How to Communicate Sustainability Through Packaging

Packaging is one of the most visible and pervasive parts of your organization's identity. Used correctly, it can help your company tell a stronger sustainability story to connect with the growing number of eco-conscious consumers.

Today's consumers are increasingly aware about the sustainability efforts of the brands they purchase from, and are actively looking to support brands that support the environment. Millennials, the largest consumer group in the United States, are driving the trend. They are more likely than Baby Boomers to change shopping habits based on environmental impact and are willing to pay for products that contain environmentally friendly or sustainable ingredients.

2017 study of 20,000 adults from 5 countries by Unilever found 33 percent of consumers choose to buy from brands they believe are doing environmental good. One of the most eye-opening aspects of the study is that there is an estimated €966 billion (over $1 trillion USD) opportunity for brands that make sustainability credentials clear.

How you communicate sustainability through packaging is a critical question to ask at the earliest stages of the packaging design process. Packaging is the first impression customers have of your brand when they see your product, and transparency about sustainability matters. The Fashion Revolution 2018 Consumer Survey Report of 5,000 people in 5 EU countries found 72 percent of consumers said it is important for clothing, shoes and accessories brands to communicate about their sustainability practices on packaging.

Certain qualities in packaging can convey sustainable efforts and make you stand out. From primary packaging that touches the product, to secondary packaging surrounding the product, to tertiary packaging that is delivered to retailers, here are some examples of how to communicate sustainability through packaging.

Primary Packaging

Primary packaging is the packaging that touches the product. Examples include beverage bottles and food containers, shoe boxes, medicine containers and packaging for office supplies. According to research firm Daymon Worldwide (a global retail market data research analysis firm) to communicate sustainability, primary packaging should be:

  • Minimal: Made from recycled content and free of excess layers and waste
  • Appealing: A contemporary style using natural colors with a matte, non-glossy finish
  • Informative: Conveying sustainable ingredients, certification and recyclability
  • Versatile: Reusable, resealable or multi-use
  • Convenient: Easy to open, store and use, and takes up minimal storage space
  • Good for the environment: Has beneficial end-of-life qualities, such as being recyclable, refillable or reusable

Some ways to convey these qualities on primary packaging include:

  • Use colours inspired by nature's palate, such as browns, greens and pale blues
  • Add recognizable sustainability symbols, like the recycling logo or USDA Organic sign
  • Favour elegant, minimalist aesthetics
  • Use natural packaging textures, like cartonboard and corrugated materials
  • Feature photos and visuals that convey sustainability

Primary packaging is more than the first impression – it's also the last impression a consumer has with your product. Featuring sustainable qualities that are found inside the packaging and within the package strengthens the environmental narrative for your brand.


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Secondary Packaging

Secondary packaging is packaging included with the product but that doesn't touch the product. Some examples include a box holding several products or padding surrounding a box. Secondary packaging details can also make an impact on sustainability-minded consumers. Primary packaging that is considered sustainable will lose its meaning when it is surrounded by additions that do not convey sustainability.

Walmart uses a sustainable packaging playbook with best practices for sustainable packaging. For its corrugated boards, which are used most often for ecommerce shipping boxes that hold products, Walmart stipulates that these secondary packaging systems:

  • Are a natural colour
  • Are made from certified responsibly sourced fibre and/or recycled fibre
  • Contain no coatings or clay coatings
  • Have graphics that are directly printed on the corrugated board, not added with foils or metalized
  • Contain minimal adhesives and tape
  • Feature shipping labels that are paper or direct printed
  • Include padding that is from tree-based fibre options or that is PE film pillows and cushioning

Walmart is one of the most powerful retailers in the world, and it is setting sustainable packaging standards. With global retail ecommerce sales projected to increase from $3.4 trillion in 2019 to $4.1 trillion in 2020, according to eMarketer, secondary packaging surrounding the actual product will play an important role in how consumers view brands' sustainability.

Tertiary/Transport Packaging

Tertiary packaging, also known as transport packaging, is packaging that bundles items together during shipment. It's the packaging retailers encounter before they sell individual products to consumers.

Sustainable transport packaging considerations are important because retailers who want to be viewed as sustainable brands to their consumers will place importance on sustainability at all packaging levels. A 2018 report by Stanford Social Innovation Review found 90 percent of CEOs state sustainability is important to their company's success. Consumers are driving the demand for sustainability, which is touching all parts of business operations, including at the supply chain level.

Similarly to translating sustainability in primary packaging, Packaging Digest suggests ways to do so with tertiary packaging:

  • Display recycling logos
  • Include messaging about how to maximize end of life use for packaging
  • Design tertiary packaging from single materials to make it easier to recycle
  • Minimize the product-to-package ratio to reduce packaging waste
  • Avoid glues and laminations, which can negatively impact recyclability
  • Cleary mark packaging component materials

Tertiary packaging is the first and last impression a retailer has of their inventory provider, and may also make an impression on consumers who order products online. From the consumer’s perspective, made-to-fit packaging is more environmentally friendly since it reduces the amount of packaging materials needed to ship their purchases. In one study, 77 percent of consumers said that the packaging a company uses for e-commerce shipments was viewed as being reflective of its environmental values. By eliminating unnecessary packaging, right-sizing can help brands tell a better “sustainability story” that resonates with today’s eco-conscious consumer.

Work With the Global Leader in Sustainable Packaging

Your packaging is a reflection of your brand. If you value sustainability and want to show that to your customers, communicate sustainability in packaging through materials, graphics and end-of-use functions. Billerud can help at every level.

From sourcing and procurement of sustainable packaging materials to design, prototyping and packaging testing, we make the complex world of sustainable packaging simple. Billerud is also a leading provider of sustainable packaging materials, including Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified materials. FSC materials from Billerud feature FSC logos, which help to strengthen the sustainability narrative for those who receive our packaging materials.

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