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Sustainable Packaging—Part 1

Jeff Falk

As a profitable business model, sustainability is a process of innovation and concern.1 The principles in this approach presuppose that through stewardship of the environment and by increasing the productivity with which all resources are used, waste is eliminated and superior products and sustainable profits result. Implementing the “right” strategy requires heightened awareness of trends in the industry, recognition of meaningful changes and skillful adaptation.2

In the first part of a series on sustainable packaging practices, GCI magazine looks at one company’s intensive four-year adoption of sustainable business practices, the challenges of shifting business models, the fortuity of timing and the resultant economic benefits.

Sustainable Business Model
Curtis Packaging, a designer and manufacturer of custom folding cartons, has converted its operations to 100% clean, renewable energy—85% wind power and 15% hydroelectric. According to the company, the conversion offsets more than 7.1 million pounds of carbon dioxide per year. To reach this level of proactive practice, the company first recognized a significant industry change and then determined how it would adapt to achieve its complementary goals. In this case, Curtis Packaging believed that going beyond basic compliance with sustainable practices was in the best of interest of both the environment and its business. Its sustainability goals were not merely incorporated into its business model; sustainability became the business model.

“Sustainability and ‘going green’ are terms that have recently gained a lot of traction in the media,” said Don Droppo, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing, Curtis Packaging. “Environmentally friendly initiatives gained a lot of momentum and hit the front burner three years ago when we had our first request for eco-friendly packaging from Estée Lauder. This launched a sustainable revolution at Curtis to green all aspects of our business.”

Previously, Curtis had practiced what it called “environmental responsibility,” considering it simply sound business practice to recycle all of its waste, install efficiency practices and equipment, and eliminate certain materials.

Estée Lauder’s request to replace a virgin European board was the springboard for Curtis Packaging’s research initiatives into environmentally friendly materials. The company had previously produced an environmentally friendly alternative to foil and metallized film lamination, CurtCHROME, but was challenged to find an alternate board substrate.

“We took their challenge very seriously, and scoured the U.S. for eco-friendly materials,” said Droppo. “We partnered with a paper mill that only produced environmentally friendly cover and text stocks for commercial printing, but they never had a paper board grade made for packaging. We worked rigorously with the mill, and tested different batches of .018 pt board to printability, convertibility, strength, etc. In the end, we developed a .018 paperboard that is Forestry Stewardship Certified [FSC], comprised of 50% post consumer waste [PCW] and made with wind power.”

The resulting packaging was a success for Estée Lauder’s line, and proved to be the catalyst for a new business model.
“Because of our volumes of research into environmentally friendly materials, FSC and wind power, we really started to look at our business in a more environmentally friendly manner,” said Droppo. “Every day at Curtis, we raise the bar to explore ways of performing a task in the most eco-friendly manner.”

Time, according to the company, was the biggest challenge. Because sustainable packaging is relatively uncharted territory, the shift required a great deal of research and education. Recognizing that sustainable packaging practices are evolving, Curtis joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), allowing the company to be on the forefront of sustainable issues, such as materials, design guidelines and legislation.

When Curtis Packaging made the announcement that it was shifting all of its energy needs to renewable energy in August 2006, it became one of the first printing and packaging companies in North America to be both FSC certified and wholly dependent on renewable energy.

The timing was also fortuitous, coinciding with Wal-Mart’s announcement regarding its short- and long-term sustainability initiatives (see Keeping Score), which placed heavy media attention on the issue. “In many cases, people were reading about the paradigm shift to sustainability for the first time,” said Droppo. “This only created more energy and enthusiasm.”

In addition, Curtis cites its sustainability initiatives as directly contributing to its rapid growth over the last four years—annual sales have doubled to $40 million in that period—with expectations that the forecast for the ongoing boom in the natural and organic personal care markets will translate to continued growth for the company.

“We have been awarded many pieces of new business from existing clients and new clients, due, in part, to our green approach toward packaging and being responsible corporate citizens,” said Droppo. “[Sustainability] makes sound business sense because the payback or savings to us can be realized very quickly and [it is] environmentally friendly. It’s the true definition of a win-win. Like decorating a house, protecting and preserving our future is an ongoing endeavor. These endeavors take a serious time and energy commitment.”

For additional information, revisit GCI magazine’s profile of John Delfausse, Aveda’s vice president of package development, and listen to the archive of the GCI webinar Beauty Goes Green: Manufacturing and Packaging.


  1. P Sheldon, Fundamentals of Sustainable Business in the 21st Century,
  2. J Neitzel, Facilitating Sustainability Strategy,