Sustainable Packaging Choices for Clothing

Think of the last time you went shopping for clothes. After you took out your dress, shirt, or shoes what did you do with the packaging it came in? Did you treat it as garbage? Or did you find a box, bag, or wrapping that you could reuse? The second option seems more likely based on the clothing industry’s efforts to introduce sustainable packaging choices.

The purpose of sustainable packaging

Packaging serves two main purposes- to transfer a product safely from the factory to the customer and for brands to display its message and product information. Brands use the design of the package to set its product apart from their competition.

Decisions such as bagging each item separately and boxing them for transport or sending them in bulk packaging are made based on how they will be displayed. Some items may require to be boxed while others may require hangers for display in racks.  These considerations determine the labels, cardboard boxes, and other materials that will be used in the packaging process.  While some of these materials can be recycled and re-used, some end up in landfills.

Businesses are reviewing their packaging methods to come up with more sustainable choices.  As defined by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), sustainable packaging1:

  • is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
  • meets market criteria for both performance and cost
  • is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
  • optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
  • is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  • is made from materials that are healthy throughout the life cycle
  • is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
  • is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles

While these guidelines apply to all industries, the clothing industry is following these principles to introduce cleaner and cheaper ways of product packaging. This is happening on a collective as well as individual level.

Collective action to address industry issues

There are many organizations in the clothing industry who are interested in solving these issues. The Sustainable Clothing Alliance (SAC), which came into being in 2011, is one such body2. It is an alliance of global brands, retailers, manufacturers, governments, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations. The SAC currently has a membership of over 200 organizations.

In 2012 SAC introduced a tool called the Higg Index to measure and score how sustainable a company or product is3. The index which is been refined is designed to provide a holistic overview of improvements that can be made to reduce negative environmental impacts. Once put in place, these improvements will ensure the wellbeing of communities.

Consisting of product, facility, and brand tools, the Higg Index aims for transparency as a way to compare scores across the industry through a phased approach. It provides a way to benchmark performance, from assessing materials to checking on a product’s final footprint. Full transparency across the industry is expected by 2020.

The success of this initiative depends on how willing companies are to invest in this tool and use the results generated to lessen negative impacts in their systems. The expectation is that the Higg tool will lead to a sharing of information among users that can lead to improvements and efficiencies in sustainable practices in the industry. The packaging of clothing will also improve as a result.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is a member-based collaborative that promotes sustainable packaging processes using a life-cycle approach. Packaging choices are considered starting with the design and selection of materials until the product is used4.  The COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) tool, a software platform developed by the SPC, helps industries to optimize package design using industry data and environmental performance indicators that are accepted internationally.

SPC believes that consumers have an important role to play in the disposal of packaging materials. To this end, it has introduced labels such as How2Recyle and How2Compost so that consumers can help with the safe recycling and composting of materials.

Efforts by companies to improve sustainability

Meanwhile, companies committed to sustainable principles are looking to save resources by using recyclable or biodegradable materials in the packaging of their products. They are testing recyclable materials such as Polylactic acid (PLA), Recycled PET5 (polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE (high-density polyethelyne) and naturally-sourced materials such as paper foam6, corn starch, and mushroom fibre. Here are some ways that companies hope to achieve more sustainable packaging for their products.

Reduce, recycle, and reuse

The world needs to reduce, reuse & recycle


The size of packaging for products adds to the cost of production. As a company committed to sustainability, Puma uses the “Clever Little Bag” for the packaging of its shoes. The Clever Little Bag consists of a sheet of folded cardboard inside a red PET bag with a handle. This packaging helps to save resources by using less material. It also provides customers with a reusable and recyclable bag.


Puma aims for improved sustainability in its packing materials by using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper or recycled cardboard and paper.  The company’s goal is to use 90% of such material in its packaging by 20207.

The idea of reducing and reusing is also practised by Allbirds8, a company that produces shoes from naturally sourced materials. The boxes used by this company to package its shoes are made from 90% post-consumer recycled cardboard. They serve as combined boxes and bags for customers shopping at their stores. They are also used as shipping boxes for online orders and eliminate the need for a second set of boxes.

Buyers of online goods usually consider a product’s packaging as garbage. RePack9 is a company that has decided to reverse this trend by re-using the same packaging for multiple shipments. Companies which sign up to use RePack’s service offer an incentive- a voucher or donation, for customers to mail the pack back free of charge to the return address printed on it. The packs are made of recycled polypropylene and are good for reuse up to twenty times. They come in all sizes and shapes but are collapsible into a flat pack for re-mailing.

There are other companies such as Rent the Runway10, an online clothes rental company, which uses this same concept by using an eco-friendly garment bag. The “reduce-recycle-reuse” concept is also used by companies such as Earthpack11 and Eco-Enclose12 to provide businesses with eco-friendly packaging options.

Use of biodegradable materials

Clothes hangers are a temporary necessity for retailers. They are needed for the display and sale of goods but are ultimately disposed of. Benetton, a company well-known for following ethical and environmentally sustainable practices in its production processes, uses biodegradable hangers to solve this problem. The hangers are made of liquid wood13 made by combining wood fibre sourced from sustainably managed forests, lignin- an organic compound that is removed from wood pulp when making paper, and natural wax.

Clear plastic bags that are used to pack garments such as T-shirts cannot be readily recycled everywhere. Puma reduced the size of these bags by folding garments one more time and also made them out of cornstarch, a biodegradable material. The company also created the “Clever Little Shopper”14, a reusable shopping bag made from cornstarch to replace plastic bags previously offered to customers.

How consumers can contribute to sustainability

Environmentally responsible companies are striving to reduce harmful materials and processes used in the clothing industry.  This includes the design of sustainable product packaging. As a consumer, you too can help in this effort.

Check whether you can reuse any part of packing materials that come with an item in other ways. Some packing materials can be creatively used for gift wrapping. Biodegradable packing materials can become containers for plants or used for composting. If you are getting rid of packing materials, separate the parts that can be recycled so less end up in the landfill. You can also help by taking a reusable bag when you go shopping and decline extra wrapping when possible.


There are growing concerns about climate change and how the clothing industry is contributing to these ill effects. These concerns have resulted in the industry considering more sustainable processes. Cost-effective and efficient packing can help with these clean-up efforts. Individual businesses, as well as organized groups, are meeting this challenge with innovative packaging solutions and helpful tools.

As a consumer, you can also help in this effort by taking care to reuse packing materials when possible and help in their safe disposal. Remember that recycling helps to extend the use of a material and save resources paving the way for more sustainable packaging choices.


  1. (Please see the About Us page for definition)
  7. (Please see section on Packaging)

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About the Author

Kantha Wijeratne is a freelance writer who follows trends related to green living.  She aims to provide information that would help readers to adopt sustainable lifestyles.

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