The environmental impact of the apparel industry is extensive, its emissions are equivalent to those of France, Germany, and the UK combined if the industry was a country. (Berg et al., 2020) The need for a sustainability movement in the apparel industry is without question. Particularly when it comes to packaging, consumer demand is growing. (Gilsenan, 2019) Consumers’ commitment to the added cost often associated with sustainable packaging, shows they will be the driving force behind a sustainability movement in the apparel industry.
Consequently, many companies are responding positively, embracing sustainable practices like introducing reusable bags instead of disposable plastic bags, and generically, exploring sustainable packaging design.
The apparel industry has always been fiercely competitive. Companies are always looking to outshine each other in all ways possible, with many currently using custom branded packaging, aiming for a luxurious feel, and a unique unboxing experience. It is not easy to balance environmental values, economical concerns, and still maintain attractively branded packaging options. Some sustainable packaging solutions popular in the market are versatile cardboard, packaging made from mushrooms and farming by-products (e.g. cotton hulls and corn husks), and plantable packaging (paper embedded with plant seeds). Packaging within the apparel industry has many hurdles to overcome, but below are some of the sustainable packaging trends that are helping move the needle in the right direction.
Reduce is the first word in the infamous montra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ for a reason. Often reducing material consumption is an easy packaging design strategy for companies. Sustainability teams can easily look at their packaging and reduce unneeded components and/or lightweight materials.
Recently, consumers have focused on one material category in particular: plastic. With the perception about plastic being bad (for the average consumer), your company may prioritize the reduction of or elimination of plastics. Non-plastic packaging solutions have, therefore, become something of a trend. One example of this is H&M replacing plastic packaging parcels with paper. However, replacing plastic is not always better – a life cycle assessment of alternatives is recommended to make sure you are making a holistic decision.
Patagonia tried to eliminate plastic poly bags from its production, only to find that without them, garments got damaged at a greater frequency. Damaged goods resulted in both financial and environmental costs. In their analysis, the damaged goods had a greater environmental impact than polybags.
Recently, Thredup ran a comparison between recycled poly bags and kraft paper mailers, leading to a switch of their kraft paper mailers back to recycled poly bags, at least for some orders. Thredup contributed the switch to the energy savings in a recent interview with Fashionista.
REI has been able to remove most single-use polybags by opting for polyethylene-lined shipping boxes and rolling some garments and tying them with a small amount of paper.
Lightweighting has been a go-to sustainability strategy for decades and is still an easy target. However, companies should always think about the consequences associated with thinner packages, especially with regards to plastic.
Rethinking End of Life
Rethinking a package’s lifespan is trending in the apparel industry. The creative minds of the industry are collectively working to envision a second life for the packaging which delivers the world’s clothing and shoes.
Reusable packaging is also trending. In 2018, Toad & Co started using reusable packaging made by Limeloop. Another company, RePack, is providing retailers an avenue to utilize reusable packaging. Filippa K and MUD Jeans are among the brands working with RePack.
It’s worth noting, that if consumers are just tossing these reusable items in the trash, the added weight and durability might come with higher environmental impacts. A life cycle assessment is recommended to make a holistic analysis between single use packaging and reusable packaging.
Apparel companies are designing their packaging for recyclability. Note that designing for recyclability and the packaging actually getting recycled are two different considerations. Check out our blog on the difference for more information.
TALA, a company we mentioned earlier in the blog, has courier bags and product packaging that are made of 100% recyclable plastic.
Compostable packaging options are increasing in every industry, and apparel is no exception. Companies like TIPA® and Futumura are producing bio-based clear garment poly bags that are certified home and/or industrially compostable. At TALA, their tags are plantable. The tags are filled with seeds, which change depending on the season. Tied up with a bow, the tag is bound with hemp twine making it fully biodegradable.
While compostable options are growing, it’s important to consider the average consumer’s access to a reliable composting facility whether it be in their home or in their community. Within the US, composting does not have a strong infrastructure, so this may not be the best option for all companies. Also, some compostable formats can contaminate recycling streams, so it’s important to provide clear messaging to consumers that compostable packaging cannot be recycled.
Embracing Recycled Content
Designing for end-of-life is one consideration within the packaging design journey. That being said, if there is no end market for materials at their end-of-life, more than likely they’ll end up in a landfill. Afterall, recycling is a business. “This (incorporating recycled content into the package design) creates a demand pull on the recycling system, helping it to be financially robust and thus able to successfully process discarded materials generated by brands.” (Davis et al., 2019) Examples of brands embracing recycled content include Rothy’s, whose boxes are made from 85% post-consumer recycled materials. Another brand, Allbirds makes their box using 90% post-consumer recycled content.
Designing for a positive future requires innovation, investment, and a commitment to the ongoing movement toward sustainable packaging. The apparel industry has to think through protecting their product, foremost, while also packaging it in the most sustainable way. This can also include looking at the entire supply chain and optimizing where possible. Each strategy has to be evaluated for each brand because of unique logistics, distribution, and packaging requirements.
Trayak has been helping leading brands of all sizes make data-driven sustainability decisions for over 10 years. If you would like to learn more about our tools and services please contact us.
Berg, A., Magnus, K.-H., Kappelmark, S., Granskog, A., Lee, L., Sawers, C., & Polgampola, P. (2020). (rep.). Fashion on Climate – How the fashion industry can urgently act to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Retail/Our%20Insights/Fashion%20on%20climate/Fashion-on-climate-Full-report.pdf.
Davis, T., Thomas, D. de, & Matta, T. (2019). (rep.). ASTRX REVIEW OF MATERIAL FLOW AT MRFS AND REPROCESSORS. The Recycling Partnership & Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://astrx.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/ASTRX-Review-of-Material-Flow-at-MRFs-and-Reprocessors-1.pdf.
Gilsenan, K. (2019, April 16). Lifting the Lid on Sustainable Packaging [web log]. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://blog.gwi.com/chart-of-the-week/lifting-the-lid-on-sustainable-packaging/.
Holding, A., & Gendell, A. (2019). (rep.). POLYBAGS IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY: EVALUATING THE OPTIONS. Fashion for Good in collaboration with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://fashionforgood.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/FashionforGood_Polybags_in_the_Fashion_Industry_Whitepaper-1.pdf.