Sustainable Packaging Trends to Watch in 2020

In 2019, the packaging industry developed both broader awareness of its impact on climate change, and laser focus on reducing that impact. Moving into 2020, industry partnerships, smart technology adoption, and a shift to less or reusable materials will facilitate the packaging industry’s evolution into a more responsible global economic force.

Four significant trends represent the industry’s recent developments:

  1. Responding to climate change
  2. Brand partnerships with Loop
  3. The rise of smart packaging
  4. Decreasing packaging volume and increasing reusables

Below, we dive into what’s shaping future changes in packaging, and how to get ahead of the curve.

Packaging and Climate Change

If you’ve been paying any attention to mainstream media in 2019, you’ll have heard the name Greta Thunberg. She’s TIME’s pick for Person of the Year, and many others as well.

But, Thunberg isn’t the only one focused on climate change. In a report released mid-2019, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) singled out plastic packaging as a major culprit for rising emissions. CIEL found that “By 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.”

That is a role the packaging industry simply cannot adopt.

Packaging Embraces Circularity

Thankfully, more brands are recognizing their environmental impacts, and embracing packaging that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.

A platform that spans retail sectors, Loop launched in 2019 to offer brands and durable, reusable metal or glass packaging. Their brand partners include Häagen-Dazs and Tropicana, Crest and Colgate, Clorox and Tide.

What makes Loop stand out is its emphasis on reusability, rather than recycling. The logistic challenges in shipping used containers, then cleaning and distributing back to manufacturers for repurposing are enormous. However, the upside is a world we can all continue to thrive in. That’s a noble goal an ever-increasing number of brands are getting behind, thanks to a push from consumer spending.

Smart Packaging Reduces Waste

A more sustainable future demands greater efficiency. Technology is poised to help us not only make a positive impact environmentally but also financially.

One solution highlighted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) integrates RFID tags, GPS, reusable packaging, and reusable packaging materials to create a supply chain where stock is continuously tracked, monitored, and automatically reordered.

Just how much money can these changes generate? The WEF cited an Ellen MacArthur Foundation study which claims “converting 20% of all plastic packaging into reuse models represents a $10 billion opportunity.”

Reducing and Reusing Ecommerce Packaging

The fashion industry, one of the largest polluting industries (second only to oil), is embracing reusable packaging. Rent the Runway patented its own line of eco-friendly garment bags comprised of cardboard boxes, vinyl garment bags, and plastic mailing bags. The company estimates it has “saved more than 900 tons of shipping waste” since launching its environmentally-friendly packaging in 2015.

Seeing the immense need, Returnity developed a new business model around designing and manufacturing reusable packaging for partner brands. The company aims to save ecommerce partners 50% of the cost of packaging materials, and in the meantime divert approximately 750,000 bags and boxes from landfills each year.

These initiatives aren’t only pursued by smaller companies. For 10 years, Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging Program has been designing, testing, and certifying sustainable packaging. After analyzing its impact, Amazon found that “To date, Amazon’s sustainable packaging innovations have eliminated 181,000 tons of packaging material and avoided 307 million shipping boxes – enough boxes to fill more than 550,000 semi-trucks.”

Where Packaging Goes Next

Whatever your company’s sustainability budget, there are numerous options to reduce environmental impact. Packaging for circularity, designing smart systems that avoid packaging altogether, or simply using fewer materials and reducing customer frustration with over-packaging are all viable packaging trends to embrace in 2020 and beyond.


Greg Heilers is the contributing sustainability editor at