(Note: Companies or products listed in this post are not sponsored, and any endorsements are purely out my own personal experience)
Sustainable, ethical, eco-friendly. It means a LOT of different things. What are the greenhouse gas emissions? Is it recyclable, biodegradable, reusable? What is it made of? Who made it and where did it come from? Is it toxic? How many times can it be used before it becomes waste? What raw or recycled materials are used to create it? The list goes on. It’s no wonder there’s confusion and frankly, a lack of important knowledge, on the subject. It’s overwhelming. And I’m merely at the tip of the iceberg.
But being an owner of a handmade business and being passionate about finding answers to all of these questions I have, I’ve come across a few tips and resources that have helped me begin to sort out the puzzle of trying to run my creative business in a more sustainable way. And the biggest thing for me, is packaging. Most of my sales are made online online including on platforms like Etsy, which means I have to pack and ship items for customers mostly in the US but some internationally as well. Even when I sell in local markets, I still have to package my items somewhat to ensure they make the trip home with the customer in pristine condition.
When it comes to a handmade business, packaging tends to be the most wasteful while simultaneously being the most insignificant considering that it is not actually part of the finished creation. Packaging is almost always single-use in nature. It is the padded mailer and tape you ship your art in. It is the hang tag and plastic wrapping for your craft to be sold in stores. It’s insignificant in the long term, so for me, this was one of the first aspects about my business I wanted to change to be less harmful to the environment. Here are 5 changes I made to make my business packaging more sustainable:
Buy locally manufactured and sold goods
Product shipping and origin alone is a considerable factor when determining which packaging products to purchase. Why? Because fossil fuels will most likely be transporting your goods from the country the raw materials were produced in, to the country the goods were made, to the reseller company in your country, and then to you. There will most likely be at the very least two “hands” that touch your packaging products before they get to you. Often more. And the more the products travel, the greater the environmental footprint they create along the way.
I can’t speak for other countries, but fortunately in the United States, there are several major packaging supply companies that sell from manufacturers right here in the USA! For example, Uline is a large and probably the most well-known packaging supply company and they offer over 15,600 products made in the USA. But location isn’t everything! Considering where and who you buy from is a complex process, and more than one factor should be considered when selecting where you get your products!
Less is more
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle” more than a few time sin your life. Well there’s a reason the words appear in that order. Reducing consumption is most effective in reducing waste because the future waste is never bought to begin with. Think about how you can reduce the amount of packaging used in shipping your products. Many products we sell aren’t overly fragile despite what our emotional connection to the item might make us think. If your items are fragile, you know who you are and don’t fret it. We’re all doing the best we can. That being said, I find most sellers tend to overpack perfectly durable items that simply don’t need it. It’s partly due to looks and partly due to fear, but imagine if you cut 20% of your excess packaging for shipped items. Not only would that save you money, but that could be roughly a 20% reduction in the environmental footprint of your shipments.
Opt for supplies made of recycled and/or natural materials
Poly, bubble wrap, paper, oh my! There’s an overwhelming amount of options when it comes to materials your shipping products are made of. And not all are created equal. If you can find packing supplies that are made of recycled materials that’s GREAT, because typically sourcing and processing virgin material like paper creates far larger an environmental footprint than recycling already used materials. A second benefit is that these recycled materials are avoiding the landfill and other places trash tends to end up… like the ocean.
Buying supplies that are made of a high percentage of recycled materials is great, and I do it whenever I can. But it’s also just as effective (arguably more effective because there is less processing involved) to recycled packaging supplies yourself. Think of the second and third “R”s of recycling: Reuse and Recycle. Reuse avoids the reprocessing of materials that recycling involves, thus saving that environmental weight. I try to buy locally in business and my personal life, but often getting things shipped to your home is inevitable. And I don’t let that go to waste. I save all boxes, bubble wrap, packing paper, even bags that I can possibly reuse for packaging my own products. I can guess what you’re thinking. ‘But it won’t look good.’ Yes and no. There’s a good chance if up to this point you’ve been sourcing brand new shiny materials to package your products, using something that has already been used once might not look as pristine. But I would put in the argument that sustainability is gaining momentum. Buyers are looking for shop owners to care. And find that beautiful and its own way.
On top of buying recycled materials, consider what your materials are made of. My favorite products are biodegradable, because if composted properly, the end of their life is quick…. rather than staying in the ground tens of thousands of years before breaking down, and leaching out chemicals in the process (I’m looking at you, plastic). I prioritize biodegradable and recycled when possible, then recycled plastic as necessary (mostly for protecting art prints).
Consider the end life of your packaging
Again, this is a consideration of what materials your packaging products are made of. Above we considered the beginning of life of your supplies (is it recycled, natural/virgin material, synthetic?) but we must also consider the end of life of your packaging. This goes back to what I said previously about biodegradable supplies. While the start of life of any “new” products almost always has a relatively high environmental impact, the “end of life”, or when these shipping supplies make it to the trash, recycling bin, compost, or elsewhere, varies quite dramatically between materials.
I try to opt for biodegradable materials because not only should these products not leach unsafe chemicals into the ground and water supply, when properly composted, they typically can decompose very quickly. Non biodegradable materials have a couple of options. They can be reused (ideally by the consumer; this is the best first option), they can be recycled (by commercial waste management services; this is the second best option as it still lengthens the functional life of the item), or they can be trashed. Unfortunately we can’t control which of these choices our buyers make, and the progressively more sustainable options tend to also be progressively less used.
Optimize your process
As I talked about in my first tip, the more hands almost any product is involved in, the larger environmental impact it is going to have. This also applies to quantity. If you can buy 100 mailers at once instead of 10, that saves 9 trips to your supply store or 9 flights and delivery truck drives to your home or place of business. Not to mention the 9 additional boxes if it is shipped and 9 times excess packaging. Buying in bulk is not always an option, I know. It can be a huge upfront investment sometimes just isn’t practical. But if you can make it work, it’s a great option. You will save some money in the long run and it can help streamline your packing process as well.
My second optimization tip would be to not ship products daily. Select one or two days of the week where you ship all orders that are ready. Save your time which guaranteed can be used better elsewhere and save gas running to and from the Post Office. Even consider offering local pickup if you feel comfortable with doing so and avoid the need for all that extra transportation and packaging.
What environmentally-friendly packaging tips and resources have you found? I’d love to accumulate an ongoing list of resources for sustainably-minded creatives. By pooling our knowledge together, we can work to become the best environmental stewards we can be while reducing time spent researching, reducing costs, and removing barriers to sustainability. High costs in particular have always been a major barrier environmental movement, which has put an ugly veil of elitism to its name. While some sustainable lifestyle changes don’t cost a thing, many changes do, and that’s not something everything can afford. I hope to be part of the movement that says “that’s okay”. I hope to be part of the movement that looks for solutions that work for everyone, which is why I’ll be continuing a series on sustainability in the coming months. All suggestions here are meant to be just that. Suggestions. Some may work for you and some may not. But I hope it gets you thinking more about your environmental impact, because with more heads together comes more ideas, and with more ideas, more growth.
So what’s my go-to packaging supply company?
When I’m not using supplies I already have and can reuse/repurpose, EcoEnclose is the best resource I’ve found for myself for sustainable, biodegradable/compostable, recycled, and recyclable shipping materials. They even offer custom branded packaging for large quantity orders and frequently promote the eco-conscious businesses that ship with their products (I’ve found several of my favorite companies through them!) Boxes and cardboard sheets are custom cut to the exact size and quantity you need. Price-wise, many of EcoEnclose’s products are highly competitive with less sustainable alternatives, but inevitably, the care and process put into products that are less damaging to the environment tends to cost more than products where environmental impact was completely overlooked.
While EcoEnclose rarely offers sales, there are two ways I’ve found to save money on my packaging supplies. Number one is buy in bulk. The more of one product you need and can buy up front, the greater discount you will receive. Most discounts range from 2-15% depending on quantity purchased. The number two way to save is their refer-a-friend program, which gives an incredible discount of 20% to the referrer and 20% off to the referred friend. If you want to make the switch to more environmentally packaging, you can use my referral code for 20% off your first order at http://ecoenclose.refr.cc/rebeccagrogan
Best of luck in your sustainable journey!