As founders, we all want our products and services to shine. But how your product is presented, shipped and packaged matters just as much as what’s inside.
 
Packaging is an essential part of your customer’s journey. Not only is it a significant brand touchpoint, it’s also needed to protect your products in the age of worldwide shipping. 

Packaging has a lifespan

What you use in your packaging is now as important as how it’s designed. Consumers want less single-use plastic, and more compostable and recyclable materials - and will shop around for it. One study has found half of UK and US shoppers consciously shop to limit the single-use plastic they encounter.
 
The National Geographic has reported that 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. It’s important to remember that the very instance of ‘throwing’ something ‘away’ means it goes ‘somewhere’ - and if it’s plastic, it’s hitting landfill. If you’re using plastic packaging, it could have a lifespan longer than your startup’s. 
 
Environmental impact is important. Your customers and your brand are important. So, where do you start in making your packaging sustainable without compromising on aesthetics, design, durability or brand?
 
Friend of Virgin StartUp, Sanjay Patel, Founding Partner of Packaging Collective, an educational community for everyone from manufacturers to brands, offered us his tips on how you can revolutionise your packaging for a sustainable future: 

A photo of Sanjay Patel, Founding Partner of Packaging Collective

1) A simple starting point: Reduce your packaging

When it comes to packaging, the first and most sustainable action to take is to cut down any waste as much as possible. Irrespective of material, using less is better, always.

And when it comes to sorting your packaging out, the earlier in the starting up stages you reduce your packaging, the easier it is for you as a founder. Make sure that it is written into your design brief in the first stages of concept development.

2) Give the customer something to work with: Make your packaging reusable 

If you can reuse your packaging, you lower the environmental impact per usage. Furthermore, using the packaging for something different after your product is a great thing to do. It’s time to get a little creative.
 
Big brands are disrupting the market by thinking of innovative ways for customers to reuse their packaging. Doing this can add value to your brand. 
 
For example, the popular Gü Puddings accidentally came upon their sustainable packaging solution: when their contract packer had over-ordered on glass ramekins, Gü had no choice but to accept them as a solution. Now, their nifty packaging has become synonymous with their brand, and many customers have their glass ramekins sitting around the house for decanting foodie treats and storing ingredients. 
 
Similarly, Puma launched some of their product offering in reusable, branded bags, which save 60 percent of the energy and water that was needed in their packaging solutions before.

3) Stick them in your garden: Make your packaging compostable 

Compostable packaging can be effective, if done right. However, there’s a warning to be made when considering compostable elements to your packaging. 
 
Before committing to a new material, think about how long it will take to compost - and where it will need to be composted. Some materials are only industrially-compostable, and need a specific recovery waste stream to be processed. You cannot just stick all of these materials in your garden or food waste as they will be removed as a contaminant. 

Founder of Theenk Tea holding her startup's packaging
How do Virgin StartUp-funded founders design their packaging? Image: THEENK TEA

4) Get innovative: Why not try water soluble packaging? 

In a similar vein to compostable packaging, water soluble solutions are new to the market, but hugely effective if you can get your hands on them. 
 
Hong Kong-based packaging company, Distinctive Action, recently designed a water soluble bag - which dissolves in water. This kind of solution has also been stated as being ‘non-toxic, biodegradable, compostable and leaves no trace of microplastics on the planet’. So, perhaps a solution we’ll see much more of over the coming months and years. 

5) What goes around comes around: Try plantable packaging

One of the most sustainable ways to inform your packaging is if the packaging itself is plantable. This kind of packaging has seeds within it, so customers can decide to plant them after they’ve opened your product. Perfect for smaller deliveries, this is an innovative approach to packaging. 

6) What's inside? Ensure your packaging fillers are sustainable 

Packaging doesn’t just mean the outer casing containing your product. Additional measures such as the inclusion of fillers inside your packaging to keep your products from damage or breakages need to be looked at through the same sustainability microscope. 
 
It most likely comes as no surprise that fillers such as polystyrene and bubble wrap aren’t kind to the planet. So, why not try more planet-friendly options such as cardboard shredders, cornstarch peanuts and mushroom packaging?

Hey Girls' sustainable packaging
Hey Girls keep their tampon packaging to a minimum

7) Make sustainability sweet: Produce edible packaging 

One for the food startups among us, edible packaging is on the rise. There’s no need for waste if your hungry customers are going to devour your product - and your packaging. And it’s not as new an invention as you might think: humans have been eating ice cream cones - edible packaging for your dessert treats - for decades. 

8) Rework your packaging: Upcycle your offering

Packaging that can be recirculated in society is another sustainable option. Something that not only benefits the customer for reuse, but that is upcycled from the beginning, is a great packaging choice.

9) Forget plastic: Look at other options 

Although, for obvious reasons, we don’t want to be using plastic anymore, there are still more sustainable products which behave like plastic.
 
Bio-Plastics are still plastics, but they use natural materials to create the packaging instead of from fossil fuels: that’s it. This can lower the environmental impact (dependent on the feedstock and processing) yet they still behave like a traditional fossil fuel-based plastic.

10) Think structurally and strategically: Avoid complex combinations

This is a crucial one. Mixed materials that cannot be easily separated by the consumer make recycling difficult or not possible.  
 
In your packaging design, think about all the structural elements - and if you use mixed materials, are they needed, how will the consumer separate them, and how else, through clever design, could you achieve the same functionality?

Wild & Stone's packaging
Wild & Stone adopt stylish alternatives to single-use plastic

And the great thing to remember is that as founders, we can constantly adapt our startups. Sustainable packaging is an ever-developing issue; more innovative solutions and disruptive ideas come into play all the time. Do what your startup can do, little by little, and hold sustainability audits to keep on track - to continually commit to making the change that you can.