by Kate Bertrand Connolly

Sustainable packaging programs are alive and well, despite the economy. Or, some might say, because of it. Recent sustainable package launches from brand owners in categories ranging from cleaning products to cosmetics make the point that sustainable packaging programs are here to stay.

In the current business climate, sustainability can deliver a winning one-two punch: reduced costs plus improved eco-friendliness. “The environment is at the heart of sustainable packaging initiatives, but in most cases there is a financial benefit. Why wouldn’t companies focus on them more now?” says Tim Rose, vice president of strategic innovation initiatives at Schawk Inc., a provider of brand point management services.

In addition to aiding cost control, sustainable business practices may encourage success in financial markets and among consumers. The idea of sustainability as a predictor of financial performance has been widely discussed within socially responsible investment circles.

The question is, “Are those companies that are good sustainable citizens also just well run companies?” says Gwynne Rogers, Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) business director at the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI).

A recent study conducted by A.T. Kearney Inc. suggests they are. The study examined 99 companies identified as having a strong commitment to sustainability and compared their financial performance with industry averages. In 16 of the 18 industries studied, companies committed to sustainability outperformed industry averages by 15 percent between May and November 2008.

Looking at sustainable packaging specifically, companies that demonstrate their commitment by taking steps such as lightweighting, eliminating secondary packaging or switching to bioplastics enjoy a differential advantage among consumers.

Consumer respondents to NMI studies conducted over the past six years have consistently indicated that package characteristics such as biodegradability, recyclability, environmental friendliness and minimal packaging are important to them.

Each year, 70 to 80 percent of the NMI respondents (U.S. general population adults, nationally representative) have reported that these characteristics are “very” or “somewhat” important to their food and beverage purchase decisions.

Certainly the food and beverage industries are rife with sustainable packaging examples. WhiteWave Foods Co. earlier this year launched its redesigned International Delight non-dairy creamer package, which is made from HDPE.

The switch has made the package lighter than the old PET bottle, which has in turn reduced shipping costs. Overall, the company estimates that about 30 percent less energy is consumed during the lifecycle of the product because of the switch to HDPE.

International Delight is offsetting the electricity used in production of the product by supporting the generation of wind energy going onto the grid. The company’s web site describes the energy-offset program, and a call-out on the International Delight bottle provides information.

“We are using this as an opportunity to educate the consumer” about WhiteWave’s support for renewable energy development, says Ellen Feeney, vice president of responsible livelihood at WhiteWave.
This particular redesign project, boasts production and functional improvements as well. Structural innovation agency Product Ventures assigned its insights team to the task of evaluating the category and determining consumer needs and wants associated with the functionality and aesthetics of the package.
The new package conveys an elegant, iconic feel while strategically reinforcing the brand’s message of continued pleasure and enjoyment. CAD engineering for the closure and bottle was conducted by Product Ventures, in close conjunction with Seaquist and Graham Packaging.


Like their peers in the food business, brands in many other categories are making sustainable packaging a top priority. In the cleaning products category, Method is working diligently to refine its already earth-friendly packaging. A recent project was the Method All Surface Wipes package redesign.

Method launched its wipes product line six years ago in an HDPE tub with a polypropylene dispensing lid. The components were recyclable, but when the company’s package engineers evaluated the tub and lid using an internal packaging scorecard, “It was clear we didn’t need as much plastic, and that the product didn’t need to sit upright,” says Drummond Lawson, environmental strategist and “Green Giant” at Method.

After investigating other packaging alternatives, the team came up with a category-tweaking design that is more environmentally friendly on several dimensions. The new pack, which launched last summer, is a flexible envelope with a rigid closure.

In contrast to other flexible packages, this one can be recycled because the film is 100 percent polypropylene. Most flexible packaging materials incorporate layers of different types of plastic laminated together, which makes recycling virtually impossible. The closure on the envelope also is polypropylene.

Method is working to get the wipes package qualified for recycling through the Preserve Gimme 5 program. Recycline Inc., a producer of 100 percent recycled household products marketed under the Preserve brand name, created Gimme 5 to drive polypropylene recycling. Although easily recyclable, this type of plastic currently is not accepted in many municipal recycling programs.

After the Method wipes package becomes qualified, consumers will be able to drop their used wipes packs along with other polypropylene packages, such yogurt cups, into Gimme 5 bins at Whole Foods Market stores. Ultimately, the packages will be recycled into Preserve products such as toothbrushes and razors.

Further, Method uses the wipes package to educate consumers about polypropylene recycling. Text on the envelope reads: “recycle for good karma. pouch + dispenser are recyclable in communities where facilities exist. appropriate recycling facilities may not exist in your area. if they don’t, ask why not.”  

In addition to breaking through the problem of film recycling, Method’s wipes package delivers substantial environmental benefits versus the HDPE tub. For example, switching packages reduced the mass of plastic used by 70 percent.

The new pack weighs 21.3 grams, including film and closure, versus the old package’s 72.8 grams. By using so much less material, Method can fit 30 percent more product onto a pallet, which reduces costs for warehousing and shipping.

Carbon modeling firm Planet Metrics calculated that switching to the envelope pack resulted in a 71 percent reduction in the energy used to manufacture and ship the product and a 20 percent reduction in the amount of secondary packaging required.

Complementary to all of these benefits-and of special importance for design-forward Method-the wipes package is “really remarkable looking,” Lawson says.


Sustainable packaging also is gaining momentum in the cosmetics industry as some of the largest brand owners make it a priority. As an example, eco-friendly packaging is an essential element of Revlon’s new Almay Pure Blends cosmetics line.
“The goal was to provide products that are eco-friendly and natural without compromising on performance” of the products or packaging, says Franz Klein, vice president of marketing for Almay.

Minimizing the amount of packaging was another important objective. “We chose a hang tag for the products; this acetate, secondary packaging is the only throw away,” Klein says. The hang tag contains product information and is easily removed by the consumer post-purchase.

The product line’s environmentally friendly packaging components include recycled paperboard compacts for powder, blush and eye shadow. The plastic makeup and lip gloss tubes incorporate up to 35 percent post-consumer regrind.

Projected over 1 million units, the Almay Pure Blends makeup tube uses 2,623.5 pounds of post-consumer regrind HDPE/LDPE, which saves:

$ 1.73 cubic yards of landfill.
$ 2.94 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents
     (greenhouse gas emissions).  
$ 33.7 million BTUs of energy.     
$ 272.0 gallons of fuel consumption.

Almay spells out the environmental savings of each of the packages on the Almay Pure Blends website ( The web address is printed on the packaging.

From a visual standpoint, the Almay Pure Blends packages also deliver on the no-compromises brand positioning. “It was part of the initial design brief: natural beauty without compromise,” explains Jillian Danziger, design director in the New York office of Anthem Worldwide, a Schawk Strategic Design Co. Danziger, together with senior design director Amy Sundstrom and the Anthem creative team, created the graphic design for the packaging.

“This product line provides all the advantages of natural products plus eco-friendly packaging that is just as lovely as anything else in the store,” Danziger says. “Visually, the packaging is approachable, unified, feminine and desirable. It is also distinctive. It stands out.”


For Gaia Herbs Inc., a certified organic grower and producer of herbal health products, the commitment to sustainable packaging has led to the development of a bioplastic-fiber container called the EarthBottle.
Gaia Herbs, through its membership in the Institute for Nutraceutical Research at Clemson University, sponsored the research that led to the new technology. In development for five years, the EarthBottle container found its first commercial application last fall with the launch of Gaia Herbs’ new CHIAFresh Daily Fiber.

The EarthBottle is made from “an all-natural biopolymer composite resin based in polylactic acid (PLA) that actually improves upon key performance constraints of pure PLA,” explains Greg Cumberford, vice president-strategic initiatives at Gaia Herbs and general manager of Earth Renewable Technologies (ERT) LLC, a joint venture founded to commercialize the EarthBottle technology.

“We did not achieve 100 percent plant-based ingredients, because there is a natural mineral component in our composite, but the EarthBottle is all natural,” Cumberford says. Botanical antioxidants are embedded in the biopolymer resin to protect the bottle’s contents from oxidation.

The bottle is made using PLA resin supplied by NatureWorks LLC. According to NatureWorks, the resin, which is made from corn, is compatible with industrial composting; cups made from PLA can break down under the correct conditions into carbon dioxide, water and humus within about 47 days.

Although the EarthBottle project was primarily an environmental effort for Gaia Herbs, it is yielding an important business benefit: reduced shipping costs. This is a function of the biopolymer bottle’s light weight. In contrast to the glass bottles Gaia Herbs has long used, which weigh 115 grams each, the EarthBottle containers weigh only 21 to 24 grams each.

The EarthBottle name is trademarked, and the technology is patent-pending. ERT has licensed the technology from Clemson University Research Foundation, which owns patent rights to the technology, and Alpha Packaging Co. produces the EarthBottle containers for Gaia Herbs.

The theme, across sustainable packaging initiatives, is clear. Although an investment of resources and time is required, well managed sustainable packaging initiatives can be cost justified.

“I think the concern when the economic downturn started was that people would put sustainability on the back burner,” observes Derek Trader, market segment manager in the consumer marketing group at Sonoco.

“But, while you’ve certainly seen the economics take center stage, there’s recognition that the cost element of the packaging and sustainability are not mutually exclusive,” Trader adds. “You can continue to do the right thing around those sustainability goals without sacrificing costs. The folks who were writing the obituary for sustainability were wrong.”

Kate Bertrand Connolly is a San Francisco-based writer specializing in packaging, business and technology. Contact her at

Where to go for more information…

Schawk Inc.
(847.296.6000 or

Natural Marketing Institute
(215.513.7300 or

A.T. Kearney Inc.
(312.648.0111 or

Recycline Inc.
(888-354-7296 or

Planet Metrics
(415.690.6633 or

Product Ventures Ltd.
(203.319.1119 or

Seaquist Closures
(262.363.7191 or

Graham Packaging
(717.849.8500 or

Jillian Danziger at Anthem Worldwide (New York)
(646.344.4821 or

Greg Cumberford at Earth Renewable Technologies LLC
(888.274.7509 or

NatureWorks LLC
(877.423.7659 or

Alpha Packaging Co.
(314.427.4300 or

(800.377.2692 or