People have asked, so we’ve created a quick and easy Buyer’s Guide and Checklist to sustainable, eco-friendly paper packaging. Let’s start with the basics:
What is Sustainable Packaging?
Sustainable packaging is packaging that significantly and positively contributes toward people, planet, and profit. This Triple Bottom Line (3BL) standard is the basis for measuring the sustainability of packaging as well as all other products and services.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the opposite of sustainable. In the packaging industry this occurs when packaging is manipulated or advertising and marketing are manipulated to make the product appear eco-friendly, misleading buyers. Unfortunately, greenwashing has been a significant challenge for packaging buyers, and the work to determine the truth has been left largely upon the buyer’s shoulders. Much of the confusion stems from little regulation on the use of terms like “green,” “eco-friendly,” “tree-free,” “organic,” and “natural.” While policy (and awareness) are evolving, it is a slow process, so the buyer must be diligent in researching which packaging claims are accurate, and which are misleading or untruthful.
Buyer’s Checklist for Sustainable Packaging:
Paper Source & Type: Paper standards for FSC and SFI are well-regulated and serve as reasonable indicators to determine that paper is responsibly sourced in an eco-friendly manner. Non-tree alternative plant fiber sources may add a higher degree of eco-friendly and socially-conscious sustainability criteria. Alternative paper fibers are recognized by the Rainforest Alliance and typically provide greater sustainability attributes when used in paper packaging.
Be sure to ask if the packaging uses plant fibers derived from invasive plants such as wild grass and water hyacinth (video), or the plant fiber is abundant fast-growing plants, such as hemp. Packaging which uses paper made from invasive plants doubles the sustainable benefit. Problematic plants are extracted from the rest, which enhances the eco system while providing durable and strong plant fiber to produce beautiful packaging.
Alternative fibers carry additional benefits when compared to standard paper due to their community value, since many alternative fibers are developed by fair trade businesses, which provide fair wages and safe working conditions. The Fair Trade Federation lists packaging businesses and serves as a reliable source with high standards for member companies to provide buyers confidence of socially-conscious business ethics.
Non-Certified Logos and Puffery: Be on the lookout for false logos. Some companies have designed their own “official looking” graphics and logos that are then used in their advertisements to give their sustainability claims an aura of certification and official approval. The same goes for companies that use extensive advertising and copy to imply good choices. Terms such as “protect what’s good” or “smart choice” can lead buyers to believe a company or packaging product holds
Percentages: If a product is claimed to be “70% paper,” what comprises the other 30%? If you ever have a question of authenticity, ask for the full details of all components of the material source, as well as validation. If the information cannot be clearly understood, that too should be a warning.
Ink: Many types of inks are used with many different printing technologies. For longer runs which use offset printing, there are many options including vegan inks and agri-based inks. There are less options in digital printing, due to technological limitations. However, there are other environmental benefits to digital printing including less waste and energy needed due to their high efficiency. Still, if your printer is digital make sure ask for the details of that printers’ sustainable attributes.
Ink-Coverage: Less is more. Multiple colors look great, but one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do to improve your sustainable printing footprint, is to simply use less ink in your packaging design. There’s no need to compromise on aesthetics when there are so many attractive natural fiber or 100% recycled paper options available. Minimize color flood coating on your packaging and show off the natural look of your paper.
Veggie Inks – Ingredients Matter: “The biggest misconception people have is that all of the components of soy ink are made from soy,” says Gary Jones, Vice President EHS of the Printing Industries of America. Along with oil, inks may have a number of additives, pigments, resins, and other ingredients, some of which are sustainable, and many which are not. Make sure you do your homework to find the most sustainable options.
Reuse & Repurpose: Well-designed, sustainable packaging can be re-used or re-purposed. A good sustainable packaging company will be able to recommend a structural packaging designer who understands sustainable packaging. The designer should be able to explain how their design methodology improves the packaging environmental footprint and sustainability through shipping efficiencies, smart packaging materials, minimizes materials, and allows for practical re-useability, recycling, or composting. As always, ask for examples.
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