Buyers Guide to Sustainable Paper Packaging

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What is Sustainable Packaging?

Let’s first start with one definition of sustainable packaging.  Packaging which significantly contributes toward people, planet and profit is sustainable packaging.  This Triple Bottom Line (3BL) standard is the basis for measuring the sustainability of packaging as well as all other products and services.

Greenwashing is the opposite of sustainable packaging.  For example, greenwashing is when packaging is manipulated to appear eco-friendly or advertising and marketing is cleverly designed to mislead buyers.  Unfortunately the problem of greenwashing has been a significant challenge for packaging buyers, and the work to determine the real sustainable truth is largely upon the buyer’s shoulders.

This handy guide provides an easy-to-use checklist for buyers to determine the truth and sincerity of sustainable packaging claims.

Regulation on terms like green, eco-friendly, tree-free, organic, and natural are evolving, however, at the moment buyers must determine what claims are sincere and accurate, and which are misleading and sometimes untruthful.

Natural Fiber Tree-Free Packaging

BUYER’S CHECKLIST for Sustainable Packaging

Use this concise and quick checklist to help determine potential greenwashing and to assist in evaluating 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, enhancing the eco-system while providing durable and strong plant fiber to produce beautiful packaging.  Alternative fibers carry another, hard-to-find sustainable benefit – additional community value – since many alternative fibers are developed by fair trade businesses, providing 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 – some companies have made official looking graphic logos which may be used in their advertisements to give their sustainability claims an aura of certification and official approval.

Puffery – using extensive advertising and words to imply good choices – such as “protect what’s good” or “smart choice” can lead buyers to believe the company and packaging hold those values in sustainability too.

Ask “What’s the remaining percentage?” If the claim is “70% paper”, what then is the 30%?  Ask for the full details of all components of the material source, as well as validation if you question their authenticity.  If it cannot be clearly understood, then that too should be a warning.

*Ink and Ink-coverage – There are many types of inks used with many different printing technologies.  For longer runs which use offset printing, there are many options including vegan inks and agri-based inks.  For digital printing there are technological limitations as to the sustainability of the ink, so there may not be many choices, however, there are other eco benefits to digital printing such as less waste and energy needed due to the efficiency of shorter bundled print runs.  Even still, if your print is digital you should ask for the details of that printers’ sustainable attributes.

-Less Is More – Color is impressive, however one of the easiest and highest impact things you can do for improving your sustainable printing footprint is simply using less ink coverage in your packaging design.  It does not need to be a compromise if you choose an attractive natural fiber or 100% recycled paper.  Seek to minimize flood coating your packaging with color and show off the natural look of your paper.

-Soy Ink? – “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.

Oil is just one component of ink.  Other ingredients include pigments, resins and film formers, and various additives to lend desired characteristics to different kinds of ink. Some of those other components may come from renewable resources, but many do not. Pigments, especially, are generally mineral in origin and it’s not uncommon for them to be toxic. For instance, carbon black is widely used as the pigment for black ink and is classified as a Group 2B carcinogen. What may come as a surprise to many people is that most veggie inks contain substantial amounts of petroleum. (Excerpt from

Re-use & Re-purpose – 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.  And ask for examples.  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.

Related posts on sustainable packaging:

Buyers Guide to Sustainable Adhesive Labels

Top 3 Sustainable Branded Packaging Sources

Top 5 Questions to Find Sustainable Packaging

Elevate_PackagingElevate Packaging, a division of Distant Village, Inc, is a leader in American-made sustainable packaging.  By taking a revolutionary approach in designing best-in-class sustainable packaging and using leading innovative sustainable papers has earned international recognition and awards in both the paper packaging and pressure-sensitive adhesive label industries.  Each of our packaging companies follow an unwavering commitment to triple bottom line sustainable business practices.  From start to finish, all packaging we produce embodies a full-circle view of sustainability, including packaging brand design, natural plant-based materials, certified papers, green energy, fair trade, and social responsibility.

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