The Complexities of Sustainable Packaging Materials in Supply Chain Management

Jun 5, 2024 | Resources

The challenges presented by sustainable packaging materials

“Green”, “carbon-neutral”, and “sustainable” are all buzzwords drifting around the packaging industry. While implementing “green” packaging is a worthy goal, the reality behind sustainable packaging materials is complicated. To begin with, there is much confusion regarding sustainability in the packaging supply chain. Currently, popular marketing labels like “eco-friendly” and “sustainability” don’t have a firm definition. However, that is beginning to change as regulators across the globe take aim at greenwashing, the practice of exaggerating the ecological benefits or downplaying other environmentally harmful activities of a company, whether purposefully or inadvertently.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently ruled that “recyclable” now means that 60% of people should have access to a recycling facility that accepts that specific material. Additionally, the FTC (as of writing) is working to update its “Green Guides” which set out guidelines that organizations should meet to make sustainability claims credibly. Four states and over thirty countries have implemented new regulations about what does and doesn’t qualify as “sustainable”.

Beyond fears of the perception of greenwashing (known as “greenhushing”), and meeting evolving regulations, shippers also face the following challenges:

  • Cost – Sustainable packaging products are often more expensive due to limited supply. Additionally, developing technology, like bioplastics or other plant-based alternatives, is in the early stages of adoption and not yet manufactured at scale.
  • Durability – Sustainable packaging doesn’t always perform as well as traditional packaging. For example, many shippers are switching to paper or cardboard over compostability and recyclability concerns. Yet, paper pulp packaging is often less durable than plastic.
  • Qualification – Sustainable alternatives likely need to undergo qualification to compare to the virgin product. If applicable, a sustainable product must comply with regulations, appearance, and technical requirements. Recycled content can make these qualifications difficult due the variability in the source and purity of materials.
  • Complex supply chains – Entities within supply chains across regions may have conflicting requirements for integral functions. Sustainable packaging is often subject to various regulations and standards, which can be complex and vary by region.

This post will help you make sense of the current sustainable packaging materials market and how to make strides toward implementing sustainability into your packaging.

Defining sustainable packaging

What exactly makes a material sustainable? Essentially, it should be:

  • Renewable
  • Reusable
  • Recyclable (as defined above)
  • Reducible

Compostability is also becoming a factor. Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of non-biodegradable plastics, and a recent study showed that over 40% of buyers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging.

However, reusability is also a factor in sustainability. For example, boxes or materials that can be reused repeatedly across a supply chain can drive sustainability efforts. For more information on reusable glass packaging, read Custom Glass Packaging: A Vital Service.

Sustainable packaging strategies

Sustainable packaging involves selecting, creating, and employing packaging options that leave a minimal environmental impact and footprint. It is logical that eventually, driven by federal and global legislation, the packaging industry will shift entirely away from single-use, non-recyclable materials. However, until that time comes, sustainability is a competitive advantage. Half to two-thirds of consumers said they prefer buying from companies that prioritize sustainability, and that number jumps to eighty percent for Millennials and Gen Z respondents.

Where should an environmentally-minded organization start? At Adherex, we recommend starting slow and thinking through the following points:

  • Design – Consider methods to decrease the usage of packaging materials. Are there ways to create efficiency in packaging design? Reducing packaging materials is an example of a sustainability strategy known as waste minimization.
  • Materials – Switching to sustainable materials that are compostable, recyclable, and otherwise sustainable can drive cost savings over time.
  • Consider the total cost – While many sustainable packaging materials have a higher upfront cost, consider the entire cost, especially over the long term. Sustainable materials may be lighter and save on shipping costs. Additionally, positive public perception can boost sales.

To learn more about Adherex’s sustainable packaging materials, read our recent blog post: Post-Consumer Recycled Hand Film: Stretchtape’s Commitment to Sustainable Stretch Film

A note on greenwashing

Modern consumers have little patience for greenwashing. A few high-profile cases have led many customers to doubt any sustainability claims. Fears of negative consumer perceptions have resulted in greenhushing, in which companies keep their environmental initiatives quiet for fear of backlash.

To thread the needle between greenwashing and greenhushing, here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Don’t make any claims that you can’t back up with evidence
  • Make sure that evidence is prominent on your website and marketing collateral
  • Don’t embrace any half-truths or exaggerations (this is where many organizations go wrong)
  • Make sure your claims are in line with the FTC’s Green Guides or other local regulatory guidelines
  • Run any sustainability claims past your legal department first, just to be safe
  • Obtain a third-party certification to support sustainability claims (FSC, ISCC+, etc.)

By embracing clear and transparent sustainability policies, your organization can reap the benefits of environmentally minded packaging materials—better sales, reduced waste, higher public opinion, and a dent in your organization’s carbon footprint.

Why Adherex?

Adherex has expertise in a variety of legitimately sustainable packaging materials, including:

  • Sanstrap and Eco sanstrap
  • Post-consumer recycled (PCR) hand wrap
  • Reusable packaging
  • Paper tape

Reach out and ask us how we can help support your sustainability efforts.

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