In its most basic form, packaging is a protectant. It encases products, acting as a barrier against all kinds of elements such as temperature, moisture, or light, to name a few.

Given its inherent role as a protectant, it is a pity that packaging does the opposite for the environment.

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From the materials used to the sheer amount of packaging that exists in the world for countless products, the environment takes a hard hit from the industry.

This has led to sustainable initiatives and materials entering mainstream production. Yet, an excess of sustainable packaging materials doesn’t provide the answer to the global environmental crisis, however well-intentioned.

Paper isn’t a fix-all

Different packaging materials are pitted against each other in the quest for sustainability and some gain prestigious reputations such as paper.

A recent study showed that consumers perceive paper packaging as more environmentally friendly than identical products with plastic-only packaging.

Driven by the belief that paper is eco-friendly, consumers are willing to pay more for overpackaged products and tend to choose them over more sustainable alternatives.

However, paper typically ends up in landfills and, depending on its size, can take up more space in landfills than plastic.

Additionally, manufacturing paper packaging produces three times the amount of greenhouse gases compared to plastic packaging while also requiring more energy and water. This is without even mentioning deforestation.

The key takeaway is that just because a material isn’t plastic, that doesn’t mean it is automatically sustainable.

Sustainability is negated by misinformed consumers

Consumers are aware of the broader issue of sustainability, but the devil is in the details.

The mission of sustainable packaging can be cancelled out if consumers don’t understand how to handle it correctly for disposal or recycling.

One solution to this is clearer guidelines and labelling, but this still relies on consumers taking the time to learn, which in today’s fast-paced attention economy is a tall order.

Until knowledge about recycling and sustainable disposal systems becomes second nature to global citizens, sustainable packaging will continue to be thwarted from its purpose by misinformation.

Sustainable packaging as greenwashing misinformation

Currently, a popular PR tactic for companies is to emphasise their sustainable initiatives and making slight changes to their packaging is an easy win for this.

An example is Amazon’s recent announcement that it is phasing out plastic padded mailers with recyclable alternatives. If you dig deeper, however, they have not specified a deadline for this transition, which given the breadth of their operations, will likely be a long time. This negates the sustainable aspect in the first place.

When companies do set sustainability deadlines, they often choose far-off decades (2050 is a popular one), generously giving themselves time that the environment does not have.

Annual sustainability reports are also popular now, but these often end up being longer-form PR releases filled with misinformation on supposedly sustainable operations that have not been independently verified.

Packaging is a good first step for companies looking to improve their sustainability credentials, but it shouldn’t be a smokescreen for businesses to hide behind as they make no further sustainable progress and continue to spread misinformation.

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