Specialist Column

Sustainable Packages. Sustainable Customers. Creating a Circular Economy. 



Vicki Strull is a packaging designer, strategist, and speaker who advises top-tier and emerging
brands on how to leverage the power of print and packaging within opti-channel marketing strategies. She consults with print service providers and OEMs to create new revenue streams and shares her strategies at design, packaging, and print events around the world. Sign up to join fellow trendsetters at or follow Vicki on Linked In @vickistrull.

Do you value your customers? Do you want to keep them around? (Two silly questions.) The question isn't if you want to keep your customers; the question is how to keep them in an increasingly competitive market. 

Not so long ago, the answer was discounts. Whoever had the lowest-priced item would win. But this is no longer the case. Shoppers now are more concerned about how products impact the environment than saving a few pennies. 

Corporate social responsibility is no longer just a problem of conscience. It has economic implications as well.

Consumers Value Sustainable Packaging

A lot of marketing lip service is paid to the idea of sustainability, but if companies don't back up what they say with action, it's a major problem with consumers. They will see right through false marketing tactics, also called greenwashing. The best way to prevent this from happening is by having a holistic approach to sustainability embedded into your brand's core values. If sustainability is a part of every step—manufacturing processes, procurement, supply chain, growth strategy, labor practices as well as sales and marketing–then it's real. And consumers will see that it's real.

And brands are getting the message. Brands like Amazon, Coke, Nike, Unilever, Mondelez, L'Oréal, and Burger King employ sustainability goals and timelines. Smaller 'boutique' brands are being created with the sole intent of creating sustainable products. If a brand isn’t making efforts to be environmentally responsible, it is no longer attractive to a majority of consumers, and with one wrong step it can be 'canceled.'

Creating sustainable products through an environmentally friendly process isn't just doing ‘good work’ anymore. It's also good business. Shoppers are putting their money where their mouths are. According to Nielson Insights from 2019, the majority (73%) of global consumers would change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment, and 41% are ‘highly’ willing to pay more for products that contain all-natural or organic ingredients.

Brands and manufacturers must work together to find innovative methods and materials to sustain their commitment to the planet, which will, in turn, earn them loyal customers.

Lucky for us, packaging has a lot of opportunities to be sustainable that will help brands gain and retain customers.

Sustainability Strategies

Be a Proud Lightweight 

Has anyone ever called you a lightweight? It's generally an insult, but in the context of sustainable packaging, the connotation is positive. Lightweighting is choosing lighter-weight paperboard that has the same feel and strength as a higher caliper. When brands reduce their package weight by specifying lighter paperboard, they reduce pallet and skid weight, which reduces fuel and transportation costs—extended across millions of packages, this shift makes a material difference impacting logistical costs and ultimately product margins.

Lightweight Packaging

Find an Alternative

Alternative music. Alternative foods. Alternative technology. We consider alternatives all the time. In the case of alternatives to plastic, there are so many options: biodegradable, compostable, recycled or recyclable materials. Often, such as in the case of gift cards, the use of non-plastic materials makes absolutely no difference to the quality of the product and can offer even more production possibilities. Again, aligning with a brand’s purpose is essential, but options abound. For example, a brand can easily switch to paperboard gift cards from those that are plastic, making these often ‘single-use’ cards recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable.

Say No to Tiny Products in Huge Boxes

I hate receiving a small product shipped in a giant box, and I'm not the only one. One of my most popular posts ever on LinkedIn featured a photo of an eyeliner pencil and the enormous package it was mailed in. People were outraged at the waste! Ideally, the packaging–both what is featured on the shelf and the box it is shipped in–fits the item. This is called right-sized packaging.

right-sided package

An initial investment in packaging design means a positive ROI in the long run. How?

  1. Purchasing less material is an initial savings.
  2. Smaller packaging means more cases fit on a pallet, which reduces transport costs.
  3. More products in fewer shipping containers reduces your carbon footprint.
  4. When shoppers open the designed-to-fit packaging, the person has a more seamless customer experience, and they may even perceive your brand as a steward of the environment and give you a shoutout on Instagram.

Get Creative and Reuse Boxes

When my daughter was young, and we were furnishing our home, the empty furniture boxes became her fort and playhouse. I love scrolling through social media and seeing people reusing their boxes to build fortresses for their cats. I have a friend who reuses all her boxes in her garden to tamp down and kill weeds. She even shreds some of the lighter-weight boxes and mixes them into her compost.

Recycling: It's everyone's duty.

Recycling is a huge category that requires everyone to pitch in. Because some packaging is not recyclable, many brands are beginning to use a 'How To Recycle' label to show customers which parts of a package are recyclable and how to recycle it. For example, have you noticed the zip strips on the shrink sleeves of bottles? That’s because the shrink film is not recyclable, but the bottle itself is. For a brand that has not figured out how make their packaging 100% recyclable, they are ensuring that the parts that can be recycled will be recycled.


Circular Responsibility

A product is genuinely environmentally responsible when the entire lifecycle is considered—from cradle to grave which then becomes cradle to cradle*1. Sustainability should be a circular process, not a straight line. In most cases, the burden of recycling products correctly goes on the shoulders of the shopper who bought the product – and why should that be?

Who knows what went into the product better and how to repurpose that waste? The manufacturer or the consumer?

Take Nike, for example, and their Reuse-a-Shoe program. Take old sneakers to any participating Nike retail store and the shoes are given an after-life. They might be made into new sneakers or used as material for a track-and-field surface. Just because an item isn't compostable or biodegradable does not mean it isn't reusable. And the brand owner, manufacturers, and product creators must be responsible because they have the power, capabilities, and resources to ‘close the loop’ in the lifecycle of the product.

The product's entire life cycle must be accounted for to close the loop and create a truly circular economy. When we create and support this circular economy, everyone contributes, and everyone wins. The days of thinking 'someone else will take care of it' are over. Today, shoppers expect brands to take responsibility for their environmental impact. Businesses that are proactive in improving their product and packaging sustainability will not only survive but most definitely will thrive.

*1^ From "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" (2020) by William McDonough (USA) and Michael Braungart (Germany).
This is a concept that aims to create a complete cyclical journey, where the cradle is seen as the earth and resources used are fully returned to the cradle and recycled/reused.

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