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Sustainable Packaging: Fashion’s Golden Ticket to Success?

Packaging is often a first point of contact between a manufacturer and consumer—especially with the rise of online shopping—and more people than ever are thinking about how the clothing they buy is packaged. Is it sustainable? Or will the plastic wrappings that clothes are shipped in further pollute the environment?

Millennials and Gen Zers—and older consumers as well—are clamoring for more sustainable packaging in fashion, and are prepared to support brands that reduce packaging waste—eschewing single-use throw-away plastic for compostable or recyclable packaging. Brands that embrace this kind of sustainability have an opportunity to build a loyal clientele that will seek out their products, recruiting more of them as buyers.

According to a McKinsey study, more than 60 percent of consumers in 2021 went out of their way to purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging. It’s not often that companies can get rewarded for doing the right thing—but when it comes to packaging they clearly can.

But what does “sustainable” really mean? Studies suggest people are confused about where to find sustainable clothes and don’t have a firm grasp on what truly makes apparel sustainable. The desire to shop sustainably, but not knowing how to do it, represents a classic example of marketing “tabula rasa”—and companies that are savvy enough to position themselves as sustainable will reap the benefits.

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This means that brands can not only benefit from using sustainable packaging, but from adding this topic to their marketing messages, in order to pull in those consumers eager to shop sustainably. It would be a missed opportunity to simply switch to sustainable packaging because the law may increasingly require it for online retail, or because studies show this is what consumers want. Brands will only fully benefit from the switch if they embrace it as a way to further engage customers and build loyalty.

Brands should be able to understand and explain to consumers how their sustainable packaging works and contributes to the health of the planet–or at least does not damage it. For example, if packaging is compostable, brands should include instructions about where to dispose of it, and explain how it will break down, and how the end product of compost will be used by farmers to enrich soil. If something is recyclable, it is also worthwhile to explain what products will be made from it. Or, if packaging is made from recycled materials, which is very different from being recyclable itself, that should be made clear, and brands should include information about what it was made from and how re-using such materials is beneficial.

Narratives about the sustainability of packaging can also be used for social media and other marketing campaigns, as a way for a brand to tell its story and establish itself as desirable in the eyes of consumers. These stories about packaging can help brands draw attention to other sustainability efforts they may be engaging in—such as reducing their carbon footprint by planting trees, using renewable energy or ensuring better wages for contract workers in the developing world.

And for brands just breaking into sustainability, packaging is a good place to start because it is relatively straightforward and fully within their control, unlike more complex issues like working conditions or wages. Packaging is also something consumers directly connect with on a tangible level, as they physically handle and dispose of wrapping and boxes–for many it feels closer to home and is easier to connect with than issues like workers’ wages on the other side of the world. Reducing plastic is also one of the most pressing urgent environmental concerns, for everyone, but especially for the fashion industry, which, some believe, is “addicted” to plastic.

Brands that embrace sustainable packaging, either on its own or as part of larger sustainability efforts, and also use the opportunity to tell a story about the impact of the packaging will come out ahead. It’s not everyday that good business decisions translate into the right thing to do for society. But this is clearly the case when it comes to sustainable packaging.

Merav Koren is the chief marketing officer at TIPA Corp., which makes compostable plastic packaging. She is an accomplished, high-impact marketing executive with years of experience developing and executing successful campaigns and strategic planning. She is passionate about improving the environment and finding innovative solutions to make the world a better place.