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Jaidyn Farar

Sustainable Packaging Guide For Ecommerce Business

by Jaidyn Farar

High-quality, durable packaging is crucial for protecting products during the shipping process. But once a consumer opens their package and retrieves their product, the packaging often goes straight into the trash can. Eventually, it ends up in a landfill, where it may stay for hundreds of years—or more.

Fortunately, your business has the power to break the cycle. By using biodegradable or recyclable packaging, or implementing other eco-friendly packaging strategies, you’ll minimize waste and show your customers that you care about one of the most pressing issues of our day: sustainability.

What is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is an alternative to plastics and other non-biodegradable materials. It’s made using biodegradable, recycled, or recyclable components such as bioplastics, paper, and other natural substances like bamboo. 

When brands switch to sustainable packaging, they demonstrate a commitment to protecting the environment and provide consumers with an easy way to improve their own sustainability efforts.

Note: Sustainable packaging should just be one part of your green shipping strategy. In addition to focusing on the materials you use to package and ship products, look for other ways to reduce your environmental impact, such as carbon-neutral shipping.

The three levels of packaging

The three levels of packaging include primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary packaging directly contains and protects a product. For example, if you sell beauty products, primary packaging would be the tubes or jars your products come in. Secondary packaging includes the containers used to ship products to consumers, such as boxes or mailers. Tertiary packaging groups large quantities of products to transport them together (think crates or pallets). 

In this article, we’ll primarily focus on how to optimize secondary packaging for sustainability. 

Biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable materials: What’s the difference?

Biodegradable materials can be broken down, decomposed, and returned to the environment by natural processes. These materials are typically organic and can be broken down into simpler compounds by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi.

Some biodegradable materials are also compostable, meaning they can break down into nutrient-rich compost that makes soil more fertile. If a biodegradable substance takes too long to break down or releases harmful chemicals, it’s not considered compostable.

Recyclable substances can be turned into new products through industrial processes, reducing the need for raw materials. 

Later in this article, we’ll dive deeper into the types of biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable packaging materials your business can use.

Why use sustainable packaging?

Using sustainable packaging protects the environment, strengthens your brand image, and appeals to eco-conscious consumers. 

  • Protect the environment. Plastic and styrofoam usually end up in landfills, where they take hundreds, or even thousands, of years to decompose. These materials can leach toxic chemicals into water supplies and harm local wildlife. 
  • Strengthen your brand image. In one survey, over half (55 percent) of U.S. consumers report that they’re concerned about the environmental impact of product packaging. These people want to see that your brand cares about the environment and is doing its part to protect the planet. When you make your position clear, they’ll be more likely to buy from you.
  • Gain a competitive advantage. Some businesses worry that sustainable packaging will drive up costs, which must either be absorbed by the business or passed down to consumers. But if you do need to increase prices, you’ll find that most customers stick with you. According to McKinsey, 60 to 70% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. By marketing your sustainable packaging initiatives, you’ll attract and retain customers, helping you stay ahead of the competition.

In short, your organization has a choice to make. Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution? By choosing to invest in sustainable solutions now, you’ll reap the benefits for years to come.

Best sustainable package materials

At this point, we’ve thrown around the phrase sustainable packaging more than a few times. But what exactly is sustainable packaging made of? Sustainable packaging materials can be made of many things, including paper, starch, and even fungi. 

  • Paper. Paper is a great packaging option because it’s biodegradable, recyclable, easy to print on, and affordable. Paper packaging materials include things like corrugated cardboard boxes, kraft paper, and molded cardboard inserts.
  • Cornstarch. Many sustainable material vendors create biodegradable packing peanuts and molded foam inserts from cornstarch. Because they dissolve when wet, these are excellent alternatives to traditional styrofoam. 
  • Fabrics. Biodegradable fabrics, made from things like hemp and cotton, can replace single-use plastic bags. 
  • Mushrooms. Some packaging manufacturers utilize mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to create biodegradable and compostable packaging.
  • Bamboo. Fast-growing and renewable, bamboo can be used to create various types of packaging.
  • Bioplastics. Unlike traditional plastics, which are made from fossil-fuel-based materials like petroleum, bioplastics come from natural sources. They degrade into water, carbon dioxide, biomass, and inorganic compounds.

So, what’s the most sustainable packaging? Any materials that come from natural sources and biodegrade are great options because they don’t have the same damaging effects as traditional plastics or styrofoam. 

While recyclable plastic is preferable to non-recyclable, avoid using it if possible, since recycling has limits and isn’t as environmentally friendly as minimizing plastic production in the first place.

Sustainable packaging strategies

According to Gartner, 83% of business leaders say that sustainability programs directly create both short- and long-term value for their organization, with 80% reporting that sustainability has helped them reduce costs. 

As you look for ways to make packaging more sustainable, remember that the materials you use are just one part of the equation. By reducing the size of packaging, shipping more items at a time, and educating your customers, you’ll find more success in sustainability.

“We [should] see sustainability as something that can help our business, as a business advantage. … We're going to be building things that truly help our business grow.” — Veena Harbaugh, director of sustainability at Sendle

Invest in sustainable materials

Many vendors offer sustainable boxes, mailers, filler material, and more—so you have lots of options when exploring sustainable packaging types. When you decide to make the switch to sustainable packing, start small. Order samples so you can see if the packaging will work with your products and your shipping strategy. To avoid creating unnecessary waste, use up your current packaging before making the switch.

Keep in mind that boxes, mailers, and filler material aren’t the only things you use to ship products. Ink, shipping labels, packing tape, and stickers also have the potential to harm the environment, so look into ways to source more sustainable versions of these essential materials.

Reduce the size of packaging

Whether or not you decide to purchase sustainable packaging, you can cut down on waste by reducing the size of packages. As you develop your packing process, your goal should be to fit products into perfectly-sized boxes without leaving lots of extra space. 

This doesn’t just save materials—it can also save you money. If you’re using flat-rate shipping, it’s to your advantage to use small boxes. Not using flat-rate shipping? Package size still makes a difference in cost. If your packages are large and lightweight, you could pay higher DIM weight prices because they take up more space in delivery vehicles.

Ship in bulk

Why ship more products at a time? It’s simple: one package, even a large package, uses fewer materials than multiple smaller packages. One simple way to encourage people to consolidate orders is to bundle products—for example, you might sell a ten-pack of socks rather than a two-pack.

If you don’t want to go the bundling route, at least ensure that if customers order multiple items, you ship them together instead of separately. In addition to cutting down on waste, shipping multiple items at once is advantageous from a financial perspective. 

In his Unboxing Logistics podcast episode, Tom Butt explains, “If you see your customers buying one thing, you're likely only going to ship that item by itself, and you're going to have to absorb that shipping cost. If they buy four to five things, and you can ship all of those things in one box, you can offset the incremental cost of shipping.”

Educate (current and future) customers

Seventy-nine percent of consumers want an easier way to identify environmentally friendly companies. You can use this to your advantage, tailoring marketing and customer communications to these individuals. 

Educating customers about your sustainable packaging initiatives will foster transparency, build trust, and empower them to make environmentally conscious choices. Use the following methods to communicate with your current and potential buyers.

  • Include package inserts. Include small inserts in shipped packages explaining the sustainable features of the packaging and encouraging reuse, recycling, or composting.
  • Create online content. Use your website and social media accounts to share detailed information about sustainable practices. If you participate in third-party sustainability initiatives like carbon offsetting, see if you can add a badge to your website.
  • Send information in order confirmation emails. Include a brief section in order confirmation emails highlighting your business's commitment to eco-friendly shipping.

Brands that lead sustainable packaging efforts

The following brands have made it clear that they prioritize sustainability in the production and distribution of their products. 


Known for its firm stance on sustainability, clothing brand Patagonia puts its money where its mouth is by using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified recycled materials or post-consumer waste (PCW) for all bags, boxes, and paper mailers. Similarly, product tags, stickers, polybags, bands, and shipping materials incorporate recycled and FSC-certified materials. 

The company states: “The best packaging is no packaging. That’s why we’re committed to reducing our impact and simplifying our shipping materials. By removing what’s unnecessary; collecting materials that can’t be recycled in your area; and switching polybags for cardboard where we can, we’re making better choices—we’re choosing a better future.”


Rothy's, which sells shoes, handbags, and accessories, demonstrates a strong commitment to sustainability by incorporating eco-friendly practices into their packaging and shipping processes. 

In addition to being made from 85% post-consumer recycled materials, shoe boxes are vegan, biodegradable, and 100% recyclable. And since the boxes are strong enough to be shipped alone, Rothy’s has eliminated “box-in-a-box shipping.”

Rothy's also partners with a third party to offset their carbon production, with credits benefiting the Amazon Rainforest. In 2019 alone, Rothy's successfully offset 9,775 tons of carbon.

The company states: “We take pride in being environmentally conscious in all aspects of our business, which means the way our shoes come to you is just as important as the shoes themselves. We’re always striving for zero waste, so our goal is to only use recycled and renewable materials in our packaging.”


Cosmetics brand Lush has embraced a shipping journey that prioritizes environmental consciousness. Currently, Lush ships products without unnecessary packaging, saving over half a million cellulose bags annually. 

The packaging Lush does use is made from recycled or biodegradable material; for example, they replace packing peanuts with eco-flo chips made with a potato starch base. Even informational leaflets are printed on 100% recycled paper. 

Lush's dedication to sustainable packaging not only minimizes environmental impact but also allows customers to enjoy products with a clear conscience.

The company states: “All this gives you the freedom to send birthday gifts in their birthday suits, giving presents with a clear conscience and treating yourself to a bath without unnecessary, environmentally-damaging unwrapping. You don’t have to listen to us if you don’t want to… the real proof is in the packing.”

Ship more sustainably with carbon offsets

Making the switch to sustainable packaging may seem costly or difficult, but it will pay off in the long run as you attract eco-conscious customers, build a better reputation, and do your part to keep our world clean.

But sustainable packaging isn’t the end-all, be-all. As your business continues to expand, look for ways to expand your sustainability efforts. For example, automating your distribution centers can significantly reduce energy consumption. 

An easy way to get started? Partner with a carbon-neutral shipping solution like EasyPost. In 2023, EasyPost announced that all shipments processed through the Shipping API are now carbon-neutral; EasyPost purchases carbon offsets from reliable organizations at no cost to shippers or their customers. With 62% of Americans anxious about climate change, moving to carbon-neutral shipping just makes sense.

Learn more about carbon offsets and get started today.