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Sustainable products and packaging

If you’re a business providing goods, then our sustainable products and packaging checklist is the guide for you.

To provide truly sustainable products, a business needs to address the unsustainability of both the products supplied, and the packaging used to transport that product.

In this Green Business Bureau checklist, we give you 20 tips to guide you in the creation of both sustainable products and packaging. But first, it’s important you understand the issues, and why product and packaging sustainability is important.

The problem of unsustainable packaging

As populations increase, societies are producing more and more waste, and we’re running out of space to put this waste. This is termed the waste crisis, a crisis that causes significant environmental damage. And one of the largest and most damaging culprits of our waste crisis is plastic, as we explain.

Containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), creating 82.2 million tons of waste in 2018. By packaging, we’re referring to the material used to wrap and protect business goods. These main packaging materials are glass, paper and cardboard, steel, aluminum, wood, and plastic. Paper, cardboard, and plastic materials make up the majority of waste from packaging. However, if we look at the proportion of waste that ends up in landfill sites, plastic packaging takes the top spot. That is, 80% of paper and cardboard is recycled, compared to a measly 13% for recycled plastic.

Adding to this concern, the volume of plastic containers and packaging in the United States has increased considerably since the 1960s, jumping from 120 thousand tons to 14,530 thousand tons in 2018. PET bottles and jars for instance have increased by 80% between the years 2000 and 2018.

When thrown into landfill sites, plastic can remain in the environment for up to 1,000 years due to the non-biodegradable nature of this material. Because of this, plastic products harm wildlife, with species getting trapped in plastic debris and swallowing plastic material. This plastic can then enter food chains, with scientists finding microplastics in salt, beer, seafood, and human stools.

The problem of unsustainable products

Production and consumption are two activities that rely on our natural environment and resources in a way that’s destructive to the planet. As such, it’s estimated that by 2050, we’d require three planets to sustain our current way of life if we continue to produce products using traditional unsustainable resource extraction and product production methods.

Sustainable product production is about doing more with less, to decouple the growth of our economy from the degradation of the environment. It’s also about alleviating poverty to transition to a zero carbon future.

Sustainable products and packaging checklist guide

Thinking about these issues, the Green Business Bureau has created our sustainable product and packaging checklist guide to help you as a business make the transition to becoming purpose-driven and sustainable. We’ve split this checklist up to focus on sustainable products and packaging separately.

Sustainable product checklist

  • Tip #1 – Detail your product’s life cycle: To assess the sustainability of your product, you need to know how your product fairs on a sustainability front throughout the product’s lifecycle. Map the potential environmental impacts of your product at each life cycle stage. This includes raw material extraction, product use, and disposal. Consider the chemical safety of your product, resource use, circularity, greenhouse emissions, and impacts on ecosystems.
  • Tip #2 – Compare your product’s sustainability performance to your sustainability goals: Assess the performance of your product against the various dimensions of sustainability. Check out the European Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint report, and the tips given in below, as guides to help set sustainability goals.
  • Tip #3 – Design high-quality products to last a long time: Higher-quality products are designed for longevity and reuse (as opposed to cheap products that are likely to end up in landfill sites after very few uses). Higher quality products can be reused longer than cheap products that end up in landfills after very few uses. High-quality products are also good for business because consumers will notice and appreciate your quality and will be loyal to your brand. 53% of consumers state quality is one of the most important factors they consider when making purchasing decisions.
  • Tip #4 – Design products for proper disposal: When designing a product, be sure that it can be recycled or reused purposefully. Design your product to be easily disassembled to encourage proper disposal of parts to be recycled. If there are any special recycling instructions, be sure to spell them out to the consumer for clarity.
  • Tip #5 – Reuse materials from recycled products: When designing a new product, play around with the idea of using scrap material from old products. This will extend the life cycle of the materials and gives them a new purpose instead of sending the materials to landfill sites.
  • Tip #6 – Avoid the use of toxic materials: Toxic materials leach harmful chemicals into the ecosystem. Avoid paints and other coatings that may act as contaminants, especially when not disposed of properly. Check out Safer Chemical’s Toxic Chemicals fact sheet that lists common toxic chemicals to avoid.
  • Tip #7 – Design for energy efficiency: Think about energy efficiency throughout the product lifecycle. Consider using the concept of Design Unit (DU), a new method that describes product design information related to the energy consumed throughout each stage of the product lifecycle. Your aim is to reduce wasted energy by maximizing energy efficiency.
  • Tip #8 – Use locally sourced product materials: Source local materials where possible to reduce the GHG emissions released across your supply chain. Plus, making the switch to purchasing local materials and supplies has less tangible benefits, such as supporting the local economy, and connecting consumers directly with the production of goods.
  • Tip #9 – Buyback used products for resale: Offer your customers discounts on new products when they return their used goods. This incentivizes consumers to recycle their products safely, plus they gain promotional value in return. For instance, Patagonia runs a trade-in values scheme whereby customers gain credit for used items that are traded in. This tip will also support tip #3, as you’ll gain recycled material to create new products.
  • Tip #10 – Avoid plastics where possible: As mentioned, plastic waste is a significant issue that needs addressing. The end-of-life impacts, raw material extraction, and release of hazardous chemicals mean plastic is a material your business must avoid. Source alternative materials where possible, such as wood, glass, tin, and foil. Also, use plastic substitutes such as bioplastics (plant-based plastics).
  • Tip #11 – Measure and score your product’s sustainability performance: Score the performance of products against each sustainability dimension. This allows you to rank your products, and identify areas for improvement in design and sustainability. Sometimes products can score highly in some sustainability dimensions, but lower in others. For instance, you can make a product more durable by using hardy materials, yet this could be problematic for the later disposal of the product, as product elements cannot easily be separated for recycling.

Sustainable packaging checklist

  • Tip #12 – Use compostable packaging: Compostable packaging breaks down naturally in the right environment. Plant packaging (cellulose fibers), as well as paper, cardboard, and bioplastics, are all compostable. Choose these materials for packaging over non-compostable ones when possible.
  • Tip #13 – Use packaging from recycled materials: Source suppliers for recycled materials. The demand for recycled plastic is souring and is expected to continue to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.2%. This market trend reflects a shift in business, as more organizations are looking to be sustainable and contribute to a circular economy.
  • Tip #14 – Inform customers on how to recycle their packaging: State on packaging material what the material consists of, what can be recycled, and how. This informs the consumer whether or not they can dispose of the packaging via their curbside recycling bin. If it is not curbside recyclable, tell them where to dispose of the material properly. If there are multiple materials, be sure to specify how to recycle each one.
  • Tip #15 – Use customer-sized packaging to reduce waste: Boxes that fit the product perfectly eliminate the need for filler materials. Filler is extra material such as bubble wrap, packing peanuts, or paper shreds that can be avoided entirely if your product fits the packaging. Properly sized boxes avoid unnecessary packaging waste.
  • Tip #16 – Ensure any plastic is curbside recyclable: If plastic is absolutely necessary for your packaging (and plastic alternatives cannot be used), be sure it is curbside recyclable. This means the customer can put the plastic right in their at-home recycling bin without any extra steps. These extra steps in recycling plastics increase recycling effort, reducing the chance of the customer recycling the material (customers crave ease and convenience). Note, plastics #1- #7 are curbside recyclable.
  • Tip #17 – Choose paper with an FSC® or PEFC™ quality mark: FSC® and PEFC™ are two different certifications businesses can obtain that ensure products come from responsibly managed forests, and provide some kind of environmental, social, or economic benefit. Having this certification in packaging paper and cardboard is an easy way to play your part in sourcing packaging materials sustainably.
  • Tip #18 – Design packaging for re-use: Be purposeful with packaging design. Design boxes that can be resealed and shipped out if necessary. Give consumers ideas on how to reuse packaging. For example, box dividers can be easily repurposed as storage containers.
  • Tip #19 – Avoid unnecessary packaging: Avoid putting boxes inside of other boxes, or any extra packaging where it’s not necessary. Also, eliminate extra paper and promotional flyers whenever possible.
  • Tip #20 – Use mono packaging: Mono packaging is packaging that’s composed of a single material. This makes the recycling process easier with a reduction in the energy required to split the different materials up.

Certify your sustainability efforts with the Green Business Bureau

Economic sustainability needs to address our waste crisis, and the overexploitation of resources to create products.

Our sustainable products and packaging guide has been created to help you build a sustainable business. This checklist guide addresses unsustainability at every stage of a product lifecycle, from the extraction of raw materials to product production, packaging, and transportation, to later product disposal.

However, it must be noted that product and packaging sustainability is not limited to the 20 tips given in this article. There are a plethora of green initiatives your business can institute to create sustainable operations – your product and beyond. That is, your business will need to follow a thorough sustainability program, which is where the Green Business Bureau can help and certify your efforts.

The Green Business Burea’s EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner host 400+ green initiatives that cover the main operational areas of a business. You can use these tools as a guide, and to help you record your sustainability achievements and goals. Once more, you’ll be able to showcase your efforts to stakeholders with your very own EcoProfile. The Green Business Bureau team will work with you, to help you create a sustainable business and obtain green business certification.

You can find out more about the Green Business Bureau‘s sustainability tools and membership here!

Grace is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. She is passionate about environmentalism and sustainability, especially in regard to the fashion industry. In her free time, she loves to be with her friends, family, and dog, Leo. She also enjoys reading, cooking, and creating art!

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