Keeping it green: understanding sustainable packaging and what goes into it

What is sustainable packaging?

For global brands, the hottest buzzword of the moment is “sustainability”. Regardless of what sector you work in, it’s likely that your recent strategy meetings have focused on how you can revamp your business processes to be more eco-friendly.

The reason for this shift is simple. These days, stories about the environment are regularly hitting the headlines, meaning that the average consumer is now far more clued in and concerned about topics like pollution, single-use plastics, deforestation, and climate change.

Once upon a time, the average shopper would prioritize affordability and convenience over all else; these days, a brand’s eco-credentials are beginning to be a big factor buying decisions.

In this recent survey from McKinsey & Company, 60-70% of US consumers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging. In this separate survey by Deloitte, almost one third of respondents claimed they had stopped purchasing from a brand because they had concerns related to ethics or sustainability.

For brands who want to secure a returning customer base for the foreseeable future, a foray into the world of green packaging should be a top priority. To find out more about what sustainable packaging entails, read on.

Is there a single definition of “sustainable packaging”?

In short, no. What is described as “sustainable” or “green” packaging will be very different brand to brand.

However, in general, a pack that is classed in this category should offer an alternative to the norm, in that it transcends the standard life-cycle of packaging, reduces pollution, and conserves natural resources.

This means that a sustainable pack should meet some of the following criteria:

Made from sustainable resources

One of the problems with traditional packaging is that it can have a huge impact on natural resources. An excellent example is paper or cardboard packaging, which over the years has contributed to deforestation around the world.

For a paper pack to be sustainable, it should be made using paper products that haven’t significantly impacted the environment.

One option is to source from forests that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This means that the wood has been sourced in a sustainable and ethical way that won’t contribute to deforestation or infringe on the rights of indigenous peoples who live in that region.

Made from recycled materials

Increasingly, companies are opting to use packaging manufactured from recycled materials, rather than raw materials.

Though recycled paper is seen most often, we’re starting to see this trend more and more with plastics. In fact, some brands are creating whole campaigns around their use of recycled plastics – REN has a range of containers manufactured from 80% recycled plastic bottles, and 20% ocean plastics.

Allows for reuse or recycling

Part of the problem with packaging is that it requires huge amounts of energy to manufacture. By enabling reuse or recycling, you can help to reduce these costs. At the same time, you reduce waste, pollution, and the need for raw materials.

In this sense, even biodegradable or compostable packaging is considered a missed opportunity, as it remains single-use.

Simplified & lightweight

One easy way to make your packaging more sustainable is to use less of it. A simplified and lightweight design that utilizes fewer materials will reduce the environmental (and financial) costs associated with manufacturing and logistics.

This applies to packaging used at any stage in the supply chain. For instance, tertiary packaging that takes up less space on a pallet will allow for more efficient storage during transit, equating to fewer emissions and lower costs.

Uses eco-friendly inks and adhesives

When developing a sustainable pack, you have to look beyond the primary material and factor in the features that will be important when it comes to recycling. Soy inks and water-based label adhesives are two substances you can utilize to heighten the recyclable aspect of a pack.

Avoids petroleum-based materials

Materials derived from petroleum, such as plastic, are considered one of the least sustainable materials because they aren’t biodegradable – or, at least, they take hundreds of years to break down. Additionally, the environmental costs of plastic manufacture is high because it involves fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases.

Of course, for lots of companies, plastic remains the only viable material for their packaging, due to concerns over hygiene, safety, and affordability.

Where possible, brands can improve their sustainability by using recycled plastics, however this is typically only an option for hard plastics such as PET, and not the soft plastics used to make bags, films, wraps, and packets.

Manufactured sustainably

A brand can tick all the boxes for eco-friendly materials, but it may be for nothing if the manufacturing and logistics involved still leave a huge sooty footprint on the planet.

To be classed as sustainable, a pack should be derived from a sustainable supply chain –which leads us on to our next topic.

How can brands achieve a sustainable supply chain?

A sustainable supply chain is one that demonstrates responsibility towards both the environment, and the people it interacts with. Every aspect of a supply chain should be designed in a way that safeguards the needs of the company’s stakeholders and employees, and the communities affected by its processes.

To maintain a sustainable supply chain, brands should aim to do the following:

  • Source materials from sustainable and ethical suppliers
  • Maintain compliance to ensure environmental regulations are met
  • Cut carbon emissions
  • Reduce inventory and waste

If you’re going to make changes to your supply chain, just remember that you don’t need to attempt everything in one go.

When you’re starting out, look at what competitors are doing, and get familiar with different manufacturers offering sustainable packaging. It can be helpful to order pack samples to get a feel for what different companies are offering.

What are some sustainable packaging materials?

These days there are a variety of sustainable packaging materials to choose from. In addition to the obvious choices, like recycled papers and FSC-certified papers, brands may benefit from using the following.


You may be surprised to see tin on this list, but it’s actually a fantastic material to use if you’re concerned about sustainability. Tinplate – steel coated in a thin layer of tin – is considered 100% recyclable, because it’s so easy to melt down and reform.

Traditionally, the manufacturing costs associated with tin have been high – but, as you can read about in this GPA Luxury article, things are quickly improving on that front.


Like tin, glass is fully recyclable, which means you can reduce the environmental impact associated with the manufacturing of raw materials.

An added bonus is that glass is incredibly long-lasting and effective when it comes to storing goods. In many instances, there’s a possibility of reuse e.g. glass food jars may be repurposed for pantry storage or as candle holders or vases.

One obvious downside to using glass is that it is more fragile than other materials, and requires significant tertiary packaging to protect it during transit and storage.


Bamboo has been “growing” in popularity for the past decade, and is now commonly used to manufacture products that would otherwise made from synthetic materials.

Bamboo is a great option for brands seeking eco-friendly packaging solutions, as it’s considered a highly renewable resource – in part because it’s fast-growing and doesn’t require a great deal of maintenance.

However, when working with bamboo, brands have to be careful that they look at the whole supply chain. This includes checking where it’s sourced from, the manufacturing costs involved, and whether the bamboo has been mixed with any polluting chemical additives.


Bioplastics are an increasingly popular material for brands concerned with sustainability. They are usually manufactured from the sugars derived from corn and sugarcane, and they have a very similar look, feel and structure to traditional hard plastics.

However, brands have to be careful as – despite the “bio” in the name – these types of materials can be tricky to break down and may still end up in landfill. Even those which are biodegradable, such as polylactic acid (PLA), still take have to be disposed of correctly. If disposed incorrectly (i.e. in landfill or recycling) they may end up causing similar levels of pollution to traditional plastics.

Sugarcane bagasse

This material is derived from sugarcanes which have been pulped. The waste material can be processed and shaped into a packaging material that imitates Styrofoam or plastic. The benefit of using bagasse is that it’s biodegradable and compostable.

An added bonus is that bagasse is considered a renewable material – and one that might otherwise go to waste were it not repurposed into packaging.

Mushroom packaging

Mushroom packaging is another plant-based material that can be used to create packaging similar to Styrofoam. It’s created from agricultural waste, which is fused together using thread-like fungus roots known as mycelia.

As with sugarcane bagasse, mushroom packaging manufactured in this way is biodegradable and compostable.

Corrugated cardboard

It’s an old favorite for a reason! Corrugated cardboard is considered highly sustainable because it can be made from up to 100% recycled paper, and has the potential for a relatively long life – in fact, corrugated cardboard boxes can be recycled up to 25 times before being composted or thrown away.

An added bonus? Corrugated cardboard is incredibly sturdy and lightweight, making it ideal for tertiary packaging during shipping.

Sustainable materials – Jameson case study

Our biodegradable pack for Jameson, which carries a bottle of the whiskey and two tumblers was manufactured from kraft paper, recycled pulp, and soy ink. This pack illustrates a sustainable alternative to standard luxury packs. Designed as a carry case, it’s ideal for festivals and garden parties.

What is the most eco-friendly packaging?

There’s no such thing as a perfect eco-friendly pack. However, pack styles that can be reused by the consumer are always going to score highly for sustainability.

If you can prevent a pack from being immediately disposed of once the goods are removed – whether into recycling, landfill, or the compost heap – this will reduce the need for further manufacturing.

Recently, H&M released this recycled paper bag which, with some simple folding, can be transformed into a clothes hanger. Other examples of pack styles that could be reused include:

  • Food storage jars that can be refilled at food stores
  • Makeup and skincare containers that can be refilled
  • Plastic tote boxes used to transport goods

Another way to ensure that a pack won’t end up in the garbage is to give it an alternative, secondary function. This tactic is becoming increasingly popular within the luxury sector, where there is a greater demand for premium materials that can be harder to recycle.

A fantastic example of a pack with a secondary use is the case we manufactured for the KITH x Estée Lauder Generational Beauty Kit. Remove the inner fitment that holds the makeup, and the container can be repurposed as a chic clutch purse.

What is SIOC?

SIOC stands for Ships In Own Container

SIOC is packaging of products that can be shipped without an overbox and pass ISTA 6 certification. In other words, the products can be shipped safely to the customer without added effort from fulfillment center staff.

The benefits include:

  • More Sustainable Packaging
  • Lower Packaging Cost (No 2 boxes needed)
  • Less handling cost at 3PL
  • Reduce Chargebacks
  • Better Unboxing Experience

Amazon certification Tiers:

Is sustainable packaging more expensive?

One of the biggest concerns for brands is that sustainable packaging comes with an inflated price tag.

It’s true that the development and manufacture of eco-friendly materials, and the move to more ethical and eco-friendly processes, can be expensive – and sometimes in surprising ways. As set out in this article by The Guardian, the use of recycled plastics was once cheaper than using virgin plastic, but now the opposite is true.

However, there are ways to offset heightened costs elsewhere in the supply chain .As an example, money can be saved by opting for lightweight and simplified pack styles, which weigh less and take up less room in storage and during transit.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the technology surrounding sustainable packaging is becoming more sophisticated every day. As eco-friendly materials become more readily available, and as it becomes the norm for brands to offer sustainable packaging, costs will naturally go down.

Remember, according to that McKinsey survey, most consumers would happily pay more for sustainable packaging. With that in mind, brands that make the switch shouldn’t be afraid to publicize this fact and make sure that their eco-friendly messaging gets through to consumers.

Eco-friendly & sustainable packaging strategies from GPA Global

Our company started life in 2007 as Green Packaging Asia. Over a decade on we’ve expanded across the globe, and started a variety of subsidiary companies that manage specific sectors, including luxury spirits & cosmetics.

Despite our rapid expansion, we’ve never lost sight of our green roots, and today we remain as committed as ever to manufacturing packaging in line with our sustainability goals.

We work with a range of sustainable materials including recycled papers, sugarcane bagasse, and bamboo. We’ve even developed our own eco-friendly material, GreenBlister. This is a trapped blister package made from recycled (and recyclable) paperboard and plastic.

When it comes to plastics, we have an in-depth understanding of the different varieties available and how they can be used and recycled. After years working in the industry, we understand that it’s not realistic to eliminate plastics from our packaging – instead, we put our energy into sustainable forms of plastic, such as cosmetic-grade recycled PET and biodegradable plastics.

If you’d like to learn more about what we can offer, get in touch today and request a sample.


You can also discover our capabilities by taking a look at some of the packs in our portfolio.

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