Image Credit: noissue
Although plastic packaging represents a relatively small portion of the overall impact of a garment’s lifecycle, it is highly visible to consumers and signals a brand’s commitment to sustainability.
In fact, according to a consumer packaging perception study, 77% of Germans said the packaging would affect their purchasing decisions and across Europe, almost 80% are willing to pay more for an eco-friendly packaging option.
In addition, regulators around the world are also tightening controls on plastic. European Parliament, for instance, has mandated that 55% of plastic packaging in the EU market needs to be recyclable by 2030. In 2018, more than 250 global organizations, including Inditex, Marks & Spencer, H&M, representing 20% of plastic packaging consumption globally, have pledged to address the global plastic crisis. (Whether that pledge turns into action, we shall see.)
But our garments still need some forms of protection—something lightweight, durable, waterproof, and cheap. Without it, most products will not reach customers in presentable condition, and the environmental impact of damaged clothing that is thrown away is far larger than the bag that comes with it.
Are there alternatives that can perform the same function, without the heavy toll on the environment? Sort of! We’ve put together a list of sustainable solutions and compared their benefits and trade-offs:
Reducing Packing: The Low Hanging Fruit
The most cost-effective way is to reduce plastic use by either bundle-packing or cutting the packaging size. Prana, for example, will have slashed polybag use almost entirely by the fall of this year by rolling the garments and then bundle-packing them into recycled paper envelopes with recyclable raffia ties. However, unpacking clothing at distribution centers and repackaging them before shipping out to customers can add significant labor and logistical costs. It also requires collaboration with suppliers to eliminate polybags from the source, and collaboration with retailers, where individual packaging is the norm.
If you don’t receive your product in a plastic bag, it doesn’t mean the supply chain was plastic-free. Someone may have taken a plastic bag off before sending your goods to you. For example, United by Blue has been shipping their e-commerce orders in 100% recycled kraft envelopes and boxes printed with VOC-free ink. But they still need to handle the inconvenience of taking out the products from factory-standard poly bags in the distribution center, and sending them to TerraCycle for recycling. TerraCycle, however, was recently sued for not living up to its recycling claims.
Thus, bundle packing would be more viable for products headed to brand-owned retail stores and for companies (like direct-to-consumer brands) whose supply chain allows for such flexibility. According to a Fashion for Good survey, bundle packaging is more popular among value retailers.
For companies with very complex inventory management and replenishment systems, where individual garments need to be scanned, reducing the dimensions and weight of the packaging is a better option. A case in point is Patagonia, which was able to cut plastic use by half simply by changing the way clothes are folded. Similar initiatives have been explored and implemented by 38% of brands surveyed by Fashion for Good.
Recycled Plastic Bags: Popular Option but Not Enough
Another popular way to reduce virgin plastic use is to incorporate recycled content into packaging, like Kohls, Patagonia, and Everlane. Many suppliers are now offering polybags with up to 100% recycled content without compromising on aesthetics and functionality. As for certifications, look for the Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), and the upcoming Recycled Material Standard (RMS), which is designed specifically to validate recycled content in packaging.
The most commonly used polybags, LDPE (low-density polyethylene), can be recycled if they are dry, clean, and free of food residue. But they require separate collection and processing. A How2Recycle label would be helpful for consumers.
Although most plastic packaging is technically recyclable, in practice, it is usually thrown away. Despite there being over 18,000 plastic bag collection sites in North America, such as Walmart and Target, the plastic film recycling rate is only 12.5% in the US and 20% in Europe. Contaminants such as ink, labels, and adhesive also affect the quality of end products.
That is why simply switching to recycled plastic bags is not enough. We need a systematic approach that ensures a steady supply and demand for the market for recycled plastic and that builds up corresponding infrastructure. Incorporating recycled content into packaging needs to be combined with designing for recycling. For example, using laser marking instead of ink, avoiding paper adhesive stickers, and instituting brand-funded plastic bag collection programs. Patagonia, for example, collects polybags at its distribution centers in North America and sends them to recyclers such as Trex or Novolex, who make new plastic bags or decking materials.
Still, using recycled plastic bags can only be an intermediate solution, given the difficulty in sorting and collection, and the energy-intensive and polluting recycling process. In the long run, we should focus on phasing out plastic altogether, which points us to …. biodegradable packaging.
Biodegradable Packaging: Not the Silver Bullet but Could Be Better
Biodegradable bags, commonly made from PLA (Polylactic acid) and PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates), are made from corn, sugarcane, or other starchy crops. Biodegradable bags have lower carbon emissions than traditional plastic and can break down in the right environment. In 2017, vegan luxury brand Stella McCartney switched plant-based biodegradable packaging by TIPA for single-use plastic. These bags are designed to fully decompose in 180 days.
Beware: There are different types of biodegradability. If you see bags labeled with certification like EN 13432, EN 14995, ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868, then they are industrially compostable. More popular and affordable, these PLA-based bags cannot decompose in the landfill or marine environment and require a high temperature and controlled environment typically provided by municipal composting systems, which are rare in the vast majority of the end market. Most US cities lack the necessary infrastructure to properly handle bioplastics, with a national average biowaste diversion rate of 6.1%.
A more expensive, but easier to biodegradable option is home compostable PHA bags, which can decompose at ambient temperature. There are no international standards for home compostability yet, but two national certifications are available: French standard NF T 51-800 Australian standard AS 5810. Even though PHA-based bags can fully break down in the backyards, yet the food composting rate in the U.S. is only 4.1%.
Marine degradability has no consistent standard yet since the trade-offs and benefits have not been sufficiently researched.
Biodegradable bags have other drawbacks. In addition to concerns that bioplastic may compete with biofuel or food production for raw materials, life cycle assessment studies also show that bioplastics entail larger environmental impacts in land use, freshwater consumption, and fertilizer use. To mitigate these unintended consequences, some innovative companies like Mango Materials are working on producing biodegradable plastics from biowaste or methane, a greenhouse gas. But these solutions are yet to be commercialized.
Another limitation is that when disposed of incorrectly, biodegradable plastics can contaminate conventional plastic recycling streams or release methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide) in the landfill. Therefore, brands and retailers need to be mindful of what diversion systems are actually available to most consumers and provide clear and prominent instructions on proper disposal
Paper Packaging: Some Critical Trade-Offs
Paper-based alternatives seem to fare better than plastic bags in consumer perception since it’s more widely collected at the curbside and wood is a renewable resource that biodegrades. H&M announced that it was piloting paper-based alternatives in India and planned to scale the solution.
But paper packaging also comes with challenges. For some brands, a key packaging requirement is transparency, for better inspection, quality control, and scanning barcodes through the bag. It might still work if the packaging is made with a translucent window (such as glassine paper) or for brands that have more flexibility in inventory management, though.
Paper performs better than plastic in recycling rates, but fares poorly in other environmental categories, such as land use and eutrophication (which causes algal blooms that kill fish). And you may find this surprising, but virgin paper bags actually have higher carbon emissions than their plastic counterparts because it requires a lot of energy to grind up the wood and create pulp, while plastic bags derive from by-products of petroleum refining. You need to use the paper bag three times to match the impact of a polybag. So if you are going for paper alternatives, I’d suggest sourcing from 100% recycled paper or FSC-certified paper to mitigate the risk of trade-offs.
But there is another problem when it comes to paper: it is not as durable. Most of our garments travel long distances from the production factories to cargo ships, then distribution centers and stores, passing by numerous conveyor belts, loading docks, and hands, before reaching us. It is difficult for a paper bag to survive such a long journey and protect the product inside from moisture, dirt, and tears.
Reusable Packaging – Requires Robust Reverse Logistics
Compared to single-use packaging, reusable alternatives can cut up to 80% of emissions and 87% plastic waste.
Some progressive brands have been experimenting with packing garments in light-weight, durable, reusable bags, but found it challenging to get enough packaging back from customers. Even when reusable bags did make their way from consumers to the store or distribution center, it is still challenging to consolidate them and ship them back to manufacturing sites, which are mostly based overseas. Reusable packaging could potentially be more impactful in future situations where production is located closer to market, and if the majority of brands, manufacturers, and logistics companies could align on a standardized packaging system.
At present, reusable packaging applies better to business models that have established robust reverse logistics systems, such as Rent the Runway, Stich Fix, or Thredup.
Another way is to design the packaging to be multi-functional. For example, start-up Returnity has designed reversible mailer bags that can be turned inside out into a tote bag, make-up bag, or duffle bags that customers can reuse for other purposes. However, not every brand can do this, because consumers only need so many reusable bags. (Just ask any eco-consumer burdened by 50 “eco-friendly” reusable branded totes).
In summary, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for sustainable packaging, each company has to balance the benefits and tradeoffs of different alternatives and choose what works for their specific supply chain. It is pivotal for brands to expand the focus from just the materials to the system as a whole. Admittedly, no company can address this systematic problem single-handedly. Supporting policies like extended producer responsibility, diverting subsidies away from the petroleum industry to plastic-free alternatives and infrastructure, industry standardization of packaging, would have much higher leverage in catalyzing a paradigm shift. Nevertheless, below are what brands and retailers can do now to contribute to a more eco-friendly packaging future:
1) Try to eliminate unnecessary packaging, and work with suppliers to minimize packaging size, thickness, or use bundle packing wherever possible.
2) Design the current polybag for easier recycling by using mono-materials and addressing issues with labels, stickers, and ink. Incorporate recycled content (GRS or RCS certified) whenever possible, and implement packaging recycling programs in distribution centers, warehouses, and retail stores.
4) For companies with existing reverse logistics systems in place (such as rental, refill, or take-back program) or that manufacture near the market, pilot reusable packaging.
5) For brands that focus on markets where the composting system is well-established, consider switching to home-compostable packaging, preferably made with secondary feedstock. Be sure to include clear disposal instructions for consumers.
6) If a company’s supply chain and inventory management system has enough flexibility to accommodate paper-based packaging, opt for recycled or FSC-certified paper. I’d also recommend combining this approach with a centralized recycling system at the distribution center and warehouses to recycle any polybags from the factory.
Companies that Provide More Sustainable Fashion Packaging
Noissue makes a completely backyard compostable mailer, which is waterproof, durable, write-able, stick-able, and printable, and it’s much stretchier than a standard polybag. The mailers are made from a combination of PBAT (a biodegradable polymer) and PLA (which is made up of plant materials like ﬁeld corn and wheat straw). Its manufacturing partners carry the TUV Austria certification for home compostability. If you’re a small brand, noissue’s minimums are ridiculously low compared to every other company out there: only 100 for their mailers and 250 for their tissue paper, stickers, and tape.
LimeLoop produces durable, lightweight, reusable packaging from upcycled billboard vinyl and recycled cotton. Consumers can choose to receive their product in a LimeLoop Shipper via an opt-in program at check out. LimeLoop also established a platform to allow participating brands and customers to track the shipper’s whereabouts and environmental impact data.
Founded in 2010, TIPA develops and designs a diverse range of fully compostable packaging applications for the fashion industry, including polybags and garment bags for apparel, accessories, jewelry, and more. TIPA offers flat pouches without adhesive and resealable bags where even the zippers are compostable. TIPA’s packaging performs like conventional plastic, yet unlike plastic, it returns safely to the earth, enriching nutrients, just like organic matter, under compost conditions. By offering compostable alternatives to conventional plastic packaging, TIPA helps brands, designers, and fashion powerhouses like Stella McCartney and Pangaia, reinforce their sustainability ethos throughout their supply chain and ensure their clothingmakes it to its destination safely and sustainably.
EcoEnclose offers a wide range of packaging options, including 100% recycled poly mailer (50% from post-consumer waste), kraft mailer, shipping box, corrugated bubble for void fill, flap and seals, shipping labels, stickers, all made from recycled materials. The company also has a detailed breakdown of each product, showing the amount of recycled content, and information on recyclability, and compostability. EcoEnclose also works with black algae ink, soy-based, and water-based ink to mitigate the negative impact from printing.
Repack makes reusable mailer bags from recycled post-consumer polypropylene. The packaging comes in three adjustable sizes which are designed to last at least 20 cycles. At the end of life, Repack works with partners to upcycle the mailer bags into other high-value products, such as laptop sleeves and passport cover. The company is also working on transiting to a more efficient transportation system, using vehicles fueled by renewable energy, and funding carbon reduction/capture projects to mitigate the emissions in its operations.