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How to Reduce Your Brand’s Environmental Footprint with Packaging

You might also save some money in the process.



How to Reduce Your Brand’s Environmental Footprint with Packaging

CONSUMERS HAVE EXPRESSED how important environmental sustainability is to their purchasing decisions, and that has only increased in recent years. That’s why brands should consider the environment when designing their packaging.

After all, the pollution of the earth is a serious issue and businesses know it’s important to do their part to lessen their environmental footprints. But not every company understands the dynamics of designing packaging that leaves a smaller footprint on the environment, reduces product waste and encourages more socially responsible consumer behavior.

Jessica Wells, marketing manager for Phoenix-based Morgan Chaney LLC, a custom packaging company that specializes in branded packaging for retail and restaurants, recommends businesses partner with a custom packaging supplier that can help guide them in the right decision towards eco-friendly packaging design and materials. “When designing packaging, you want to focus on optimizing your design to use less raw material, opting to use recycled materials in the manufacturing of your design whenever possible, and ensuring that your end-product is either recyclable or reusable,” she says.

Aroma Box utilized fully recyclable custom mailing boxes with custom cardboard inserts to hold products in place.

Aroma Box utilized fully recyclable custom mailing boxes with custom cardboard inserts to hold products in place.

For instance, Wells helped a brand with its e-commerce packaging, which has the potential to create unnecessary waste due to the larger boxes and interior cushion materials that are sometimes needed. However, under Morgan Chaney’s guidance, the brand created fully recyclable custom mailing boxes with custom cardboard inserts to hold products in place and eliminate the need for plastic materials.


“Many cardboard and paperboard boxes are made with up to 100% recycled materials, and there are many manufacturing options in the USA, so you don’t have to ship the packaging overseas,” Wells says. “One of our customers chose to use fully recyclable custom-ink-printed cardboard mailing boxes with custom cardboard inserts, and their products are packaged in glass bottles that are recyclable as well. The inks used to print these boxes are water-based and environmentally friendly.”

Elaine Palutsis, senior designer for VSA Partners, a Chicago-based hybrid design and brand experience firm, understands today’s consumers expect brands to do more than just sell products; they expect them to be socially conscious and ethically aware.

“From a business perspective, sustainably designed packaging is a tangible demonstration of a company’s commitment and responsibility towards their own sustainability goals,” she says.

“From an ethical perspective, any packaging that is designed to be reused or fully recycled and does not end up in a landfill decreases the stress on our environment.” She suggests designing with zero to minimal waste in mind by considering how the packaging will be reused or recycled.

“This means eliminating the use of plastic, which isn’t always easily recyclable, and replacing it with more sustainable alternatives such as paper and paperboard that is certified to be created from sustainably forested materials,” Palutsis says. “Additionally, take a creative approach to the design of your packaging by considering easy design changes that could streamline your material use or make it easier for the consumer to use it again.”

The 2020 Sappi North America holiday kit is an excellent example of packaging that has been designed with zero waste in mind. “The kit is a collection of cards and gift card holders housed in a 3D carrier,” Palutsis says. “Once the cards are removed, the carrier is then folded into a reversible gift box by the consumer. The kit was designed with responsibly sourced materials and recyclable specialty techniques, which means that not only did we extend the lifecycle of the package, but it avoids ending up in a landfill.”

Limiting Carbon Footprint

Eric Rhyner, vice president of operations at SML Group, which works with brands across the globe to help minimize their environmental impacts and carbon footprints, including through strategic and eco-friendly packaging, says that as an industry, everyone needs to do their part to limit the carbon footprint of the packaging we produce.

One way to do this is by right-sizing and lightweighting a package to be as small and as thin as possible to perform the task.

 Carrier packaging can be constructed from a flat box. Photo provided by VSA Partners

Carrier packaging can be constructed from a flat box. Photo provided by VSA Partners

For instance, the SML Group recently worked with a major intimate apparel supplier to identify the correct material that it should be using for its men’s underwear packaging. “We engaged with them in a lightweighting exercise, which is the process of identifying the lightest and thinnest paperboard necessary to meet their distributions and merchandising needs,” Rhyner says. “With this, we selected several materials that were then tested through simulated transit testing and mock merchandising.

After the testing was complete and the results were analyzed, we determined that their packaging could be reduced in thickness by 12%, ultimately allowing them to not only reduce the carbon footprint but save money on their packaging.”

Encourage Socially Responsible Behavior

Packaging can play a major role in educating a consumer at the point of purchase because it can communicate the brand’s commitment to the environment. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, they are going to be looking for products that reflect their values and will be expecting brands to help inform them.

Therefore, companies that take a strong approach to promoting recycling, reusing and reducing waste will attract more customers who want to see positive changes in the world. “A large over-engineered package will be immediately perceived as excessive, while minimal packaging that has callouts and icons showing its recycled content and sustainability logos for the packaging itself and the product will be the best way to show your customer base that you’re committed to fighting global climate change,” Rhyner says.

Palutsis has seen plenty of brands be very up-front with their sustainability and recycling messaging by putting that content right on the packaging. “This transparency is wonderful because when consumers see brands they love acting responsibly they are then motivated to act responsibly,” she says.

In recent years, Wells has noticed an increase in design that promotes environmentally friendly consumerism, especially using fully recyclable and/or reusable packaging. “One way you can promote socially responsible consumer behavior is to ensure that the recycling information and instructions are printed on your packaging to remind your customers,” she says. “Make recycling advocation part of your overall brand culture and marketing plans.”

Remember, sustainable packaging is no longer a “nice-to-have” — it’s a necessity.


  1. Consider plant-based materials such as paper: Paper is biodegradable in almost any situation. It is also usually easily recyclable.
  2. Encourage recycling: You can persuade customers to recycle by making sure the recycle symbol is printed somewhere on the packaging, or custom print a message that says, “recycle me!” onto the packaging.
  3. Research sustainability claims: Just because a material technically can be recycled or is biodegradable doesn’t mean that those end-of-life options are easily accessible or even known to a typical consumer. Some bio-degradable plastics need industrial composting conditions to decompose. Without proper education and easy accessibility to these types of composting facilities, shoppers might end up guiding spent packaging to the least desirable end-of-life scenarios.
  4. Take out what’s not necessary: The first commandment of recycling is to “reduce.” Reduce your use of materials and unnecessary features in your designs to reduce overall waste and lessen your environmental impact, but remember that lightweighting a package doesn’t mean that you can’t use other package design tools such as graphics to spark your packaged products’ shelf appeal.

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