Sustainable Innovation

  • By adopting sustainable packaging and methods deemed more eco-conscious, brands are able to appeal to a wider consumer base.
  • The best way any company can explore increased use of recycled content is to discuss goals and objectives, performance requirements and suppliers’ technical capabilities.
  • Biodegradables represent the fastest-growing material segment in packaging.
  • Partnerships should enable brands to have a healthy emphasis on creating environmentally friendly packaging that isn’t perceived as over-packaged—but still addresses the brand story.

While the world keeps turning, the rate of change and speed of advancement in the consumer market is enough to make your head spin. It is hard to grasp the significant changes that have revolutionized the industry in the past decade, much less what that change might look like in the coming years. To continue thinking about your product and its packaging in the same way you have in the past can mean doom as the world speeds on by.

It feels as though there are so few new ideas in proportion to the speed at which expectations escalate, particularly when it comes to truly green packaging. Nonetheless, companies now have to decide whether to think differently about their packaging or be left behind.

Consumers are becoming more educated on sustainability and its role in packaging. They are looking closely at what is really sustainable and holding brands more accountable for making sure that they’re staying true to their message. Environmentally responsible packaging, in part, means decreased packaging sizes, an increased use of recycled or compostable materials, and greater accountability of suppliers. “We have long recognized that packaging plays a front and center role in both the consumer first moment of truth—in store—and second moment of truth when consumers interact with our products in their homes,” said Jenny Rushmore, global sustainability leader for P&G Beauty & Grooming.

Efficiency of Resources

While still looking at price, consumers are increasingly interested in their personal impact on the environment, and are demanding more from brand owners. By adopting sustainable packaging and methods deemed more eco-conscious, brands are able to appeal to a wider consumer base in a competitive marketplace.

Many consumers believe that products have too much packaging. Because of this, brand owners are downsizing and lightening the protective covering that goes around their products. Those brand owners are seeing benefits from these efforts by realizing material savings and increased demand from consumers. For today’s brands, it is a profitable business model that holds to principles concerned with stewardship of the environment. Resources are used more productively and efficiently, waste is eliminated and sustainable profits result, and the secondary rewards include consumer retention.

Greek brand Korres, for example, claims that by adopting a streamlined design, it has managed to save 11 tons of plastic manufacturing material a year, simply by cutting the amount of material used. Looking outside the industry for inspiration, Puma’s innovative shoe bag packaging and distribution system will hit stores in late 2011, and reduces the paper used for shoe boxes by 65% and carbon emissions by 10,000 tons per year. The company’s remaining packaging materials used will be fully sustainable by 2015. Ideas like this can inspire new ways of thinking “outside the box.”

In terms of market segmentation, recycled material accounts for the largest packaging category. Neal’s Yard Remedie uses postconsumer regrind (PCR) PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, while Burt’s Bees is going even further, making commitments to use only recycled materials. The U.S. company has also pioneered the use of TerraSkin wraps, a paper alternative packaging for bar soaps. Aveda is well-known for its efforts, increasingly translating its sustainable ethos for formulation into its packaging. According to the Organic Monitor, Aveda is the largest user of PCR plastic in the industry, claiming to save more than one million tons in virgin plastic every year. The company has also reduced its carbon footprint by recycling an estimated 37 million polypropylene caps, ensuring that all its packaging is made up of at least 80% recycled materials and also reducing energy consumption by using wind power at its Minnesota manufacturing facility.

A new report from the U.S.-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition guides companies on how to boost recycled content in plastic packaging, and highlights practical solutions for overcoming common technical challenges. Lack of material collection and sorting infrastructure are identified as the main difficulties in securing a reliable and plentiful supply of recycled material. Additional hurdles can be material quality, price volatility and process modification needs, notes the study. Those involved with packaging decisions are advised to consider adjusting their design to allow for PCR content but cautioned against designing in unintended negative environmental impacts in the process. The best way any company can explore increased use of recycled content is to discuss goals and objectives, performance requirements and technical capabilities with their supply chain partners, according to the report.

In a unique recycling endeavor that resulted in a successful marketing venture, Preserve, a consumer goods company that markets toothbrushes and razors, recently teamed up with Continuum, a global innovation design consultancy headquartered in Boston, to create the Mail Back Pack. The lightweight package, made from a combination of polypropylene and polyethylene, doubles as a return envelope. Consumers simply place the toothbrush after use in its original package and mail it back to Preserve, free of charge, so it can begin its next life stage. The innovation is also in how the company presented the product on the shelf, without even being able to see the toothbrush inside the package. The value presentation to the consumer is that the toothbrush is made primarily from recycled materials and can be recycled itself. The results reveal that consumers have taken notice. Within three weeks of a two-stage launch at Whole Foods and Target, the package is outselling Preserve’s previous package by 37%.

Bio-based and Biodegradable

Natures Organic uses recycled PET and supports the “endless bottle” concept, which results in approximately 240 tons of PET materials being reused and recycled every year, according to Justin Dowel, managing director. The company also recently partnered with Cardia Biohybrid, which will provide bioplastic cap material. “Bioplastic is made from renewable plant-based ingredients, as opposed to a petro-plastic (PVC, PET and PP) made from crude oil,” explained Dowel.

Biodegradables represent the fastest-growing material segment in packaging. Biodegradable materials are easily decomposed by microorganisms and reduce packaging waste. Among biodegradables, bioplastics are garnering the greatest attention.

While there is growing research in bioplastics packaging, there are concerns about high-heat sensitivity and water permeability that prevent such packaging to be used for many cosmetic products—creams, lotions and shampoos. Yet the demand continues to swell, presenting an opportunistic market as bioplastics evolve. “P&G research has shown us that around 70% of consumers around the world want more environmentally friendly products, but they’re not willing to compromise on performance, aesthetics or value,” said P&G’s Rushmore. Brand owners are aiming to overcome existing concerns by improving performance of its biopolymer packaging.

P&G recently announced plans to use a renewable plastic from Braskem SA, which manufactures the material using ethanol made from sustainably grown Brazilian sugarcane [additional information on this partnership is available in the November 2010 issue’s “Inside Brazil” column]. The HDPE material will be used for select Pantene Pro-V, Cover Girl and Max Factor brands packaging. The pilot launch will be rolled out globally during the next two years, with the first products expected on shelf in 2011. By using a sugarcane-derived plastic instead of traditional petroleum-based plastic, P&G beauty brands hope to make a meaningful environmental improvement by reducing the use of non-renewable materials.

Brazilian brand Natura will also be using green polyethylene packaging produced by Braskem for a range of soap refills, and a rollout for other products is expected as soon as supplies become available.

Sugarcane-derived plastic is made from a renewable resource using an innovative process that transforms sugarcane into high-density polyethylene plastic. It is said to be completely recyclable in current reprocessing facilities. The technology is similar to that used for Coca-Cola’s 30% plant-based PlantBottle, which uses sugarcane- and molasses-derived PET. The usage of the new material represents another step in the company’s commitment to environmental sustainability and the development of sustainable innovation products through its work with external partners. The plan is the result of more than three years of work, research and collaboration with trusted partners to innovate in the realm of sustainable packaging materials. “This innovation is truly consumer-driven,” said Rushmore. “It was designed to meet the needs of consumers who want more sustainable products without trade-offs. This new packaging has significant environmental benefits compared to traditional plastics, but looks, feels and acts exactly the same, and will be sold at the same price as before.’’

And changes from a giant like P&G is a sure sign of change in the mainstream marketplace. Mirel continues developing bioplastic materials to replace petroleum polymers. Mirel’s bioplastic materials are made through the fermentation of corn sugar, and can be biodegraded by the microbes present in natural soil or water environments. The material combines the expected durability and versatility of traditional petroleum-based plastics with biodegradable properties, providing brand owners with a unique material for use in their products. Mirel can be fabricated into compact cases, lipstick cases, mascara containers, lip balm tubes, brush handles, jars and caps. The products are currently available, and several cosmetic companies are trying the materials to see if they fit with their products. The company expects to see the materials used in beauty packaging and on the shelves in the near future.

Cereplast, Inc. designs and manufactures proprietary starch-based, renewable plastics as well, and the company is making a breakthrough with plastic made from algae. The algae-based resins carry the potential of replacing 50% or more of petroleum content used in traditional plastic resins.

Cereplast says the algae is close enough to the starches— such as corn, wheat and tapioca—that the company already turns into plastics. The problem is not the science, it’s the demand. Getting enough of the resource to produce mass quantities is the challenge. However, Frederic Scheer, chairman and CEO, said the company has identified a partner that potentially could provide a steady supply and is entering into a strategic partnership for this technology platform.

“Algae-based resins represent an outstanding opportunity for companies across the plastic supply chain to become more environmentally sustainable and reduce the industry’s reliance on oil,” said Scheer. With Cereplast on target in terms of timing, he believes that this breakthrough technology could result in a significant future for algae in packaging.

The bottom line is that green packaging is not a trend that is slowing down. Sustainable packaging has experienced positive growth over the past two years and is expected to continue. According to Global Industry Analysts’ Sustainable (Green) Packaging: A Global Strategic Business Report, the green packaging market should to be worth $142 billion by 2015. Drivers for growth include increased awareness about environmental hazards related to disposal and recycling of packaging wastes, stricter regulations and cost-cutting measures. And beauty brands are looking at sustainable packaging more and more. The study cites more than 600 new beauty products with a green label were introduced in Europe alone during the past two years, driven by consumer preference for eco-friendly plastic packaging materials.

Taking Bigger Steps

Although it is making strides, the beauty industry is lagging behind other product categories in adopting sustainable packaging, according to Organic Monitor. Although packaging is the highest environmental footprint of beauty products, research finds that it is generally overlooked when brand owners look at sustainability. Brand owners are focusing on green formulations, resource efficiency and life cycle assessments of their products when developing sustainability plans. Even organic beauty—many of which have sustainability built into their corporate ethos—are lagging in adopting sustainable packaging, according to the research.

Using natural resources and skipping the plastics manufacture altogether requires innovation of a different kind. Waco, TX-based Whole Tree has been researching uses for coconut husks for two years and recently partnered with the packaging firm Compadre to design and test different uses for coconut-based materials. In addition to creating packaging from the husks, the companies are working to improve the lives of coconut farmers by providing more income for farmers by using the husks. The company has developed a nonwoven process for combining coconut fiber with thermoplastic to create a strong, durable composite that can be formed for packaging. The packaging is primarily used for packaging that goes inside boxes, but it is exploring possibilities for outer packaging for a variety of applications as well.

Another potential innovation in sustainable packaging is quite simple: banana leaves. Israeli designer Tal Marco developed a concept that uses natural banana leaves, an abundant resource in many regions of the world. She contends that the waxlike surface is ideal, the leaves are very flexible and can last a long time after being cut from banana trees.

Therefore, they can be adapted to many types of packaging, and can be cut to form using die-cutting technology then folded into numerous forms without glue. The unique qualities of this material also allow packages to be opened by tearing the banana leaf along its natural perforation. Marco is working to develop applications for the beauty market, as well as other industries.


Companies seeking more sustainable ways of working—from materials to the energy used—know it involves key relationships. Partnerships with suppliers that think creatively to provide packaging innovation enable brands to respond to the ever-evolving consumer needs in the market. Brands that make it known they are interested in new innovations appreciate hearing from forward-thinking suppliers.

“We are constantly approached by suppliers who are testing breakthrough technologies, as they are aware of our passion and willingness to change for the greater good of the environment,” said Natures Organic’s Dowell. “Regardless of price, we are always looking to move to more sustainable materials that will reduce our impact on the environment, as well as continue our promise to consumers that we will offer the most natural/environmental product we can.”

Partnerships should enable brands to have a healthy emphasis on creating environmentally friendly packaging that isn’t perceived as over-packaged—but still addresses the brand story. With sustainability here to stay and as a catalyst for next-generation packaging innovation, we can have an eye toward the future in a changing global marketplace.

Sara Mason is a freelance writer based in the Chicagoland area. She was previously managing editor of GCI magazine.

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