Sustainable packaging: a definition

Anne Johnson, Director

January 29, 2014

2 Min Read
Sustainable packaging: a definition

There's no such thing as sustainable packaging

A formal definition of sustainable packaging is needed to provide a common platform of understanding against which the packaging supply chain can measure its efforts. This was the objective of the Definition of Sustainable Packaging released in October 2005 by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition ( Drawing on fundamental eco-efficiency concepts and sustainability principles articulated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” the definition outlines a framework for sustainability in the context of packaging and its related materials systems. 


Encompassing the entire life cycle of packaging and more, the definition presents a vision for the packaging industry in eight criteria—all of which must be addressed if sustainable packaging is to become a reality. The definition is ambitious and comprehensive. It presents a challenge to the status quo while offering guidance to identify the opportunities and the strategies to move forward. One of the key strategies is design, as it is the point where we can prevent waste, optimize our use of resources, select safer materials and plan for the recyclability or recoverability of our packaging. However, even the most well designed packaging will not meet the sustainability test if there are not effective systems to recover the value of the materials. Building effective, closed-loop recycling and composting systems for packaging materials will be one of the biggest challenges to the creation of a truly sustainable packaging industry, but one from which everyone stands to gain.

The definition criteria

The definition criteria listed here (with no implied ranking) represent broad sustainability objectives, and each presents distinct opportunities to different members of the supply chain.

Sustainable packaging:

  • Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;

  • Meets market criteria for performance and cost;

  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy;

  • Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;

  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;

  • Is made from materials healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios;

  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy; and

  • Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial cradle-to-cradle cycles.

As this column moves forward, we will explore in greater detail each of the criteria mentioned above. But even today we are witnessing the challenge of sustainable packaging as a catalyst for innovation. Pursuing sustainable packaging may open unexpected doors for your business.

About the Author(s)

Anne Johnson

Director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue ( For additional information, email [email protected].

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