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Choosing Eco-Friendly Packaging for an Online Small Business

More businesses, large and small, are making the decision to be more eco-conscious. It's good for business and it's great for the planet.

If you are starting a small handcrafted goods business and you want to adhere to an eco-friendly ethos with your packaging, there are several questions that you will have to answer for yourself. In the course of trying to answer these questions, there are many other questions that will come up as you begin the process of setting up your packaging process.

This post will lay out more questions than answers, but I hope that the questions will help you in your decision-making process.

A quick search for eco-friendly or sustainable packaging options will bring up a lot of information, many of which will sound authoritative and definitive, and many of which will have graphics and pictures that are catchy, either in a good or bad way.

Here are some of the questionable claims that you may come across:

  • Paper is always better than plastic.

  • Biodegradable and/or compostable materials are always better.

  • Packaging made from plant-based materials is always better.

And here are some additional questions to ask to help you assess each of those declarations.

Claim 1: Always choose paper over plastic

What kind of paper? What kind of plastic? Is the raw material virgin, renewable, or recycled? If the material is not made of 100% recycled or renewable content, what are the proportions?

Claim 2: Always choose biodegradable or compostable

Does biodegradable mean compostable? (hint: the answer is not always yes). What conditions are necessary for degradation of the material? How is the material actually going to end up getting disposed? Although you, as a business owner, would likely have no control over what your customer does with the packaging, you might wish to consider the likelihood of proper disposable.

Claim 3: Always choose bio-based or plant-based materials

How are the materials made? How much plant or other bio material is incorporated? If it is labelled "bio-plastic," does it mean it is completely eco-friendly? (hint: the answer is no). How is the material actually going to end up getting disposed?

Now, on to three questions directly related to how you are going to package your beautifully and thoughtfully crafted products so that your customers are satisfied and impressed.

1) How should I protect my products to make sure they arrive undamaged?

Of course, the answer to this question is highly dependent on what you are shipping. Breakable or delicate items require different solutions from non-breakable ones, with the latter requiring less protective packaging.

Regardless of what you are shipping, your items should be protected from potential damage resulting from force, humidity, or moisture.

2) How do I want to present my products?

This is the ubiquitous "unboxing" phenomenon. There's no doubt that people love receiving nicely packaged things in luxurious boxes full of surprise after surprise. If you've opened an Apple product box, you know what I mean.

As a small business, you, too, can provide a memorable unboxing experience with some careful attention to detail and some forethought about what you want your customer to feel–and it may not even have to involve a box at all!

Strive for simplicity (less is more), a little bit of delayed gratification (unwrap, untie, or uncover), and convenience (no scissors needed) as appropriate for your products and your brand. A personalized note also makes a terrific and lasting impression.

3) How much will packaging cost?

The question of cost is a real one for any business but especially for a small handmade business. The question is important for you, the business owner, in the sense that how much you pay to purchase the packaging materials invariably adds to the cost of your products.

Are you using custom-printed materials? Do you have to buy a minimum number that is far beyond what you would realistically need? The question of cost might also be important for your customers, whether or not you are (openly) charging a shipping fee. The more materials you use, the heavier the package (it's just physics!). The more unnecessary air you ship, the larger your package (that's also physics!). Both of these can add to shipping cost that someone will have to pay.

The great news is that truly sustainable, eco-friendly packaging materials are becoming more widely available–perhaps leading to more competition among suppliers–and are not necessarily more expensive than the alternative.

I am committed to being as eco-conscious as possible with packaging in my African print home decor and lifestyle business, so these are all questions that I have considered and I'm constantly revisiting at Lara Threads.

It is with the same drive for sustainability that I decided to minimize waste in my business by using as much of the Ankara fabric I source to make decorative throw pillow covers and functional accessories.

In doing my research, I have learned that while there is no single best eco-friendly packaging answer for all, there's one guiding principle for now:

Use just enough packaging, made of as much recycled content as possible, that can be reused many times, and that can be easily recycled.

Also, important: "Progress, not perfection."


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