It turns out fashion is no stranger to the single-use plastic problem: with the rise of online shopping and the increase in amounts of clothes purchased every year we’ve also seen an increase in plastic packaging used by brands.
From the bag or box your order arrives in, to the individual bags the clothes and accessories are packaged in, our online orders are often full of plastic.
According to some studies, “packaging is the dominant generator of plastic waste, responsible for almost half of the global total.” That’s an enormous amount of often non-recyclable waste.
But things are starting to change, and more eco-friendly alternatives are starting to appear.
Compostable packaging is made from plant-based or fossil fuel materials and can break down at the end of its life, providing the earth with useful nutrients. However, that doesn’t mean you can dispose of your compostable packaging wherever you like. As the name suggests, it has to be disposed of correctly and be added to your composting bin. Be careful—while all compostable packaging is also biodegradable, the contrary is not necessarily true, so always check the instructions on how to dispose of the packaging correctly. Unfortunately, brands will often try to greenwash here, even going so far as to use the word compostable when they really mean biodegradable. If the brand doesn’t provide specific instructions on the disposal of their packaging, chances are it’s not as simple as it seems.
The good news is some fashion brands have started looking at compostable packaging: New-Zealand-based Maggie Marilyn, for example, packages her garments using ComPlast, a cassava-based compostable bag. The brand goes even further by using compostable bags to ship wholesale items. The bags are made by The Better Packaging Company from corn starch and synthetic polymers.
New companies, like TIPA, focus on 100 percent compostable alternatives to plastic, encouraging better end-of-life for packaging. TIPA’s sustainable products both replace plastic for use and nourish the Earth through composting. Other companies are also looking at compostable alternatives to materials like leather.
Stella McCartney launched a collection made from mushroom leather in 2001. MycoWorks, a mushroom leather production company, is also becoming a big player in the compostable material space. While fibers are a big conversation in the sustainability space, the packaging is getting more spotlight lately.
According to Michael Wass, vice president of TIPA, only 4 percent of recyclable packaging was actually recycled last year, so there is a need for a new solution.
To create their compostable packaging, TIPA sourced materials from certified compostable polymers, sourcing available raw material. Many known brands, including Scotch & Soda and Gabriela Hearst, have adopted TIPA’s packaging.
Conventional plastic bags don’t have a sustainable end of life, and flexible packaging is one of the most common forms of litter. They are had to capture and easily blow off landfills. Compostable packaging provides a sustainable solution in the supply chain.
Compostable packaging can also be put in a compost bin or sent to a composting facility, where it can be quickly broken down into organic materials. While there is the question of how a sustainable and compostable company can scale, TIPA has found an eco-friendly approach to doing so.
They do as much sourcing and production locally as possible, reducing CO2 emissions from shipping. Consumers getting their packaging are getting a domestically sourced and produced solution. With supply chain issues running rampant, a domestic production solution is welcome by retailers. With 53 percent of clothing consumers believing companies should reduce plastic usage, compostable packaging is the future.
We’re also seeing a lot of brands—ethical or not—saying they use cardboard, recycled, or recyclable packaging when shipping online orders. One label to look out for here is the Forest Stewardship Council—while it’s not quite as good as compostable and biodegradable options, it ensures that the cardboard used comes from responsibly managed forests.
LANIUS, for example, offers the possibility to choose an already used carton as a shipping option for your order. All packaging materials they use, from cardboard to stickers, are also carefully selected.
Reformation is also paving the way for other sustainable brands: it uses plastic-free and 100% recycled paper products, as well as recycled paper hangers.
Whimsy + Row, sends out products in 100% recycled and recyclable boxes that are pretty enough to reuse, too.
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 check out.
Fashion For Good has also launched a pilot in partnership with Adidas, C&A, Kering, Otto Group, and PVH Corp., “The Circular Polybag Pilot”, to reduce the use and impact of polybags in the fashion industry. The pilot is currently looking at a solution to manufacture recycled polybag, using a high percentage of post-consumer polybag waste.
Luxury fashion brand Burberry has recently launched brand new packaging to align with its movement towards eliminating unnecessary plastic packaging.
Using a modern manufacturing technique, Burberry created paper packaging using FSC-certified paper from recycled coffee cups. The resulting product has a high-quality, expensive feel and continues to resonate with the brand’s heritage.
If a luxury brand that sells designer garments with price tags like Burberry’s, it puts pressure on others to follow in their substantial footprints.
A growing number of companies are also encouraging customers to reuse packaging and are offering easily reusable alternatives to traditional packaging.
RePack, for example, is looking to reduce waste in the fashion industry by providing retailers with reusable and returnable packaging.
MUD Jeans. RePack’s packaging comes in three adjustable sizes which are designed to last at least 20 cycles. The customers can easily return the packaging for free by post and can be offered a reward for doing so.
Other brands are also shipping their products in reusable bags, such as HARA, which sends its sustainable underwear in beautiful OEKOTEX100 bamboo bags. These can be reused for storing things or to organise your belongings when travelling.
While the sustainable packaging movement is a commendable one and all the options mentioned above are certainly better than plastic, another important pillar in the sustainability of supply chains and shipment to remember is packaging reduction. It’s great that brands are using compostable or recycled materials, but this should be happening alongside reducing the amount needed altogether. All too often, online orders (or even supply chain orders) are packaged in far more layers than strictly necessary, and a great step in reducing the environmental footprint of a brand would be the elimination of this excess plastic.
The plastic you don’t see
Even if some brands are doing their best to offer sustainable packaging options, there is likely still plastic packaging further up the supply chain that is less obvious to consumers.
In fact, items are often shipped to the brand’s distribution centre, shops, or to other parts of the supply chain in plastic packaging, to prevent them from being damaged.
In summary, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for sustainable packaging, each company has to balance the benefits and tradeoffs 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, industry standardization of packaging, would have much higher leverage in catalyzing a paradigm shift