The next generation of sustainable packaging for clothes
From ordering food through apps to buying a new outfit with the click of a mouse, how the world shops has increasingly moved online. While this may be a new age of convenience, it does beg the question, what about all that packaging? And is there a way to have sustainable packaging for clothes?
We have all heard stories of mountains of plastic being sent to landfill every year and of microplastics found at the bottom of the sea. Staggeringly, 180 billion polybags are made every year. There is no doubt that the world has a plastic problem and single-use plastic packaging plays a big part. An estimated 40% of plastic pollution is thought to come from it.
However with the rise of online shopping, online ordering isn’t going to reduce anytime soon. So, what is the impact of all this packaging and are there alternatives to the use of plastic packaging?
plastic packaging’s environmental toll
It may not be a huge surprise to find out that most of the conventional packaging that clothing is sent in is made from, you guessed it, plastic. From a non-environmental perspective, plastic poly bags can seem like the perfect packaging solution. They are flexible, durable, cheap and waterproof, protecting clothing from getting damaged in transport and not majorly impacting a company’s bottom line.
However, as the world is now becoming increasingly aware, plastic takes a steep environmental toll. Plastic mailer bags can harm and kill wildlife if they mistakenly eat them or get caught in them, they pollute rivers and lakes, and can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
To put that into perspective, a thousand years from now plastic from the poly mailer your new dress came in could still be around and causing environmental stress.
The beginning and end of plastic’s journey
Like most plastic, single-use plastic bags and packaging are created from crude oil and petrochemicals. The environmental impact associated with mining (such as irreparable damage to precious environmental ecosystems through mining) is also added to the impact of traditional product packaging.
At the other end of its lifespan, plastic breaks down into microplastics. These pesky tiny plastic particles are now everywhere, found from the ocean to the slopes of Everest. Exposure to microplastics can lead to toxicity and health problems in both humans and animals and widespread environmental damage.
What are the sustainable packaging alternatives?
So, we know that plastic packaging is bad, but is this enough to make us swear to never order online again? Probably not. Unfortunately, we have busy modern lives and ordering clothes online is convenient. So, what are the alternatives to plastic packaging?
The good news is sustainable packaging for clothes exists and is becoming more mainstream. Here are some of the most popular:
Love the idea of growing a garden from your leftover packaging? Then you’ll love the idea of seed paper and seed cardboard. Made from biodegradable materials, this packaging solution comes embedded with seeds and is designed to be left out and planted when you are done with it.
While all seed paper is embedded with seeds, many are embedded with bee-friendly seeds to help our dwindling bee populations. The core disadvantage is that it can be a problem if the packaging gets wet.
Made primarily from starch from the cassava root, cassava packaging is steadily growing in popularity. This compostable packaging option offers a good alternative to plastic wrapping, providing many of the advantages that plastic packaging offers (such as being lightweight and flexible) without as many of the environmental issues. One of the big advantages of cassava packaging is that it is biodegradable.
So recycled plastic doesn’t completely solve the woes of plastic packaging. But, it is better than virgin plastic packaging.
Recycled plastic packaging will still shed microplastics and it was still originally made from oil. However, the reality is that an astronomical amount of plastic already exists in the world. It is far better for this plastic to be reused than to spend the next thousand years drifting around the ocean or populating the toxic mess of a landfill.
Recycled plastic packaging also offers many of the advantages of traditional plastic packaging. It is lightweight and waterproof and easy to send things in, all without being as environmentally disastrous as its virgin plastic counterpart.
Recycled plastic packaging can be made from almost any plastic waste. Everything from plastic bottles to previously used plastic packaging is used.
Forest Stewardship Council certified cardboard
Good old fashioned cardboard boxes and mailing bags can help to solve the plastic packaging problem. Cardboard breaks down so it isn’t still hanging around in a thousand years, it doesn’t shed toxic microplastics and its base component is derived from plants.
Many sustainable brands now use cardboard and paper packaging to help ease their environmental impact. It also has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and is already a popular choice for post.
However, it is important that cardboard packaging doesn’t have a plastic coating. It is also important to ensure cardboard packing is from FSC (or similar) certified sources to make sure ancient and precious forests weren’t logged for our post boxes.
Newer sustainable packaging alternatives
It doesn’t stop there. Innovative companies such as Notpla are creating packaging solutions from seaweed. They’re completely biodegradable and flexible enough to even be used for ketchup sachets.
Other sustainable materials being used for packaging include corn husks, bamboo and even mushrooms. Watch this space!
How are these packaging options better?
So, we now may understand some of the innovative ways that plastic packaging can be replaced. But, are they any better?
While that shiny branded package may look great, plastics are made from fossil fuels such as oil. Additives such as toxic colourants are also often used, as are flame retardants. Making plastic is a toxic, energy-intensive and planet-warming process.
Making environmentally friendly packaging doesn’t have the same issues. Sustainable paper bags and cardboard for example, come from managed forests. These are forests that offer renewable and environmentally friendly wood that can be turned into recyclable or compostable packaging. The same principles go for cassava paper and seed paper.
Using recycled plastic means reusing a resource that already exists. Recycling plastic is also less environmentally impactful and energy-intensive than making virgin plastics.
Better for people
The environmental issues associated with plastic pollution are now becoming relatively well-known. But, what isn’t always talked about is how plastic can impact human health. Chemicals in common plastics, such as those used for packaging, have been linked to everything from increasing the risk of hormone-related cancers to reproductive issues and ADHD.
Microplastics are part of this issue as well, as we now know that we are eating and breathing these tiny plastic particles. Microplastics can also impact our health as bacteria can cling to them and catch a free ride into our bodies. For more on microplastics see our article How to avoid microplastics in clothing: 8 things you can do now.
By choosing non-plastic, sustainable packaging for clothes, eco brands are helping to reduce our exposure to plastic. This, in turn, can help to reduce the risk of developing health issues from plastic exposure.
These solutions (with the exception of recycled plastic) simply don’t have the same chemicals and don’t carry the same risk of microplastic pollution.
Biodegradable and recyclable
Many of the alternative packaging options are also biodegradable. This means that unlike their plastic packaging counterparts, they won’t be littering landfill for the next thousand years. In the case of seed paper, the very packaging our clothes come in can help to grow a whole new garden.
However, in the case of recycled plastic packaging, the news isn’t all bad as many of these can be recycled again. One of the most sustainable things we can do is to reuse what already exists, so this is a big point for recycled plastic.
Which brands are using sustainable packaging for their clothes?
Thankfully, there are more and more environmentally conscious brands that are reviewing and changing their packaging use to incorporate sustainable practices. This helps to reduce their overall environmental impact and still gets your favourite styles to your door. These are some of the brands that have opted for more sustainable packaging materials for their clothes.
Specialising in bamboo clothing, BAM are becoming frontrunners in sustainable active and leisurewear. When it comes to packaging, BAM uses a few different sustainable options.
- Paper packaging is used for underwear, socks and accessories
- Larger items are shipped in fully compostable packaging
See our interview with their Sustainability and Technical Manager Merryn Chilcott for more info on how this amazing brand are becoming impact positive.
Stripe & Stare
A label that makes underwear that is designed to be kind to people and the planet, Stripe & Stare also take a conscious approach to packaging.
The brand uses cardboard gift boxes and plant-based bio bags that are all either recyclable or compostable. Even the stickers that Stripe & Stare use can be composted.
Sustainable brand PrAna is on a journey to change how we use packaging. The brand set out with the ambitious goal to eliminate all plastic from its packaging, a goal that it achieved in 2021. Not willing to stop there, PrAna now aims to have no virgin forest fibres in its packaging by 2025.
To embrace sustainable packaging, Tamga implemented the use of cassava compostable bags. The brand now is moving away from this idea to a more reusable approach, shipping its items in organic cotton bags that can be reused as anything from a shopping bag to a gym bag.
Reformation currently uses both compostable bio bags and recycled LDPE (low-density polyethylene) bags that contain a biodegradable polymer. The choice to integrate more recycled bags into the brand’s inventory was in response to limited access to composting in the USA.
Like the clothes it creates, sustainable clothing brand Thought takes a considered approach to packaging. It considers everything down to the inks printed on the sustainable packaging for its clothes:
- Frosted bags that most clothing is sent in is made from cornstarch. This makes them non-toxic, natural and completely biodegradable. The bags are printed with water-based inks
- Garment labels are made from FSC certified paper.
Circular Polybags Pilot
Started in 2019, the Circular Polybags Pilot aimed to find a way to reduce the astronomical levels of plastic packaging produced every year. The trial reused post-consumer polybags to create a fully circular solution and partnered with key fashion players such as Adidas.
A plastic free tomorrow
There is no denying that plastic pollution is one of the key challenges of the modern era. The sustainable fashion industry is taking a key role in finding viable solutions to the plastic problem.
There are great brands looking for sustainable packaging choices for clothes. These brands are implementing innovative new solutions that offer the advantages of conventional packaging without the environmental footprint. There is no doubt that sustainable packaging for clothes is a key part of a sustainable future for fashion.
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