Bagged and Tagged: How Outdoor Brands Are Tackling the Complex Issues of Product Packaging

By Helen Olsson November 29, 2018

Packaging is a huge challenge in the outdoor industry. All those high-tech laminated garments, cashmere-soft fleece tops, delicate bike parts, and mirrored sunglasses need to be protected as they travel from company to consumer. And each item has its own specific set of packaging parameters. All that variability results in a massive amount of polybags, cardboard, hang tags, plastic, Styrofoam, bubble wrap, and paper.

Some 165 billion packages and envelopes are shipped each year, according to an analysis conducted by LimeLoop, which makes reusable packaging. That translates into 1.2 million trees, 242 million gallons of water, and 5 million gallons of oil—every day.

Much of it ends up in landfills, and even what can be recycled is enough to overwhelm our nation’s recycling facilities. And that’s just end-of-life. Manufacturing all those packaging materials also impacts the earth. Some 165 billion packages and envelopes are shipped each year, according to an analysis conducted by LimeLoop, which makes reusable packaging. That translates into 1.2 million trees, 242 million gallons of water, and 5 million gallons of oil—every day.

Just as beer makers are developing biodegradable six pack holders and whole cities are banning single-use plastic water bottles—and of course the plastic straw is under intense fire right now—outdoor brands are looking for solutions to mitigate the impact of their packaging.

Companies are testing the waters with an array of approaches. Icebreaker is prototyping a water-soluble pouch for shipping; Outerknown is using dissolvable hangtags; and Petzl encases its headlamps in potato starch packaging.

“As different companies come up with innovative one-off solutions, we’ll continue to learn and move forward,” says Nikki Hodgson, sustainable business innovation manager for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). “So far, we haven’t found the silver bullet. As an industry, we need to find something we can scale up to harmonize on our message to consumers. We need to align as an industry.”

Just as beer makers are developing biodegradable six pack holders and whole cities are banning single-use plastic water bottles—and of course the plastic straw is under intense fire right now—outdoor brands are looking for solutions to mitigate the impact of their packaging.

OIA is focusing its efforts around packaging in three areas:

  • Finding solutions that are scalable
  • Developing consumer education
  • Working with municipalities

This last effort is key, says Hodgson: “When we talk about packaging and end-of-life, one of the big missing pieces is engaging municipalities.” Hodgson notes that consumer education and support from municipalities is really a prerequisite to the companies switching over to alternative recyclables. For example, compostable bags are a great idea, but if they need an industrial composter to process, then that’s a hurdle in terms of infrastructure needs in any given municipality. On the consumer-awareness side, if the bags aren’t sorted properly, they can end up being a problem in a single stream recycling system whose machines can’t process the material.

“Packaging is a multifaceted problem,” says Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, an industry-led nonprofit. Plastics are the hot-button concern among consumers right now, but the impacts of packaging go well beyond plastics. “When we use life-cycle thinking, there’s a laundry list of environmental impacts, from harvesting trees … to [the] extraction of natural gas to water consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” he says. “Recycling is good, but it doesn’t mitigate all the impacts upstream.”

Hodgson and Gendell agree: The challenge is finding the right solutions. “We all want to move quickly, but we really need to understand all the impacts before we jump on board with a new innovation,” says Hodgson. The danger lies in adopting solutions that are ultimately regrettable or unscalable substitutions. Plastics are the hot-button concern among consumers right now, but the impacts of packaging go well beyond plastics.

Gendell recommends companies think about three pillars of packaging: sourcing, optimization, and recovery. The sourcing bucket captures where your materials come from. The optimization bucket covers the efficient and effective use of the material. The recovery bucket focuses on designing packaging that can be reused, recycled, or composted down the line.

Plastics are the hot-button concern among consumers right now, but the impacts of packaging go well beyond plastics.

To keep the conversation going around packaging and hopefully spark the next great idea—one that is scalable and truly moves the needle across the industry—here’s a look at 17 initiatives and technologies outdoor companies are employing to reduce the impact of their packaging.

1. Water-Soluble Bag: Icebreaker
Icebreaker is currently using a degradable bag made with recycled plastic, but the company is working on an even more environmentally friendly alternative. After 18 months of development, Icebreaker began trials earlier this year on a water-soluble pouch, with a soft launch planned for Fall 2019 products. The bag will be compostable and biodegradable through anaerobic digestion, and it will be water biodegradable and ocean safe. Icebreaker is still working on verifying these certifications through independent lab testing. “As part of our commitment to sustainability, we have chosen to source a bag made from non-toxic material that is essentially comprised of organic ingredients,” says Meredith Dawson Lawry, global sustainability, quality and compliance manager at Icebreaker. “So, no matter where this bag ends up, it will do no unnecessary harm to the environment.

“No matter where this bag ends up, it will do no unnecessary harm to the environment.”—Meredith Dawson Lawry, global sustainability, quality and compliance manager, Icebreaker

2. Dissolvable Hangtags: Outerknown
Outerknown, the sustainable men’s lifestyle brand founded by pro surfer Kelly Slater, partnered with Avery Dennison to create hangtags that dissolve in water. The labels are made from a cornstarch base that doesn’t come from the food stream and is harmless to septic systems. The label can go straight in the washing machine where it will dissolve. “It’s imperative that every aspect of how we present our products to customers contribute to product circularity,” says Shelly Gottschamer, Outerknown’s head of sustainability. “We can make endless strides behind the scenes, but it’s really these physical touch-points that resonate with our customers and drive home our commitment to making products that benefit people and planet.”

“It’s imperative that every aspect of how we present our products to customers contribute to product circularity.” —Shelly Gottschamer, head of sustainability, Outerknown.

3. Potato Starch Packaging: Petzl
Petzl is continually searching for improvement and innovation to minimize the environmental impact of its packaging. In 2009, the company discovered PaperFoam, a material made of natural fibers (paper) and industrial starch (potatoes) that is 100-percent natural and biodegradable. The eco-friendly material is used to make cartons for everything from eggs to electronics to Champagne. Petzl uses the packaging trays for most of its compact headlamps. In addition to being both paper recyclable and home compostable, PaperFoam weighs 40-percent less than comparable traditional packaging. It’s also non-abrasive, eliminating the need for polybags. “Packaging must protect and enhance the product and brand, it must inform the customer, and it must meet industrial and logistical requirements,” says Gregory Mack, Petzl’s packaging design & purchase manager. “Petzl is committed to a process to reconcile these expectations while limiting the environmental impact of packaging.”

4. Bio-Based Plastic Polybags: Outerknown
To ship its line of Transit bags, Outerknown is using an Avery Dennison plastic bag that’s made from sugar cane. It’s indistinguishable from the traditional fossil-resource-based polybag and can be recycled in the same way. The Coca-Cola Company has been using a similar application in its PlantBottle.  The environmental savings occur in the bag’s production (Gendell’s “sourcing bucket”). Replacing fossil fuels with a plant-based resource decreases GHG emissions during the material manufacturing phase. Gendell likes the idea of bio-based plastics over biodegradable compostable plastics because they don’t change the recycling equation. He points out that 94 percent of Americans have access to recycling, including access to drop-off centers for plastic bags, while only 1 to 2 percent of consumers have industrial composting that accepts packaging at their curbside. One caveat here is that the switch to plant-based bags does increase the package’s water footprint.

5. Tiny Hang Tags: PEARL iZUMi
PEARL iZUMi released a Social Purpose statement in June of 2018 with a pledge they call “Ride More, Do More.” As part of an overall sustainability push, the company is making strides to minimize its hangtags. Starting in January 2019, the brand will attach only one card, at the smallest size that can still be recycled, to capture critical codes and pricing information. “We feel that with all of the digital resources available, relying on a large hangtag to communicate product details is outdated,” said PEARL iZUMi’s president, Chris Sword. Using the Higg Index, a self-assessment sustainability tool developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in partnership with OIA, PEARL iZUMi discovered that using the tiny hangtags would save 19,400 pounds of paper, saving 165 trees, 68,082 gallons of water, and 4,503 gallons of oil annually.

“We feel that with all of the digital resources available, relying on a large hangtag to communicate product details is outdated.” —Chris Sword, President, Pearl Izumi

6. Reusable Mailers: Toad&Co X LimeLoop
Toad&Co is the first outdoor company to adopt LimeLoop reusable mailers as its preferred mode of shipping. The packages are made from recycled billboards and have a life cycle of more than 10 years (or 2,000 shipments). Consumers opt in to the program, receiving their goods in the vinyl mailer, which is then sent back to Toad’s fulfillment center. Toad&Co partnered with LimeLoop on an environmental analysis that compared the impact of creating paper mailers versus the reusable mailers. “Those numbers quickly penciled out,” says Kelly Milazzo, director of operations for Toad&Co. Using 2,500 LimeLoop mailers will save the company 5 million mailers, which saves 6.8 million gallons of water, 166,000 gallons of oil, and 100,000 rolls of tape.

“With the shift from brick and mortar to e-commerce, as a nation we’re up against a tremendous amount of packaging,” says Milazzo. “Think of what’s arriving at your doorstep daily.” Toad’s leadership believes the solution is not to invest in better recycling facilities, but to reduce the demand on facilities by changing the way companies ship product. So far, the LimeLoop program has been a success, with more than 95 percent of the LimeLoop mailers coming back. “It’s been seamless with the consumer,” says Milazzo.

6. Closed-Loop Shopping Bags: Columbia Sportswear
Columbia Sportswear has been working with Roplast since 2015 to create a durable plastic shopping bag that will launch in Fall 2018. Using a circular approach, the retail bag program incorporates waste from Columbia’s distribution center. Roplast has reclaimed and reprocessed 250,000 pounds of the company’s plastic waste, which has been integrated into the new shopping bags. “It’s a more sustainable plastic bag when compared to a regular virgin plastic bag,” explains Guru Larson, who leads the environmental sustainability division at Columbia Sportswear. “One of the big issues with plastic bags is that society doesn’t do a good job of recycling them. The Roplast closed-loop bag solution has created a new system for recapturing post-consumer plastic waste and creating value out it.”

The bag is made with 75-percent recycled content, including Columbia’s own polybags as well as grocery bags and plastic film. The shopping bag is 100 percent recyclable, but Columbia will encourage consumers to reuse the bag first, pointing out that it can be washed and is strength tested to be reused 125 times. The bags have the potential to save 1.6 pounds of single-use plastic bags, to reduce the use of virgin resin by 75 percent, and they use 70 percent less energy to produce than a comparable paper bag.

Nike recently unveiled a similar program, which the company has dubbed “Bag To Better,” to create the company’s bright orange shopping bags. The retail bags are composed of 50 percent recycled plastic, six percent of that from Nike’s own supply chain polybags.

7. Ditching the Polybag: Prana and REI
Scientists estimate plastics will take more than 400 years to decompose in the ocean. And 91 percent of plastics never get recycled. It’s stats like these that are pushing brands to abandon plastic wherever possible. In 2011, prAna made waves by eliminating much of its dependence on the polybag. Assessments had shown the company was using 1.3 million polybags adding up to a whopping 13,000 pounds of plastic. Today, the company has guidelines for folding apparel, placing hangtags, and tying each piece with raffia—and shipping it sans the plastic bag.

REI has eliminated most of its individual-use polybags in favor of lining large shipping boxes with a single master bag. For certain apparel items, REI rolls the garments (it’s called a roll-pack) and secures them with a small piece of undyed Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper.

While it hasn’t ditched the polybag, Toad&Co aims to use less plastic by implementing folding standards to minimize the size of garments and, therefore, the size of the polybag needed.

8. Replacing the Polybag with Reusable Mesh: Polarmax
In the past, base-layer company Polarmax had tried using an eco-friendly recyclable bio bag to ship and package its retail products but decided it wasn’t enough. “Consumers are so sensitive to polybags today, and it was still a plastic bag,” says Randy Black, CEO of Longworth Industries, which owns Polarmax. The company decided to take a fresh approach by replacing its traditional paper carton and polybag packaging with reusable, “retaskable” mesh bags. The new bags, color-coded by product category, are being utilized across the Fall 2018 lines and also serve as a way to stand out at retail. “Our mantra has always been reduce, reuse, recycle, retask. But the real positive is that we aren’t killing as many trees,” says Black, referring to the paper cartons they’ve eliminated. To make the change, Polarmax had to make a major commitment. “Ultimately it costs me a little more,” says Black, “but there’s long-term value in what we’re doing.”

9. Getting Consumers on Board: REI
REI has been a longtime member of How2Recycle, a voluntary recycling-label program developed by GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition in 2012. The idea is to educate consumers with standardized common sense labeling that clearly communicates recycling instructions for each component of the packaging. Many large food companies like Kellogg’s and Nestlé have adopted the labeling, but its use is not as widespread in the outdoor industry.

10. Shaving off the Plastic Bits: Icebreaker
Icebreaker has eliminated the use of plastic straps around boxes during transportation. It’s a common practice in transportation, they say, but it creates a large amount of plastic waste. The company has also removed plastic hooks on base layer boxes (the bits used in hanging displays), which enables the boxes to be more-easily recycled. Every bit of plastic saved is a good thing. University of Georgia engineering associate professor Jenna Jambeck, who published a groundbreaking study on plastic waste in oceans in 2015, estimates humans contributed 8.8 million tons of plastic to the ocean in 2010. She projects that the cumulative input over time will add up to 155 million metric tons by 2025.

11. Compostable Bags and Recyclable Cardboard: Burton
Beginning in the 2016–17 season, Burton changed the bags on its adult snowboards from a polypropylene plastic to a paper bag that is recyclable and compostable. The move saves 73,722 pounds of plastic per season. The following winter, Burton replaced its previously non-recyclable base-layer apparel packaging with a fully recyclable corrugated cardboard box made from 80-percent post-consumer recycled materials. Using the new eco-friendly box eliminated the use of what Senior Sustainability Manager Jenn Swain calls “granola bags” (a co-laminated plastic bag with a foil liner and a craft paper exterior, not unlike the bags used for coffee and some granolas.) The old bags produced an estimated 10,285 pounds of landfill waste annually. “We’re constantly looking to lower our impacts on the planet,” says Swain. “Our packaging continues to evolve as we strive toward ambitious 2020 sustainability goals across all product categories, including 100-percent recyclable or compostable packaging with minimum 80-percent recycled content.”

12. Recycling at Retail
In 2011, The North Face partnered with upcycling and recycling pioneer TerraCycle to create The North Face Polybag Brigade. Through the partnership, The North Face diverts polybag packaging waste at 32 TNF retail stores in the U.S. where #4 plastic bags are not readily recyclable. The plastic is repurposed via TerraCycle channels into various products such as plastic lumber, bike racks, pavers, kitchen utensils, and plastic tote bags for re-use. Since 2011, 4.1 million TNF polybags have been recycled through the partnership.

5 More Steps Brands Can Take

  • Increase the percent of recycled plastic used to produce polybags. This can reduce fossil fuel use by decreasing the need for virgin materials during production. PEARL iZUMi, for one, plans to shift to 100-percent recycled plastic in its polybags.
  • Use cardboard packaging that is Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. FSC sustainable forests ensure that the productivity of natural systems is maintained and best practices are used to minimize unwanted impacts to soil, air, and water. Icebreaker has set a goal to use 100-percent FSC-certified paper by 2020.
  • Make sure you use right-sized retail boxes, and don’t include extraneous cardboard inside them. In the winter of 2017–18, Burton removed the cardboard divider in its bindings packaging, saving 90,000 pounds of cardboard (770 trees) per season. Since 2014–15, Burton has taken care to ensure the boxes are the correct size for the boots inside. That simple move saves 140,000 pounds (1,200 trees) per season.
  • Use environmentally friendly inks for printing on packaging. Icebreaker uses vegetable-based inks and Columbia Sportswear and Mountain Khakis, among others, use water-based inks.
  • Choose less-toxic adhesives: Icebreaker uses water-based glues, while Katherine Homes seals her boxes with a biodegradable plant-based tapes from EcoEnclose.
0