How Packaging Helps Meet the Demand for Sustainable, Ethical Fashion

According to the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study, the apparel and footwear industries generate between 5% and 10% of global pollution impacts.

The European Environmental Agency has ranked clothing, textiles and footwear fourth in the list of industries by impact on the environment. Clearly, there is room for improvement in the apparel industry—especially in the overlooked area of packaging.

From how efficiently a garment is packaged to the very composition of the packaging itself, there exist many untapped opportunities for apparel companies to reduce costs and reduce their impact on the environment and the humans living in it. Too much air left in oversized shipping boxes, for example, can take up more room in a shipping container than needed, translating to extra shipping costs and greater expenditure of natural resources used in transportation. Alternatively, if the boxes themselves are not sound, they can break down during shipping or storage, resulting in additional boxes being needed for outbound shipping and challenging the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra of sustainability.

These expenditures and opportunity costs of packaging, which can drain razor-thin profit margins while also adding to the fashion industry’s already significant impact on the environment, are not generally topics of great discussion for apparel companies; but for brands that challenge conventional packaging, the rewards can be significant. How can packaging help apparel companies meet the growing demand for sustainable, ethical fashion? We’re glad you asked.

Packaging Helps Apparel Companies Tell a Better Sustainability Story

Considering the growing eco-consciousness among consumers, it’s not surprising that apparel companies around the globe are working to improve their resource efficiency and reduce their impact on the environment. H&M and Zara, for example, joined 33 other global fashion companies in a pledge to increase their clothing recycling by 2020. Some clothing brands, such as California-based Reformation, have even gone as far as to publish water and emissions quantities on product web pages to communicate sustainability to customers who are increasingly aware about the impacts their purchases have on the environment. However, there is still a giant missed opportunity for apparel companies to tell a better sustainability store.  

Packaging is a clear point of contact with customers, regardless of sales channel, and therefore a key part in communicating sustainability. Brands that tackle sustainability challenges head-on and communicate their efforts to reduce the impact their products and activities have on the environment will be rewarded: According to the Billerud Consumer Panel, a global study focused on people’s view of packaging sustainability and how consumers make sensible choices, 72% of consumers are willing to pay more for a product that is packaged in a sustainable way.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a membership-driven trade organization serving more than 1,200 of the outdoor recreation industry’s retail distributors, manufacturers, suppliers and nonprofits, “Packaging and shipping have significant impacts on sustainability.” The OIA points to the example of the Columbia Sportswear Company, which uses single-wall shipping cartons to reduce material usage and realize shipping efficiency through container optimization.

We are committed to transporting our products using efficient, responsible shipping and packaging practices, and to measuring and managing impacts associated with the operations of our global real estate portfolio.
Columbia Sportswear Company

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Lack of Packaging Control an Issue for “Ethical” Apparel Brands

For the 2018 Global Apparel Supply Chain Management Report, Sourcing Journal surveyed professionals operating in the apparel, footwear and accessories industries (two-thirds of respondents were in C-level or top management roles) on their views related to supply chain management, deliveries, supplier relations and operations. Nearly half of respondents (48%) rated communications with their partners along the supply chain as “fair/poor.”

Poor communication with supply chain partners is indicative of a lack of transparency and control, both of which can pose a risk to apparel companies as the landscape evolves towards a more sustainable and ethical future. In an increasingly connected world where information about the industry is being shared with consumers, any ethical missteps made by direct and indirect suppliers (including packaging factories) will eventually be made public, and the resulting damage to your brand can be significant.

“Fashion products are produced in a very complex supply chain in which many transgressions can hide,” according to Judith Russel, a marketing and strategic planning consultant specializing in the retail apparel industry. “Although improvements in sourcing transparency, labeling and compliance have been made in the past several years,” she adds, “it’s hard for brands and retailers to truly know for sure where, how and of what their products are made.” Lack of packaging control can also make it hard for apparel companies to truly know for sure where their packaging comes from and whether it’s ethically sourced.

According to Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit, nongovernmental global human rights organization, there is a global trend of apparel companies around the world adopting supply chain transparency, itself a powerful tool for promoting corporate accountability for garment workers’ rights in global supply chains. Publishing supply chain information is consistent with a company’s responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of guidelines stating that companies have a responsibility to “identify, prevent, mitigate and account for” adverse human rights impacts of their business operations. Packaging is one such business operation.

How do you know if your packaging is negatively contributing to your brand’s overall ethical footprint? For starters, consider the following questions:

  1. Do your packaging suppliers support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights?
  2. Do your packaging suppliers make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses?
  3. Do your packaging suppliers uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining?
  4. Do your packaging suppliers uphold the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor?
  5. Do your packaging suppliers uphold the effective abolition of child labor?
  6. Do your packaging suppliers uphold the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation?

If you cannot confidently answer all the above questions in the affirmative, you either lack true transparency into your packaging supply chain or your packaging suppliers pose a risk to your brand’s ethical footprint. Either way, you need to gain more control over your full packaging supply chain to ensure that your suppliers are not involved in unethical business practices that could ultimately hurt your brand. Billerud can give you that control.

We support global brands at every step of the international packaging supply chain, allowing companies to focus on other mission-critical aspects of shipping goods from Southeast Asia to Europe and the United States. We have worked with some of the largest apparel companies in the world, and no packaging challenge is too big or too small.


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Supply chains are responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution.

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