Unwrapping Plastic Fashion Packaging: What are the Eco-Friendly Alternatives?
- by EcoCult Staff
- Sep 26, 2022
Image by EcoEnclose
This post contains some affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, EcoCult receives a small percentage of the sale price. Some brands may have paid a small fee to be featured. We only recommend brands that we truly believe in. Support our editorial work by supporting them!
As the E-commerce sector skyrocketed, the fashion industry has adapted to meet the demands of online shoppers, who expect fast delivery, presentable packaging, and items that arrive unscathed on their doorstep. However, this convenience has an environmental cost.
Polybags or plastic mailers are convenient and protect products from damage, moisture, and soiling. However, consumers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with being responsible for discarding environmentally harmful waste. According to a consumer packaging perception study, 77% of Germans said that the packaging would affect their purchasing decisions. And across Europe, almost 80% are willing to pay more for an eco-friendly packaging option. An Oceana study also showed that 87% of U.S., U.K. and Canadian poll participants believed that large online retailers like Amazon should limit their use of plastic packaging.
Regulatory authorities around the world are also tightening plastic controls. The European Parliament, for instance, has mandated that 55% of plastic packaging in the EU market needs to be recyclable by 2030. With governments and regulatory bodies looking to tighten restrictions on plastic packaging, coupled with increasing consumer demand for alternatives, brands have never had more reason to make the switch to eco-friendly packaging.
However, studies have shown that clothing discarded due to damage incurred during transportation has a more significant environmental impact than the packaging that prevents it. Plastic is lightweight, durable, waterproof and cheap, so there’s no wonder it has been the long-standing crown jewel of packaging for many businesses.
While plastic’s functionality is hard to beat, we are seeing more and more environmentally friendly alternatives for garment and e-commerce packaging. We’ve put together a list of sustainable solutions and compared their benefits and trade-offs:
Reducing Packaging: Simple and Effective
One way to reduce the impact of single-use packaging is to simply use less. Brands have done this by employing bundle packing, where multiple items are shipped in a single polybag or have shrunk the size and thickness of their polybags. For example, Prana, a sustainable fashion brand, has slashed polybag use almost entirely as of the fall of 2021 by rolling the garments instead of folding them and then bundle-packing them.
While swapping out single-item polybags at the consumer end is a start, removing polybags from the supply chain can be difficult. Doing so requires collaboration with large-batch overseas suppliers where individually packaging items is commonplace. Not to mention, unpacking clothing at distribution centers and repackaging them can add significant labor and logistical costs. So while it may create a feel-good moment for customers to receive their product devoid of plastic packaging, it doesn’t mean the supply chain was plastic-free.
It is not a straightforward choice for sustainably-focused brands to entirely eliminate plastic packaging. Not only do they need to reduce packaging for shipping orders, but they also need to find appropriate recycling options for the packaging their suppliers are using. For example, United by Blue, a camping and outdoor apparel brand, has been shipping its e-commerce orders in 100% recycled kraft envelopes and boxes printed with VOC-free ink. But they still need to handle the inconvenience of taking out the products from factory-standard poly bags in the distribution center and sending them to TerraCycle for recycling. TerraCycle, however, was sued in 2020 following claims the company cannot prove it’s recycling the products it says it is.
For larger companies with complex inventory management and replenishment systems, who, despite their best efforts, can’t seem to say goodbye to polybags altogether, it may be the best bet to reduce the dimensions and weight of the packaging. A case in point is Patagonia, which cut plastic use by half simply by changing how their team folded clothes. Similar initiatives have been explored and implemented by 38% of brands surveyed by Fashion for Good in 2019.
Recycled Plastic Bags: Popular But Not Perfect
While there is a lot of attention paid to plastic pollution, the production of plastic itself contributes significantly to global warming. Annually, 4% of the world’s fossil fuels are diverted toward plastic production, and another 4% is burnt in the process. So it’s no surprise that brands unable to remove plastic from their supply chain entirely are avoiding contributing to creating new, virgin plastic.
Brands such as Kohls, Patagonia, and Everlane have begun incorporating recycled content into their packaging. Many suppliers now offer polybags with up to 100% recycled content without compromising aesthetics and functionality. As a customer, it can be challenging to know what’s what when it comes to brands’ claims about recycled plastic. So some certifications to look out for include; The Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), and the upcoming Recycled Material Standard (RMS), which is designed specifically to validate recycled content in packaging.
Whether polybags can be recycled depends on the material used to create them. For example, the most commonly used material, LDPE (low-density polyethylene), can be recycled if the bags are kept dry, clean, and free of food residue. But they require separate collection and processing – which means even the plastic packaging that is technically recyclable, in practice, is usually thrown away. In addition, some plastic packaging is no longer recyclable after it has been compromised by ink or adhesive stickers. Despite there being over 18,000 plastic bag collection sites in the United States and Canada, such as Walmart and Target, the plastic film recycling rate is only 12.5% in the U.S. and 20% in Europe.
For this option to be circular, minimizing plastic use needs to be twofold; incorporating recycled packaging and having a plan to continue recycling. There are ways to manufacture polybags and design packaging to increase the likelihood that the bags are eligible to be recycled, for example, by using laser marking instead of ink and avoiding paper adhesive stickers. It would be ideal if the brand also funded a program to collect plastic bags to prevent them from ending up in landfills. Patagonia, for example, collects polybags at its distribution centers in North America and sends them to recyclers such as Trex or Novolex, who then make new plastic bags or decking materials.
Using recycled plastic bags can only be an intermediate solution, given that it does not eliminate plastic entirely from the supply chain and risks seeing recycled and recyclable packaging entering landfills.
Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging: Exciting Improvement But Could Be Better
Biodegradable bags, commonly made from PLA (Polylactic acid) and PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates), utilize corn, sugarcane, or other starchy crops in their creation. Biodegradable bags have lower carbon emissions than traditional plastic and can break down in the right environment. With this exciting development, a few big players have jumped on board. For example, in 2017, the vegan luxury brand Stella McCartney switched its single-use plastic packaging to plant-based biodegradable packaging by TIPA. TIPA has designed this packaging to decompose entirely in 180 days.
Something worth noting is that not all biodegradable packaging is the same. For example, if you see bags labeled with certifications like EN 13432, EN 14995, ASTM D6400, or ASTM D6868, they are industrially compostable. However, the PLA-based bags cannot decompose in landfills or marine environments—they require a high temperature and controlled environment to decompose. Marine degradability is important, considering how much plastic ends up in our oceans but has no consistent standard yet since the trade-offs and benefits have not been sufficiently researched. These bags that require being dropped at an industrial composting facility are often more popular and affordable. Unfortunately, most U.S. cities lack the necessary infrastructure to handle bioplastics properly, with a national average biowaste diversion rate of 6.1%.
A more expensive but easier to implement and handle option is home compostable PHA bags, which can decompose at ambient temperature. There are no international standards for home compostability yet, but two national certifications are available: French standard NF T 51-800 and Australian standard AS 5810. While biodegradable packaging is often made of polymers blended with microorganisms, compostable bags are made of natural plant-based material. As a result, compostable bags do not release toxic chemicals when degrading, and customers can add them to home compost bins depending on the material. This allows more consumers to process the bags in their homes, unlike recyclable or biodegradable bags.
Biodegradable bags have other drawbacks. In addition to concerns that bioplastics may compete with biofuel or food production for raw materials, life cycle assessment studies also show that bioplastics entail more significant environmental impacts on land use, freshwater consumption, and fertilizer use during production. Some innovative companies like Mango Materials are working on producing biodegradable plastics from biowaste or methane, a greenhouse gas. But these solutions are yet to be commercialized.
Another limitation is that biodegradable plastics can contaminate conventional plastic recycling streams or release methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide) in landfill when disposed of incorrectly. Therefore, brands and retailers must be mindful of what diversion systems are available to most consumers and provide clear and prominent instructions on proper disposal.
Paper Packaging: Some Critical Trade-Offs
In consumer perception, paper-based alternatives seem to fare better than plastic bags since they are more widely collected curbside and wood is a renewable resource that biodegrades. This makes it a more accessible option for brands; for example, the H&M group announced in 2021-22 that they would replace online plastic bags with an FSC-certified paper bag instead. This move alone is estimated to reduce their plastic usage by 2700 tonnes annually.
But paper packaging also comes with challenges. For some brands, an essential packaging requirement is the transparency of their packaging, providing easier inspection access for quality control. Some manufacturers can get around these issues by including a translucent window (such as glassine paper) or for brands that have more flexibility in inventory management.
Paper performs better than plastic in regards to its recycling rate but fares poorly in other environmental categories, such as land use and eutrophication (algal blooms, AKA toxin-producing algae, that kill fish). And you may find this surprising, but virgin paper bags have higher carbon emissions than their plastic counterparts because it requires a lot of energy to grind up the wood and create pulp. In contrast, plastic bags derive from by-products of petroleum refining. So if opting for paper alternatives, it will be best to source from 100% recycled paper or FSC-certified paper to mitigate the risk of trade-offs.
But there is another problem with paper: it is not as durable. Most of our garments travel long distances from the production factories to cargo ships, then distribution centers and stores, passing by numerous conveyor belts, loading docks, and hands before reaching us. It is difficult for a paper bag to survive such a long journey and protect the product inside from moisture, dirt, and tears.
Reusable Packaging – Requires Robust Reverse Logistics
Compared to single-use packaging, reusable alternatives can cut up to 80% of emissions and 87% of plastic waste when adequately utilized. Some progressive brands have been experimenting with packing garments in lightweight, durable, reusable bags but found getting enough packaging back from customers challenging. Even when reusable bags make their way from consumers to the store or distribution center, it is still challenging to consolidate them and ship them back to manufacturing sites primarily based overseas. Reusable packaging could be more impactful in future situations where production is closer to market and if most brands, manufacturers, and logistics companies could align on a standardized packaging system. Currently, reusable packaging applies better to business models that have established robust reverse logistics systems, such as Rent the Runway, Stich Fix, or Thredup.
Another way to reduce the rate at which polybags are thrown out is to design packaging to be multi-functional. For example, start-up Returnity has designed reversible mailer bags that can be turned inside out into a tote bag, make-up bag, or duffle bag that customers can reuse for other purposes. However, not every brand can do this because consumers only need so many reusable bags. (Just ask any eco-consumer burdened by 50 “eco-friendly” reusable branded totes).
In summary, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for sustainable packaging; each company has to balance the benefits and trade-offs of different alternatives and choose what works for their specific supply chain. It is pivotal for brands to expand the focus from just the materials to the system as a whole. Admittedly, no company can address this systematic problem single-handedly. Supporting policies like extended producer responsibility, diverting subsidies away from the petroleum industry to plastic-free alternatives and infrastructure, and industry standardization of packaging, would have much higher leverage in catalyzing a paradigm shift. Nevertheless, below are what brands and retailers can do now to help contribute to a more eco-friendly packaging future:
1) Try eliminating unnecessary packaging, work with suppliers to minimize packaging size and thickness, or use bundle packing wherever possible.
2) Design the current polybag for easier recycling using mono-materials and addressing issues with labels, stickers, and ink. Incorporate recycled content (GRS or RCS certified) whenever possible, and implement packaging recycling programs in distribution centers, warehouses, and retail stores.
3) For companies with existing reverse logistics systems in place (such as rental, refill, or take-back programs) or that manufacture near the market, pilot reusable packaging.
4) For brands that focus on markets where the composting system is well-established, consider switching to home-compostable packaging, preferably made with secondary feedstock. Again, be sure to include clear disposal instructions for consumers.
5) If a company’s supply chain and inventory management system has enough flexibility to accommodate paper-based packaging, opt for recycled or FSC-certified paper. Brands can combine this with a centralized recycling system at the distribution center and warehouses to recycle any polybags from the factory.
Companies that Provide More Sustainable Fashion Packaging
EcoEnclose offers a wide range of packaging options, including 100% recycled poly mailer (50% from post-consumer waste), kraft mailer, shipping boxes, corrugated bubble for void fill, flap and seals, shipping labels, stickers, all made from recycled materials. The company also has a detailed breakdown of each product, showing the amount of recycled content and information on recyclability and compostability. EcoEnclose also works with black algae ink, soy-based, and water-based ink to mitigate the negative impact of printing.
noissue makes a completely backyard compostable mailer, which is waterproof, durable, write-able, stick-able, and printable, and it’s much stretchier than a standard polybag. The mailers are made from a combination of PBAT (a biodegradable polymer) and PLA (which is made up of plant materials like ﬁeld corn and wheat straw). Its manufacturing partners carry the TUV Austria certification for home compostability. If you’re a small brand, noissue’s minimums are ridiculously low compared to most other companies: only 100 for their mailers and 250 for their tissue paper, stickers, and tape.
LimeLoop produces durable, lightweight, reusable packaging from upcycled billboard vinyl and recycled cotton. Consumers can choose to receive their product in a LimeLoop Shipper via an opt-in program at checkout. LimeLoop also established a platform to allow participating brands and customers to track the shipper’s whereabouts and environmental impact data.
Founded in 2010, TIPA develops and designs a diverse range of fully compostable packaging applications for the fashion industry, including polybags and garment bags for apparel, accessories, jewelry, and more. TIPA offers flat pouches without adhesive and resealable bags where even the zippers are compostable. TIPA’s packaging performs like conventional plastic, yet unlike plastic, it returns safely to the earth, enriching nutrients like organic matter under compost conditions. By offering compostable alternatives to traditional plastic packaging, TIPA helps brands, designers, and fashion powerhouses like Stella McCartney and Pangaia, reinforce their sustainability ethos throughout their supply chain. While ensuring their clothing makes it to its destination safely and sustainably.
Repack makes reusable mailer bags from recycled post-consumer polypropylene. The packaging comes in three adjustable sizes, designed to last at least 20 cycles. At the end of life, Repack works with partners to upcycle the mailer bags into other high-value products, such as laptop sleeves and passport covers. The company is also working on transiting to a more efficient transportation system, using vehicles fueled by renewable energy, and funding carbon reduction/capture projects to mitigate the emissions in its operations.