Is paper really preferrable over plastic? What certifications and claims can we actually trust? Is buying recycled as eco-friendly as it sounds?
I’ve partnered with EcoEnclose to dive into these tough questions about sustainable packaging.
Sustainable brands often spend years developing their earth-friendly products, but all too often packaging becomes an afterthought. (I’ve received eco-conscious leggings made from recycled plastic bottles in… yes, virgin plastic one-use packaging.)
But don’t worry conscious consumers and brands—there is a better way. There are sustainable packaging options out there that match the earth-friendly values of the products inside of them.
I’d like to introduce you to EcoEnclose—a company focused on providing 100% sustainable packaging solutions! When I was doing some research on eco-friendly packaging, it quickly became clear to me that EcoEnclose was a leader and innovator in this space.
So I’m excited to share that Saloni of EcoEnclose is sharing her knowledge in this interview about ecological packaging solutions, responsible manufacturing, how to determine the sustainability of different materials, what certifications to trust, and so much more.
What’s the story behind EcoEnclose? How did the company start, and how has it grown to what it is today?
As with many companies, EcoEnclose started with the thought, “there has to be a better way.” Thirsties, a cloth diaper company, was dismayed by the fact that they had to ship eco-friendly alternatives to disposable diapers in virgin, single-use plastic. Thus, the search for a more sustainable poly mailer was launched. After years of hearing “no” to the question of whether or not these mailers could be made with recycled material, we finally developed a mailer that is made with 100% recycled material, is fully recyclable, can be easily reused at least once, and is printed with water-based inks. Since then, EcoEnclose has expanded into a leading provider of earth-friendly shipping supplies for e-commerce companies of all sizes. We offer everything from custom-cut, 100% recycled corrugated shipping boxes, to 100% recycled poly mailers, to 100% recycled kraft mailers, to 100% recycled shipping labels. In addition to this, we are the only company that can print with algae-based inks.
Today, we have the privilege of working with nearly 10,000 e-commerce brands each year. We are so impressed with our clients, many of whom are at the cutting edge of what it means to run a sustainable business.
EcoEnclose focuses heavily on recycled materials, What are the major environmental benefits of using recycled materials?
There are two main reasons we focus so heavily on recycled content.
The first is that goods made with recycled materials almost always require fewer resources and have a lower carbon footprint to manufacture, because the raw materials being used were already extracted and converted into usable inputs. For example, one ton of recycled paper saves 7000 gallons of water and 4200 kWh of electricity compared to virgin paper. One ton of recycled plastic saves 16.3 barrels of oil and 5,774 kWh over virgin plastic.
The second reason is that creating a demand for recycled content is essential to ensuring consumers and companies can actually recycle their waste. When material is recycled, it is then sorted into like materials or commodities, baled and sold to manufacturers who then convert those inputs into new goods. Those manufacturers are only willing to buy bales of recycled commodities if they know there is demand for the recycled goods they produce. The entire infrastructure and business of recycling therefore depends on whether or not companies and consumers are willing and interested in buying recycled.
Paper is generally viewed as a more sustainable alternative to plastic. As you cover on your website, it’s not quite that simple—could you explain more?
Comparing the sustainability of two items or materials is no easy task, and there is no fully agreed upon methodology for choosing a winner. We find it easiest to break the question of “how sustainable is an item” into sub-questions:
- How resource-intensive is it to manufacture the item?
- How readily renewable are the raw inputs that go into the item?
- How easily can the item be made with recycled content?
- How much pollution is created in manufacturing and distributing the item?
- What is the overall carbon footprint of manufacturing and distributing the item?
- How sustainable is the likely end of life scenario for the item?
When comparing a paper mailer and a poly mailer of similar sizes, the paper ones are typically going to be more resource-intensive to manufacture, generate more pollution, and have a higher carbon footprint than the plastic mailers.
On the other hand, paper can be more easily made with recycled content (and more post-consumer waste in particular). Additionally, its raw materials (trees) are not only renewable, but when grown responsibility, tree forests are an important player in carbon sequestration. Finally, paper has a more sustainable end-of-life story—it is more likely to be recycled and if for some reason it ends up as litter, it will naturally biodegrade.
When people ask us whether they should choose recycled paper or recycled poly mailers if they aim to be more sustainable, we ask them to think through what elements of sustainability are most critical to them.
Many focus on carbon footprint, as the concept of a “Life Cycle Analysis” has gained popularity as a way to make sustainability decisions. We encourage these companies to consider 100% recycled poly mailers. Other companies might focus on having zero negative impact on marine plastic pollution. These companies might opt for paper-based packaging, as part of a broader strategy to avoid plastic altogether.
While we don’t promote one over the other, we are proud to offer as robust a line as possible of both recycled poly and recycled paper mailers, so thoughtful companies can make the best decision for their unique business.
What kinds of certifications (or signs, commitments, etc.) should consumers look for to ensure that a brand or product is truly sustainable?
There are countless certifications out there (Eco Label Index has a great list), ranging from broad ones like Certified B Corporations that look at the entire breadth of an organization to extremely narrow ones like “Bird-Friendly Coffee”, which identifies coffee that has been grown using shade management practices that provide good bird habitats.
Certifications are typically well-developed and rigorous, and therefore, can be very helpful for conscious consumers, particularly when someone is shopping for goods in a retail environment or other channel in which there is little to go on beyond the label and packaging itself.
Programs such as Green Seal and EcoLogo have established a myriad of standards for different industries, ranging from home cleaning products to hotels and lodging. And programs such as the Cradle to Cradle Certification can help identify goods that were designed with comprehensive consideration to its ecological impacts.
Within the food and beverage industry, USDA Organic Certification, Rainforest Alliance Certification, Certified Humane Raised and Handled, and the Fair Trade Certification can all be helpful in choosing products that have minimized their negative environmental impact.
When buying organic cotton products, GOTS certification is often considered a gold standard.
For paper goods (including paper packaging), especially virgin paper goods, the Forest Stewardship Council’s various certifications provide an excellent way for you to ensure raw materials come from sustainably-managed forests that are positively contributing to the environment.
But certifications certainly have important limitations. Small to mid-sized companies typically can’t afford to spend the time or money required to take on a certification process. Additionally, for many companies we work with, there is no certification program perfectly designed to assess and showcase the unique sustainable strategies they have taken on.
So we typically recommend that consumers, especially when evaluating e-commerce brands, take the time to read and assess companies directly whenever possible, rather than relying on a quick glance at any one certification. Read the company’s story, learn and ask questions about their sourcing and operational practices, and find out how much they truly know about the sustainability of their products.
The most ecological brands are transparent and specific, can clearly describe their sustainable innovations, and are honest about the shortcomings they are trying to work on. If these brands do have certifications in place, they should be clear why the certification(s) they’ve pursued align with their business.
As a close-to-home example, in the packaging world, recycled content and recyclability symbols are unfortunately not well regulated. As such, it is possible for companies to use terms like 30% recycled content, recyclable, or biodegradable, without having to fully back these claims. 30% recycled could mean “up to 30% recycled.” Recyclable could mean that while in theory the item has the potential to be recycled into something else, there are no actual outlets through which to recycle the item. “Biodegradable” could actually indicate “oxo-biodegradable” (which would mean the item never properly biodegrades in a litter, ocean or compost environment). When looking at these terms, we would encourage consumers to ask the hard questions of companies. Find out what 30% recycled means, and how they verify their recycled content levels, or, what the optimal end of life scenario is for their products.
EcoEnclose goes far beyond just the material itself for the packaging, you also focus on how the packaging material is manufactured. What types of certifications or actions do you look for from a manufacturer?
All but one of our products are made in the USA.
We’ve made this a priority for a few reasons. First, manufacturers in the USA are subject to more stringent environmental regulations than those in other countries with high volumes of packaging manufacturing. Domestic companies are subject to proper waste management protocols, as well as restrictions on their emissions and effluents.
Second, shipping (which constitutes a large percentage of the carbon footprint of most of our products) is significantly minimized with domestic manufacturing.
Third, it is far easier to verify claims around recycled content in raw materials when sourcing from the US. When we say our mailer is made with 100% recycled content, we mean it. We can confirm the source of these raw materials, and when they were converted from recycled goods to new raw inputs. On occasion, we’ve explored international partners only to find that they were unwilling and unable to provide more than a verbal or email-based commitment that X% of product is recycled.
Finally, domestic sourcing (and the ability to visit companies across our supply chain, which we do often) allows for more confidence and transparency that workers across our entire supply chain are treated fairly and compensated competitively. Compensating and treating our own workers well—with paid time off, a company sponsored health insurance plan, and regular company outings—is important to us. So it makes sense that we want to ensure our supply chain is similarly focused on fair and just treatment of their own workers.
What do you recommend for e-commerce brands just starting to implement sustainable packaging who want to use EcoEnclose?
Before making a purchase, we recommend taking the time to sit down and draw out what sustainability means to you. Again, for some, it means minimizing pollution and carbon footprints. For others, it is about being as close to zero waste as possible. For others, it is about using as much recycled waste as possible. Build out and agree upon this sustainability philosophy and framework—this will help you make more swift eco-minded decisions throughout your organization.
Then, begin thinking about the packaging experience you want for your customers. What style, aesthetic, and functional characteristics are you looking for? What is your packaging budget? Do you want a shipping box or a mailer? If you want a mailer, does paper or plastic make more sense? Do you think branded packaging would be appropriate for your company? What size packaging do you need? We have a host of resources on our website to help you navigate this decision, such as the Definitive Guide to E-commerce Packaging.
Then, if you know what you want—great! Go ahead and order it. If you’re not sure, we recommend ordering free samples to ensure you have the right product and size for your business. If you think you’re looking for a custom solution we don’t offer on the site, or just need a little bit of expert guidance to make decisions, please reach out (firstname.lastname@example.org)! We love connecting directly with eco-minded businesses.
What do you hope for the future of EcoEnclose?
Short-term, I hope we continue to find and work with more and more sustainable brands, helping them ship their goods in ways that align with their overall business philosophy.
Long-term, I hope EcoEnclose spearheads new packaging innovations – including innovative materials, reusability of packaging, continued investment in sustainable algae printing inks, and new packaging designs. As we continue to learn more and more about eco-friendly packaging and sustainable business strategy, I hope we can be a valuable resource for emerging and growing eco-minded companies.
For more on EcoEnclose, check out this overview video!
What do you see for the future of sustainable business?
It’s no secret that there is a spotlight on sustainable business today. BlackRock (BLK), the world’s largest asset manager, analyzed stock market performance across 1,850 companies to track sustainability correlation and found that the 20 percent of companies who made the largest cuts to carbon intensity beat the average market by 6 percent. Nielsen’s 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability report showed that 66 percent of global consumers report a willingness to pay more for sustainable brands.
This is great news! I think the looming question is whether or not this is a trend or a true paradigm shift in business, one that can withstand economic downturns. To me, one of the most promising long-term aspects of the sustainable business movement is the conscious consumers fueling it. Once people become knowledgeable and passionate about ecological issues and see how their day-to-day actions and purchases impact the future, they don’t go back. They stay committed to spending in eco-minded ways – choosing characteristics like sustainable sourcing, quality and durability, and zero waste over low cost disposable goods – even when there are economic setbacks. And, every day more and more people are joining this movement.
This tells me that sustainable business is here to stay and expand, and moreover, that sustainable business practices are rapidly becoming one of the best ways for a new business to gain a competitive advantage.
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