Each year, Earth Day brings people together on April 22 to celebrate the planet and promote environmental awareness. This year’s celebration highlights the consumer-driven environmental movement. It marks a pivotal opportunity for companies to address climate change and other ecological issues while acting in line with consumer demand.
Earth Day 2021 calls on individuals to Restore Our Earth™ by taking innovative measures to tackle climate change and reverse environmental degradation. The public sector is also getting on board with this mission. President Biden is holding a global climate summit tomorrow to encourage countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions further.
The Earth Day movement highlights the individual consumer’s power to take actions that create a ripple effect of widespread change. The event has steadily gained popularity since the 1970s and has grown into a massive grassroots effort.
Over one billion individuals and thousands of organizations expect to participate in Earth Day this year by attending community events and taking prescribed actions on designated environmental issues.
With this enormous consumer buy-in, it is critical to understand what choices consumers are making based on the Earth Day movement and how this can affect your packaging needs. Two of the most significant issues this year are deforestation and plastic pollution. These hot topics are particularly relevant to the industry and retail packaging.
After reading this article, you will better understand some consumer trends related to sustainable packaging and how you can best meet them.
One of Earth Day’s main goals this year is to promote reforestation or restoring the world’s forests. Many forests have undergone deforestation, which means that they have been depleted or destroyed. This is usually due to human activities such as cutting down all the trees to obtain timber for wood and paper products.
Trees retain carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, and deforestation can release large amounts of this stored gas into the atmosphere, increasing global warming. A whopping 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be due to deforestation and other land-use activities. Projections show that emissions from deforestation will increase if we do not take corrective actions.
Unsustainable forestry practices contribute to global climate change and negatively affect the local habitat, harming forest ecosystems. For example, clear-cutting, or cutting down most of the trees in an area, increases soil erosion and disrupts the local water cycle. It can also reduce local biodiversity by removing sources of food and shelter species need to survive.
Deforestation can also harm vulnerable communities. Forests are crucial to rural and indigenous livelihoods in areas like the Amazon. Their depletion can force individuals or communities to relocate from their native lands.
Given the consequences of deforestation, it is easy to see why people care about this issue. The consumer choices of the 1+ billion Earth Day participants will be affected at least in part by how organizations handle deforestation.
Consumers are mobilizing to take action on Earth Day and beyond to protect and revitalize global forests. In addition to community events, Earth Day provides a list of steps people can take to support the Earth restoration movement. In particular, one of the participant commitments for Earth Day 2021 is to “stop deforestation by supporting companies that take an active role against it.”
Consumers are on the lookout for companies taking a clear stand on this issue and supporting sustainable forestry. They are calling on companies to ensure their business activities are helping instead of harming the natural environment. With increasing concerns about climate change, consumers support companies that help restore forests and subsequently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They avoid businesses that contribute to deforestation.
One way a business can take explicit action on this issue is by contributing to reforestation efforts, which involve renewing the forest cover in areas that have been affected by deforestation. Many beauty brands have stepped up to this challenge and incorporated reforestation into how they give back to the community. In this regard, tree-planting campaigns are a popular beauty industry trend.
One stand-out label is Yves Rocher. The Yves Rocher Foundation created the Plant For Life program (formerly known as Plant for the Planet), which plants trees to support biodiversity and educate people on sustainable forest management. The foundation has planted over 100 million trees in 35 countries since 2007, with the goal of 135 million by 2025. This by far surpasses similar competitor campaigns. Yves Rocher is a model brand regarding taking its commitment to restore the environment seriously.
Product and retail packaging is a crucial opportunity for brands and retailers to demonstrate their efforts to protect forests. Product packaging is your chance to make a positive first impression on a customer, especially in e-commerce.
One of the main aspects of packaging that can send a message to the consumer is the type of material.
The first thought that may come to mind to protect forests is to avoid paper as a packaging material. However, paper itself can be a sustainable packaging solution.
Tree-based packaging products can be sourced and produced to create quality packaging solutions that do not harm the environment. These are some suggested packaging materials that allow your business to become part of the movement for sustainable forestry management while also using paper packaging:
1. Certified paper
Retailers can use paper to create sustainable packaging if it comes from a well-managed forest. Thankfully, you don’t have to visit the forest for yourself to see if this is the case. Consider certifications to inform your purchasing decisions and demonstrate your commitment to ending deforestation.
While there are various certifications, the Forest Stewardship Council is considered the gold standard. FSC-certified paper originates from environmentally and socially responsible sources, making it easy to Go Green.
2. Recyclable paper
After ensuring that the paper is responsibly sourced, the next step is determining the type of paper material you want to use. Paper is generally an easily recyclable material and can be reprocessed into new products many times over.
That being said, it must be kept in a state where it remains recyclable to be considered Earth-friendly. This means that mixed-material paper packaging should be avoided as this typically renders the packaging unrecyclable.
3. Recycled paper
Another material option is recycled paper. This material is created from recyclable paper after it has been used. Using recycled paper in packaging further removes deforestation concerns as it does not directly generate demand for virgin paper, reducing the pressure on forests. Even better if it is also recyclable.
4. Reusable paper
One lesser-known paper-based option for packaging is washable paper, which is also known as paper leather. This material is created from plant fibers and—as the name implies—can be washed and reused many times over. This material provides another green option for lessening the need to cut down more trees.
One important point to note is that many paper products are also compostable. This is especially relevant for food packaging as soiled paper products cannot be recycled. If your paper packaging will get dirty, consider ensuring that it is compostable and encouraging customers to compost it after use. This alternative disposal method can help regenerate the Earth instead of adding more trash to landfills.
Paper can be a sustainable packaging solution when the entire material lifecycle is considered: from ethically sourcing the materials to preventing the packaging from entering the waste stream at the end of life. This type of thinking is called circular design, and it is a growing trend across industries.
Consumer trends are also shifting due to climate change for another widely used material: plastic.
Another focus of this year’s Earth Day is to end plastic pollution. Plastic is ubiquitous in products and packaging as it is cheap, convenient, and easy to produce.
For decades, plastics have packed landfills and unintentionally entered the natural environment. It is estimated that 6300 million metric tons of waste resulted from plastic production and use as of 2015, and 79% of that waste has ended up in landfills or the environment.
One of the issues with plastics in the environment is that they are persistent, which means that they degrade slowly, if at all. Depending on the type and conditions, plastics can take decades or even hundreds of years to degrade. This results in the accumulation of plastics in the environment, especially microplastics.
Microplastics are a hot topic in the environmental science field. They are defined as pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters long. The scientific community is still learning about the effects of microplastics, but what is known so far is that they negatively impact human and environmental health. For example, much plastic pollution ends up in the ocean. Fish and subsequently humans who eat the fish then ingest these microplastics. This can cause health problems in both aquatic life and humans.
It is well-known that plastic pollution is harmful to the environment. However, more consumers are now learning about a critical but previously overlooked impact: their contribution to climate change.
Traditional plastic production uses fossil fuels, which means that producing petroleum-based plastics also generates greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in 2015, plastic emissions were equal to 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. The industry projects plastic demand growth, which means that alternatives to traditional petroleum-based plastics must quickly become mainstream in the industry to lessen greenhouse gas emissions.
With the combined climate and health effects of plastic pollution, the toll of endlessly creating plastic is staggering. Consumers are making the connection between plastics and climate change, and they are acting accordingly.
Earth Day 2021 suggests several actions individuals can take to minimize plastic pollution, including
Consumers can refuse single-use shopping bags and opt for reusable bags instead to reduce their plastic use.
Buyers can use the Earth Day plastic calculator to become more aware of their plastic consumption regarding food containers and packaging, shopping bags, and feminine products.
Scientists are using crowdsourcing to track and identify the locations and sources of plastic pollution. People submit photographs of plastic waste they find to databases, which researchers can then leverage to identify areas with high plastic pollution and the pollution sources (i.e., industries and companies).
Earth Day participants can support the movement by avoiding or replacing single-use plastic items in their daily lives with alternatives such as paper or glass.
Taking the commitment to end plastic pollution one step further, people are also called to take political action by pushing for legislation to ban single-use plastic in their city or state.
The result of this push to end this type of pollution is that consumers are becoming wary of plastics, especially single-use plastics. Not only that, but people are holding companies accountable for their plastic waste.
Break Free From Plastic is another global movement that focuses on plastic pollution. It calls on corporations to reduce their use of single-use plastic and minimize packaging. The organization conducted an audit of trash in 42 countries, putting the spotlight on brands using packaging composed of single-use plastic.
They highlighted some of the largest food and beverage, beauty and personal care, and candy companies as top plastic pollution producers. All eyes are on how companies use plastic, and nonprofit organizations like Break Free From Plastic are not afraid to call out brands that fall behind in pleasing the conscious consumer.
Consumers are more aware that businesses can substantially impact environmental pollution through their product and retail packaging. They are looking for brands with Earth-friendly packaging that will help to end plastic pollution.
The following packaging options can demonstrate to consumers that you are part of the solution to the issue of plastic pollution and committed to helping Restore Our Earth™:
1. Recyclable plastic
Much of the plastic packaging in stores today is not recyclable. Using recyclable material can help prevent plastic packaging from taking up space in landfills, or even worse, ending up in the ocean. This option can reduce environmental pollution, and recycling plastic instead of throwing it away can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, creating conventional plastic still involves fossil fuels, making this option less helpful in climate change mitigation than other alternatives.
2. Recycled plastic
Another way to divert plastic from the waste stream is by upcycling discarded plastic into a new product. This option uses existing plastic and reduces virgin plastic demand, simultaneously lessening greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution. Recycled plastic packaging is an affordable option that helps reduce plastic waste and pollution.
3. Biodegradable or compostable plastic
Biodegradable or compostable plastics are an emerging technological solution to plastic pollution. This category encompasses many types of materials, from petroleum-based plastics with additives that allow them to degrade more quickly to plant-based substrates. Scientists are still learning about some of these materials’ environmental impacts. That being said, they can eliminate plastic pollution in the future by facilitating plastic degradation in the environment or composting centers.
4. Natural reusable materials
A straightforward way to minimize plastic pollution is to avoid plastic packaging altogether. Natural materials such as cotton and cork are derived from renewable sources. They can be sustainable and reusable alternatives to plastic packaging. Fair Trade and Better Cotton Initiative™ certifications indicate responsibly sourced cotton. Also, cork oak forests have many environmental benefits. Creating packaging from cork can promote the growth and maintenance of these habitats.
With Earth Day encouraging individuals to leverage their power as consumers, it is crucial to understand what types of packaging and company behaviors buyers seek or avoid. Revitalizing forests and minimizing plastic pollution are two critical issues that shoppers focus on that impact climate change and the natural environment.
Businesses can further the Earth Day mission to Restore Our Earth™ by considering the impact of their current packaging on climate change and the environment and developing innovative retail packaging for tomorrow’s consumer. Certified paper packaging that is reusable, recycled, or easily recyclable can help lessen the demand for paper and preserve forests. Materials designed to reduce waste such as recyclable and recycled plastic and natural, reusable substrates can help to minimize plastic pollution in the environment.
As our lives begin to regain normalcy this year, Earth Day is a poignant reminder that how industries operate matters to everyone on our wonderful planet.