with tips on how to make the transition, its benefits, and the strategies you can follow to lessen the shock that often comes with such a massive change.

What's Sustainable Packaging?

Sustainable packaging is eco-friendly material used for shipping and storing goods. The materials are meant to either reduce the earth's depletion of unnatural resources or minimize your contribution to that depletion.

That's the simplest definition of sustainable packaging, but we can go into greater depth with some criteria from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, an organization that strives to switch all manufacturing and ecommerce shipping to eco-friendly shipping practices.

That organization states that the following criteria are required to consider a custom packaging item sustainable:

  • The packaging is made to optimize energy and materials.
  • The packaging remains useful and eco-friendly throughout its entire lifecycle.
  • It's manufactured using the cleanest of technologies available and the best practices known for maintaining sustainability.
  • The packaging is made using recycled or renewable materials.
  • The packaging meets requirements for standard market costs and performance. In short, it should still be affordable and functional.
  • It gets recovered and used in closed-loop reusable and recycling cycles.
  • The packaging materials get manufactured, shipped, and recycled using renewable energy options.

Not all of these criteria are met just because you partner with raw materials suppliers that claim they're eco-friendly. And it's not required for you to check all of these boxes to at least make an effort for sustainable packaging. However, this is a wonderful start to a mission of earth-friendly shipping practices, and you can work your way to meeting all criteria as you adapt to the new packaging and methods.

Benefits of Offering Sustainable Packaging

Sustainable shipping and eco-friendly packaging offer a wide range of benefits for online retailers, shippers, and even the customers who receive those packages.

We know it's often difficult to justify an investment for sustainable packaging, but these benefits could sway your opinion and make it rather profitable for your business.

  • It saves your company money in the long run – Sustainable packaging often allows you to consolidate storage due to lighter and smaller packaging, along with fewer materials being used. You also save on shipping costs since you're focusing on smaller packages, which cost less to ship. Finally, sustainable shipping minimizes needless packaging inserts, once again cutting down your costs.
  • You waste far fewer emissions – Large-scale manufacturers contribute quite a bit to global carbon emissions. Decreasing your emissions not only shows that your company contributes to helping the planet, but others are bound to appreciate that and make the switch to your brand.
  • Customers make purchasing decisions based on sustainability – Helping the earth is not just a trend that'll come and go. People actively make their purchasing decisions based on how companies help the environment. So, you can market your use of sustainable packaging materials and methods to bring in more customers.
  • Many materials used are biodegradable – Many sustainable packaging items either decompose or get recycled into different materials. Because of this, your customers can repurpose or recycle the packaging for their own benefit or to remove much of the guilt that comes with throwing out so much trash. Your company can also benefit from this by recycling leftover or returned packaging to either sell elsewhere or reuse for your own company.
  • The future is green – Although it's not always a good idea to follow the crowd, sustainable packaging seems to be the new trend. Much like how free shipping was once seen as an expensive, tedious endeavor, that mentality has changed. You stand to benefit from this trend by adopting early, as opposed to holding out until you're almost forced into using sustainable packaging due to economical reasons. It may be too late at that point.

How to Transition to Sustainable Packaging for Your Online Store

Shifting from regular shipping materials to sustainable packaging seems intimidating, and potentially expensive. However, it doesn't have to remain that way, especially with a little guidance on how to make the transition as smooth as possible. Read below for the best steps and tips for switching to green shipping materials.

1. Take It Slow

It's easy to get excited about changing to sustainable shipping practices, especially if you've found that you've been working with sub-par packaging materials in the past and you've found that customers are clamoring for a change.

However, revamping your entire process as quickly as possible could cause more problems and actually make you less sustainable. This usually occurs when a company makes a drastic change and sees rapid pricing increases that aren't sustainable in the short term. You may also find that a major shift in the way you ship products causes unnecessary expenses or confusion within your supply chain.

Therefore, we recommend changing little parts of your shipping process to get used to the new introductions. This way, you don't overwhelm your team and cause problems for your customers.

Start with one modification to your shipping supplies, like choosing a smaller, recyclable box for a portion of your shipments. If that goes well, you can move onto sustainable tape, packaging inserts, and shipping partners.

2. Test Out Samples Prior to Committing

Not all sustainable packaging options are made the same. First of all, you want to ensure that the company you partner with provides actual eco-friendly packaging. After that, it's essential to understand if those shipping materials work for your business.

For this reason, we suggest ordering samples to manage quality control, just like you would with your products. After finding an eco-friendly packaging supplier, ask if they provide samples for free. If not, make a small order to test the packaging materials yourself.

Keep an eye on the following areas to ensure you maintain the overall quality and effectiveness of your previous packaging:

  • Size – Are your boxes and mailers big enough to store your products but small and compact to the point where they offer a sustainable advantage?
  • Weight – Is the new weight of your shipping materials an advantage compared to what you previously used? Decreasing the shipping weight is usually part of the sustainability mission, so that's what you're looking for. This also saves on shipping fees.
  • Strength – Are the new boxes and mailers durable enough to protect your shipments and make sure that customers don't come back to you with broken items?
  • Compatibility with your products – Take your products and place them inside the packaging to see if they fit, won't bounce around too much, and still showcase your products in a desirable way.

3. Change Your Pricing to Accommodate

Opting for more eco-friendly packaging could increase your pricing per shipment. On the other hand, you may find that you actually save money with smaller, lighter packages and fewer inserts. Regardless of the change of cost, you must factor the differences into your pricing.

Your customers would definitely enjoy the idea of slightly cheaper prices due to a new focus on sustainable packaging.

If your costs go up, it's also important to loop this into your overall pricing or decide to eat the cost yourself. If you do plan on increasing prices, it's a good idea to let your customers know why they're paying more. There's a chance that many people will applaud you for the move and accept a slight price increase.

4. Order Small Batches

Similar to the first step of taking it slow, ordering in small batches helps you progressively transition to a more sustainable shipping process. The first step from before mentions choosing one or two areas to improve in terms of sustainable materials. This step encourages you to order in smaller batches so as to not overwhelm your supply chain and to get a feel for the effectiveness of your new shipping materials and processes.

This is also a wonderful way to compare how customers respond to the new packaging, since you're still utilizing the older packaging in some areas of your business.

5. Make an Announcement to Your Customers

The final step in your transition to sustainable shipping materials and practices is to make an announcement to your customers, and to the industry in which you compete. Everything from social media posts to email newsletters, and press releases to banners on your website make for quality communications about your switch to sustainable shipping practices.

This communication process functions as a way to educate your customers about the benefits of eco-friendly shipping materials. It also notifies people about your brand's choices, which could cause customers to recommend your company over the competition. Finally, it's possible you have to clarify the reasoning for price jumps. Customers may find it less jarring to see a price increase if they're notified and if it's for a good cause.

Barriers to Your Sustainable Packaging Goal

Considering sustainable shipping practices and products makes for an excellent idea. But it's important to realize the roadblocks that may come along as you plan for making your packaging more eco-friendly. This way, you're able to plan for these problems and either start slower or avoid certain companies or situations that may minimize the effectiveness of your efforts.

Overall, you should think about the following barriers to eco-friendly shipping and packaging:

  • Domestic laws – Many governments are slow to adopt eco-friendly laws, so you may find that some countries don't have regulations or incentives for suppliers to offer sustainable packaging. Because of this, entire industries of suppliers might not have any reason to provide sustainable packaging. If that's the case, you may have to locate a niche packaging supplier or look outside of your locale if you really want to offer packaging that's better for the environment.
  • Budget restraints – Eco-friendly packaging often costs more than regular packaging. That's usually not the case when it becomes mainstream in a region or industry, but sometimes you may find that your suppliers simply aren't able to provide sustainable packaging at a reasonable price.
  • Differing attitudes from shipping companies – There's no standardized way to ship products. That can be said for most countries, and especially for international shipping. Therefore, you may find that some packaging suppliers and shipping companies don't see sustainable packaging as appealing. Having said that, you could also locate companies with a strong mission towards the shift to sustainable packaging. Don't get frustrated just because some companies make it sound like a huge hassle.
  • The lack of expertise – Sustainable packaging is still new. Because of that, there are few experts employed by shipping companies. They may want to make the shift to sustainable packaging but lack the expertise needed.

Strategies for Using Eco-friendly Packaging

Saying you'll make a switch to sustainable packaging is one thing, but it's essential to learn about the types of eco-friendly packaging and shipping options so that you know which ones to choose. For example, there are several types of sustainable shipping boxes, so you would most likely select one instead of trying them all.

This brings up the question of your sustainable packing strategy. Do you know the options available to you?

In this section, we'll talk about the various types of sustainable shipping items and guide you through the options to establish a solid eco-friendly strategy.

Here are some strategies to consider:

Opt for Green-oriented Shippers, Manufacturers, and Suppliers

Your strategy starts by partnering with a manufacturer or supplier that prioritizes sustainable packaging. There's a good chance most of your packaging materials come from a third-party supplier or your shipping partner. In that case, you have full control over which partners you consider. The first action should involve contacting your current suppliers and manufacturers to see if they offer more environmentally conscious packaging options.

If not, talk to them about how you're planning on making a switch to a sustainable shipping strategy. They may take this into consideration and make a change for you. If not, look into other suppliers and manufacturers who forecast demand properly so as not to minimize waste. You can also talk to them about consolidating shipments so that you don't use as many packaging materials. The most important part, however, involves finding suppliers that have the infrastructure and materials required to reduce your carbon footprint.

Cut Down the Number of Packaging Materials

When sent to your company, and in turn shipped to your customers, items are bundled, wrapped, boxed, and taped to ensure they get to the end location in one piece.

However, some of these materials are often unnecessary. Again, work with suppliers that focus on forecasting the exact amount of demand so that they eliminate any waste along the way. You can also work to remove extra items like multiple box inserts, too much tape, and oversized or thick boxes. It's also not a bad idea to see if you can figure out a way to put more products into each shipment.

Ship Products in Smaller Packages

You may think that your products already ship in the smallest container possible, but that's usually not the case. Boxes and mailers are typically made to provide extra room within the shipping compartment. This way, your company has the opportunity to include inserts and packaging materials like bubble wrap, packing peanuts, or paper.

This strategy asks you to analyze the final shipping product before it goes out to customers. Open these boxes and see how much room is left over. In addition, think about how large the box or mailer is compared to the product itself. Is most of the room within the box taken up by protective bubble wrap or tissue paper? Are your products really that fragile that this type of cushioning is necessary?

It's not uncommon to see perfectly durable products get seal-wrapped within its already protective box, then placed into bubble wrap, then into a box. There's no reason for that, considering most products aren't classified as fragile items and can withstand a good amount of movement during transit. Not to mention, a smaller box serves a similar purpose as bubble wrap, where you're trying to eliminate the contents from sliding around inside the box.

Consider Biodegradable Alternatives to Plastic

When thinking about your desired sustainable packaging type, look into biodegradable or compostable plastic alternatives. These allow for your customers to send their packaging to a compost site or put the items in their own compost piles.

You often need to educate your customers on how to properly dispose of these types of boxes, but we'll cover that below.

Overall, compostable and biodegradable packaging breaks down in the dirt within around three months.

Check Out Plantable Packaging

A plantable packaging item means that your customer can take a paper insert or a piece of their shipping box and plant it in water or soil to grow a new plant.

This strategy is not only resourceful but fun for your customers. There is some extra work involved, considering you must print some quick instructions and educational information on the packaging, but overall that makes for a much more eco-friendly experience.

We also like plantable packaging for smaller items that usually come in plastic or paper bags or containers. Think jewelry, cosmetics, and small toys.

Look Into Edible Packaging, Especially When Selling Food and Drink

Edible packaging isn't nearly as popular as the plant-based or compostable options, but it's a worthy packaging solution for those companies already shipping food-based products. In short, the packaging is safe to eat and can often be thrown into a recipe, like a seasoning, cracker, or broth base.

Consider Plant-based Packaging Items

Similar to biodegradable packaging, a plant-based option takes food waste like mushrooms and corn and kelp to manufacture durable boxes and other packaging containers, all of which can then be either recycled or composted.

Plant-based packaging continues its surge in popularity, but it's worth noting that some plant-based materials aren't quite as sturdy as others. If you ship heavier items, you may want to look into the more durable plant-based packaging materials, usually made from mushroom packaging or cornstarch.

Again, make sure you order and test a few batches to see how the packaging holds up when sent from your warehouse to the customer's door.

Look Into Recycled Materials for Packaging

Recyclable is one thing, but you also need to think about where the materials came from in the first place.

Several materials are commonly recycled and used in packaging. Some of them include corrugated paperboard cardboard boxes and recyclable plastics. These items are recycled and turned into compostable mailers or boxes, making for a suitable option when looking to extend the lifespan of the materials used.

Having said that, recycled materials tend to lose their effectiveness after being recycled a few times. That removes them from the closed-loop recycling system, so we often find that compostable and plant-based packaging has a stronger effect on the environment – since you can keep recycling and reusing those.

Educate Your Customers on Sustainability

The final strategy requires communications with your customers. It's a wonderful idea to start sending out products in sustainable packaging, but what if your customers have no idea how to recycle or reuse the packaging?

Take plantable packaging, for instance. Let's say your paper inserts are biodegradable with flower seeds embedded in the paper. The average person may look at the paper and think that it's just like any other insert. Your job is to include a bit of marketing text on the paper to demonstrate how it can be used for something else.

The educational materials serve two purposes: helping the world by getting more people to reuse or recycle the materials, and boosting your brand image by explaining to people that you've committed to a more sustainable packaging strategy.

Get Started on Your Sustainable Shipping and Packaging Journey

As a summary, follow these steps to get a headstart on embracing sustainable packaging, making a difference in the world, and appealing to eco-conscience customers:

  1. Understand the benefits of offering sustainable packaging, from the money-saving advantages to the environmental benefits.
  2. Avoid making the transition too quickly.
  3. Test out packaging samples prior to committing to a supplier.
  4. Change your product pricing to allow for more sustainable packaging.
  5. Order small batches of sustainable shipping items so as not to overwhelm your workers.
  6. Announce the changes to your customers. This helps educate them and bring in more customers who align with your cause.
  7. Understand the barriers to using sustainable packages.
  8. Look into eco-friendly shippers and manufacturers.
  9. Remove unnecessary packaging materials.
  10. Ship in smaller packages.
  11. Think about using biodegradable or compostable packaging materials.
  12. Check out plantable packaging materials.
  13. Consider edible packaging, but make sure it's strong enough to hold and protect your products.
  14. Think about starting with recycled materials, but remember this often isn't as eco-friendly as some of the other options.
  15. Continue educating your customers on sustainability and how they can reuse your packaging when it gets to their door.

Let us know in the comment section below if you have any questions about the transition to sustainable packaging and making your entire shipping process more eco-friendly. Also share your thoughts if you've already started your journey.

Featured image via Depositphotos

Joe Warnimont

Joe Warnimont is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on eCommerce tools, WordPress, and social media. When not fishing or practicing yoga, he's collecting stamps at national parks (even though that's mainly for children). Check out Joe's portfolio to contact him and view past work.