What is sustainable packaging and why is it important

MAY 07, 202115 MIN READ
What is sustainable packaging and why is it important

Sustainability is a hot topic as we experience a cultural shift towards social and environmental consciousness. Many people are becoming more aware of their consumption habits and are trying to avoid waste when possible.

Since people are trying to cut back on the amount of waste they produce, they are opting for products with sustainable packaging. In turn, they are leaning away from products that are packaged in materials that are bad for the environment.

Many companies are taking steps towards sustainability to contribute to conservation and to appeal to customers that value eco-friendly living.

In this post, we’re going to talk about what sustainable packing is and why it is important. We will take a look at some of the top sustainable packaging options for eCommerce businesses before we dive into the step-by-step process for creating a sustainable packaging plan of your own.

What is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is packaging that is designed in a way that does not negatively impact the environment. This applies to the way that the packaging is sourced and developed and to the materials that it is made of.

There are a few things that make packaging “sustainable.” First, it must not contribute to excessive carbon emissions. Manufacturing and sourcing some materials creates more carbon dioxide than can be offset by the natural environment. These carbon emissions are thought to lead to global warming and climate change, so in order to be sustainable, these materials cannot contribute to this problem.

Another characteristic of sustainable packaging is that it does not cause excessive waste that will end up as litter or in a landfill. Eco-friendly packaging is generally recyclable, compostable, or reusable.

The bottom line is that sustainable packaging does not harm the environment in terms of how it is manufactured or how it is discarded.

We would like to note that some eco-friendly materials increase packaging or shipping costs. If you are committing to sustainability, this is an investment you must make. Fortunately, some buyers will even pay more to invest in sustainable companies. Some of these costs can be tacked into your prices if your target audience tends towards eco-friendly living.

Why is sustainable packaging important?

There are a couple of reasons that brands opt for sustainable packaging. Some go this route because of a genuine desire to make their business more eco-friendly, and others use sustainable packaging to appeal to buyers that prefer more sustainable lifestyles.

Many B2B sellers seek out sustainable packaging alternatives to reduce their “carbon footprints,” which refers to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in their operations. They also opt for sustainable alternatives to conserve non-renewable natural resources. All of this contributes to efforts that reduce climate change and maintain a life-sustaining environment.

As we mentioned, some wholesale sellers invest in sustainable packaging as a way to appeal to a specific type of buyer. This ties into green-washing. Green-washing is a marketing technique that uses buzzwords that sound “eco-friendly” to appeal to Earth-conscious buyers. Some of the popular green-washing buzzwords include “non-toxic,” “natural,” BPA-free,” and “biodegradable.”

Green-washing is a bit of an ethical gray area. As a B2B seller, it is up to you to determine what your motivation is for switching to sustainable packaging.

10 sustainable packaging options for eCommerce businesses

There are quite a few different sustainable packaging options that you can choose from. Let’s take a look at some of the top eco-friendly packaging options for eCommerce businesses.

1. Plastic-free

Plastic is a polymer-based synthetic material, so it can take up to 500 years to decompose in landfills. It is environmentally taxing to produce, and the long decomposition time can be very harmful to many ecosystems. Even though some plastic is recyclable, it is not a sustainable material.

Since plastic is very inexpensive to produce and quite effective for packaging, many wholesalers automatically use it. Cutting plastic out of our packaging plan requires that you seek alternatives.

2. Bioplastics

Have you heard of bioplastic? Bioplastic is a plastic-like material made from plant-based materials. Since bioplastics are made from plants, they are compostable and biodegradable. This kind of material leaves a significantly smaller carbon footprint.

There are a few different ways that bioplastics are manufactured. They are typically based on renewable resources, including glucose (sugar), starch, or protein, that are derived from plants. This is different from normal plastics that are made from natural gasses like petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource.

Some popular materials that are used to make bioplastics include seaweed, algae, cornstarch, corn, beans, sugar cane, and root vegetables. These plants can be reproduced and grown again and again. Bioplastic is typically non-toxic to humans and other animals, but it is not a good idea to consume them since some bioplastics may be manufactured with inedible materials.

Bioplastic decomposes in as little as three to six months, so if it does end up littered or thrown in nature, it is not as big of a deal as plastic litter. Also, it won’t cause much harm to the environment since it’s made with mostly non-toxic materials.

The downside of bioplastics is that they are significantly more expensive than regular plastic. There really isn’t much you can do about this elevated price point because it is simply a cost that you must absorb if you want to make the switch.

Bioplastics are becoming more and more sturdy as the formulas developed to mimic

We’d also like to point out that sometimes recycled plastic is labeled as bioplastic, so this is something to pay attention to if you are branding your products and business as “plastic-free.”

3. Paper alternatives

Using paper alternatives whenever possible is a good start for making a switch towards sustainability. It is common for packages to be shipped in cardboard boxes or paper envelopes, so these packaging materials are readily available.

Some sellers use crinkled paper to cushion fragile items so that they don’t break during shipment. This can be used in place of plastic bubbles or packaging peanuts.

Paper product wrapping can be used in place of plastic in some situations. For example, bars of soap and similar products can be individually wrapped in paper rather than plastic. Even small switches like this are important, especially when you’re selling products in bulk quantities.

Although paper isn’t the most reusable material, a lot of paper and cardboard can be recycled, so that earns it another point for sustainability.

4. Biodegradable packing peanuts

Styrofoam packing peanuts have been used for shipping fragile items for quite some time. However, styrofoam and sustainability do not go hand-in-hand, so these are not an option if you are switching to more eco-friendly packaging.

Biodegradable peanuts are another option that is available to sellers. These packing peanuts function very similarly, except they are totally biodegradable. In fact, most biodegradable packing peanuts can be dissolved with water.

Biodegradable packing peanuts are usually made out of starch that comes from corn, potatoes, and other plants. Packing peanuts made from plants are also non-toxic, so they shouldn’t cause issues if they are accidentally consumed by animals or young children.

Starch-based packing peanuts are a bit more expensive than styrofoam ones, but that’s the cost of sustainability.

5. Glass

Glass is a sustainable option for product packaging since it is more recyclable than plastic and can be reused. Plastic is made from natural materials, so even though it does take a while to decompose, it doesn’t harm the environment as it breaks down.

Glass can be used to package many different products, especially liquids. This is useful for sellers that offer beauty supplies, cleaning supplies, food items, and more.

The only downsides of glass are that is a bit more expensive and it can be more fragile than plastic. Glass is more likely to shatter than plastic is, so you have to make sure that you are strategic with your packaging design so that the product is not destroyed as it travels from point A to point B.

Some argue that glass is not the most sustainable option because it depletes the Earth of natural resources. Although the resources it uses are renewable, it disturbs ecosystems when the materials are sourced. However, it is still less harmful than the toxic chemicals that are used to make plastic, so it is up to you to decide what to do.

6. Compostable packaging

Using packaging that is made of compostable materials is another great option for B2B sellers. Not only does compostable packaging help avoid the pile-up of harmful materials in landfills, but it also contributes to the regeneration of fertile soil. This is a win-win.

Compostable packaging is often plant-based and made of biodegradable materials.

Most people do not have compost bins in their homes. However, some waste management and recycling companies offer compost pickup. Compost pickup services take the materials and possess them properly so that they break down as they were intended to. Compost pickup is not as common as trash and recycling pickup yet, but this is something that is growing in prevalence.

7. Reusable packaging

You’ve likely heard the motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” in reference to more environmentally conscious living. Some brands are leaning into the second “R,” reuse to make their packaging more sustainable.

Some brands leave notes inside of their green packaging to give buyers some ideas and inspiration on how to reuse the packaging. One way that sellers can get their buyers involved in the sustainability movement is to invite them to share their innovative reuse or upcycling of packaging on social media with a special hashtag. This adds a fun twist that can double as brand exposure.

8. Bamboo-based packaging

Bamboo is a fast-growing plant that thrives in a variety of environments. There are hundreds of species of bamboo that grow all around the world.

Since this plant is so plentiful and even considered invasive in some situations, it makes it a very sustainable option for developing a variety of items, including packaging. The wood from the bamboo is very sturdy and can be used in its natural state, or other products can be made from it.

There is a lot of variety in bamboo packaging. Paper and cardboard-like materials can be made from bamboo. It is also possible to make containers from bamboo to package liquids, including cleaning supplies and cosmetic products. Some manufacturers even create sustainable packaging with a combination of bamboo and glass.

Not only is bamboo an eco-friendly material, but it is functional, sturdy, and appealing to the eye.

9. Cork

Cork is another material used to create eco-friendly packaging. Cork is made from the bark of a special species of oak trees. This plant-based packaging material is sturdy and physically appealing.

The bark grows back and can be harvested again and again, which is good for a couple of things. The first positive is that its ability to regrow and replenish proves that it doesn’t harm the plant. The second benefit is that the tree continues to absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis as it regrows.

Cork can be used to create different kinds of containers. Since it is durable and absorbs some shock, it can be used to pack and ship items that need a bit of protection in transit.

In addition to being biodegradable and sustainable, its natural properties eliminate moisture and odor. That’s why it is often used to plug bottles of wine and other liquids.

Cork is also fire resistant which could make it suitable for packaging flammable products. Some manufacturers use it for the lids of candles.

10. Recycled materials

Recycled materials can also be good for packaging materials. This could include recycled glass, recycled plastic, recycled cardboard, recycled paper, and more.

Many businesses even use recycled plastic in their packaging. Although this is not the most sustainable option available, it helps to cut down the creation of single-use plastic waste.

Aside from packaging, some companies actually make products out of recycled materials. This could be something to look into if you’re trying to make more sustainable moves in your business.

How to create your own sustainable packaging plan

Are you ready to transition to sustainable packaging in your business? Let’s take a look at how to leave behind the materials that are bad for the environment, and shift towards greener packaging options.

1. Assess the situation

The first step of creating a sustainable packaging plan is to assess the current situation. Are you starting your business with sustainable packaging, or are you transitioning from other sorts of packaging?

If you are starting from scratch, you’re going to need to identify what sort of packaging you need for both individual products and for shipping. This will vary from product to product, so you need to take a close look at your individual offer. Consider who will be using the product, where it will be sold, and how it will need to be shipped.

However, if you are transitioning over from a different type of packaging. Simply make a list of all of the packaging items that you are currently using. This way, you can see what you want or need to replace.

2. Identify potential alternatives

Once you identify what you need to swap out, start identifying what you could use as an alternative. You can reference the list of the alternatives we’ve mentioned above and see what other similar brands are doing.

For example, if you are currently packaging your products in plastic bottles, you can start seeking glass bottles or bioplastic bottles to replace them.

Do this for each piece of packaging you need for your products and for shipping.

3. Find potential suppliers

You’re going to need to source your sustainable packaging, so you’ll need to find suppliers. We recommend heading over to Alibaba.com and browsing the listed products. You can also post your needs on the Request for Quotation (RFQ) feed and suppliers can reach out to you.

4. Compare your options

Once you find a few potential suppliers, compare the options you have. Take a look at the pricing and benefits of options from each supplier.

See which suppliers can meet your needs at the price that makes the most sense. You can also leverage competing offers to negotiate with different suppliers.

5. Start using sustainable packaging

With everything in line, it’s time to start using your sustainable packaging. Some companies go all in at once, and others phase in their sustainable packaging.

You can start with small changes, because they will truly add up. Transitioning slowly is a good idea, especially if you are worried about the added costs that come with greener packaging alternatives.

If you have leftover packaging materials that are not eco-friendly, you should use them up rather than throw them away. Your audience will understand that you’re transitioning.

Examples of brands with great sustainable packaging

Still not sure where to get started with your packaging? Let’s take a look at a couple examples of brands that have great sustainable packaging that you can use for inspiration.


Lush is a hygiene and beauty brand that sells soaps, bath bombs, skincare products, and more. Sustainability is a core component of Lush packaging, and the company approaches sustainability in a number of ways.

One major shift that Lush has taken is making “naked” products available. For some solid products, such as bars of soap, they forgo the packaging all together. Since these products don’t use packaging, they are truly zero-waste.

Lush also uses recycled plastic for bottles and recycled materials for tags and labels. They also use a lot of recyclable bottles and offer incentives for buyers who return pieces of packaging back to the store. Lush wraps some products in a cellophane that is made of bioplastic.

Lush has also been a leader in one sustainable beauty movement. They have been on the frontlines of creating solid bars of shampoo and conditioner to cut out the need for large plastic bottles. This is particularly revolutionary for people who live low-waste or no-waste lifestyles.

Some packaging, including their Knot-Wraps, can be reused as accessories, which is also pretty cool and definitely resonates with their target audience.

Lush started their movement towards sustainability way back in 2012, and they continue to make improvements to push for a greener tomorrow


Dell, a popular computer brand, does not use totally sustainable packaging, but they do use one component that is quite interesting. Instead of styrofoam, it uses plant-based materials that are made of mushrooms and other plants.

This is an interesting styrofoam alternative. Not only is the mushroom packaging better for the environment, it is sturdier and protects the products better. This packaging can be chopped up and placed in the garden to compost and can even be used as mulch.

Sell on Alibaba.com

Leveraging a major B2B eCommerce marketplace to sell your products can help you to start, grow, or scale your business. Alibaba.com is one of the most popular B2B eCommerce platforms in the world.

Alibaba.com is trusted by over 14 million buyers from around the globe. That means that you can count on warm leads coming across your product listings on the regular.

What sets Alibaba.com apart from its competitors is the support that it provides to its sellers. All sellers have access to a Seller Central portal that includes a variety of tools for starting or growing your wholesale business. These tools include demand forecasting, analytics, lead generation, advertising, storefront customization, seller support, and more.

To start selling on Alibaba.com, you must create an account and indicate “Seller” as your trade role. Once your account is approved, you can customize your storefront and list your items. The process is very straight forward.

You can start selling on Alibaba.com here.