How choosing the right packaging can enhance your branding while convincing shoppers your sustainability efforts are genuine

Courtesy of James Cropper Plc

Sustainable retail packaging is becoming increasingly important to today’s shoppers. As many of us are making more conscious choices about the products we buy, the expectation that brands and retailers will align all areas of their business with sustainability is also rising. And just as suppliers are ramping up their efforts on environmentally friendly packaging, there’s a growing expectation for retailers to invest in sustainable bags and boxes to house their customers’ purchases.

It’s been seven years since the government first launched a levy on single-use plastic bags, which doubled to £0.10 in 2021. According to data, plastic bag sales have decreased by 95 per cent since the move while shoppers now only buy an average of four a year in major supermarkets.

Although the levy was not particularly transformative for boutiques which largely use paper bags that are exempt from the charge, shifting consumer attitude is certainly having an impact. Sales of reusable ‘bags for life’ have increased by 65 per cent since 2017, providing an additional revenue stream for some stores. But most notably, shoppers are increasingly expecting retailers to use recycled materials for their in-store bags and gift boxes as well as less packaging overall for online orders.

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Sustainability matters 

Recent research by Drapers and paper packaging specialist Smurfit Kappa ( reveals that sustainable packaging is in fact important to almost two thirds of fashion shoppers. In a poll of 2,000 UK adults, 64 per cent said they are more likely to purchase from a retailer that uses eco-friendly packaging. Meanwhile, 66 per cent stated that recyclable packaging is important when it comes to assessing a retailer’s sustainability. Nearly half (49 per cent) of online fashion shoppers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging and delivery if offered at the checkout. Plus, a third (33 per cent) said they have previously rejected a purchase because of unsustainable packaging.

“Consumer appetite for sustainable packaging has grown significantly in the last two years and retailers are under increased pressure,” confirms Hamed Ahmed, Smurfit Kappa’s e-commerce director. “There is huge demand for paper-based packaging solutions including paper bags and corrugated boxes – in short, packaging that is easily recyclable.”

Karin Goldsmith, head of marketing at leading sustainable firm Fleet Luxury Packaging (, agrees, adding: “Previously sustainable packaging was on the wish list, but it’s now a given and something customers expect retailers to be doing. Consumers attitudes have changed – they are now more likely to shop with a retailer that has made consistent efforts to be sustainable over one that has not.”

James Cropper Plc

Shopping experience

Carrier bags have long played a crucial role in a retailer’s branding while the rise of online orders has seen increased importance placed on packaging used for deliveries. “Your packaging is your advertising,” says Karin. “It creates great brand awareness and there is no better feeling than walking down the street with a lovely shopping bag on your arm or opening up a box with beautiful products inside.”

One retailer using its carrier bags to enhance its branding is Selfridges, which has won multiple awards for its innovative approach to retail packaging. “In a pioneering environmental move, Selfridges began collecting cups from all its retail stores and offices and handing them over to James Cropper’s CupCycling scheme to upcycle them into beautiful paper for its iconic yellow carrier bags,” says the luxury packaging company’s senior product manager, Stefan Pryor. “Paper being used to create its iconic yellow shopping bags in a completely unique closed-loop recycling solution demonstrates the storytelling power which packaging holds.”

Mulberry is another example of standout storytelling through packaging. “The brand’s bespoke Mulberry Green colour was created at the James Cropper mill in 2015, working jointly with G.F Smith, which has now achieved international brand recognition,” says Stefan. “Mulberry wanted to take it to the next level, so every sheet of Mulberry Green paper used for its packaging now includes 20 per cent CupCycling fibre from coffee cups and a further 30 per cent from other post-consumer waste. The story is featured on all of this packaging, letting consumers know that the same care taken in the production of the luxury product they have purchased is also taken in the creation of its packaging.” 

Particularly with online consumers having less physical contact with retailers, e-commerce packaging plays a crucial role in the overall shopping experience. And given the rapid explosion of e-commerce, retailers need to stand out from the crowd more than ever before: “The growth in e-commerce has made it increasingly easy for people to shop around,” says Hamed. “E-commerce packaging has to perform across all fronts: branding, opening, returning, recycling.”

Fleet Luxury Packaging

For major online players such as Net-a-Porter and Matches, the parcels orders arrive in are almost as important as the products themselves: “E-commerce packaging acts as the digital store and is often the first impression a consumer has of a brand,” Hamed adds. “It is vital to create the right first impression and this is often done through a positive unboxing experience.”

So, how can indies upscale their own ‘unboxing experience?’ Karin suggests: “Customers want to recreate the luxury experience they can get in-store and e-commerce packaging can easily replicate this. As shoppers open the box, retailers can mirror the store experience with luxurious tissue papers and order confirmation paperwork in beautiful envelopes as well as ribbons and stickers.”

Hamed adds: “Retailers should ensure the premium nature of the brand is represented during the unboxing experience; this is done increasingly through having beautiful branding inside the packaging while keeping the exterior of the pack plain or generic. Personalisation is another key trend, especially for gifts.”

Innovative materials

When it comes to choosing sustainable materials for your boutique’s packaging, the sky is the limit. Paper bags remain a popular choice for high-end boutiques with companies like Smurfit Kappa working with paper mills in Spain to provide different premium options.

“But it’s not all boring brown kraft paper and cord handles,” says Karin. “Fleet Luxury Packaging produces beautiful bags and boxes using vegetable and plant-based inks along with water-based glues and varnishes.”

The company uses FSC certified papers, which is a simple way to reassure customers that your packaging has been responsibly made. Meanwhile, it has also developed fully recyclable handles for its carrier bags that look luxurious and are fully home recyclable. Fleet Luxury Packaging also produces fully sustainable e-commerce packaging using recycled material and post-consumer waste. “This is flat packed, so it takes up less room to travel and store,” explains Karin. “For fillers, we would recommend shredding your existing packaging if you wanted to reuse your own packaging.”

James Cropper Plc

James Cropper also offers retailers a choice of packaging options made from recycled materials and post-consumer waste. “Since launching CupCycling five years ago, our appetite for taking value from waste streams has grown,” says Stefan. “In 2020, we launched a new collection of papers for premium packaging – the Rydal Packaging Collection – offering options which are 100 per cenr post-consumer waste recycled, 40 per cent post-consumer waste recycled and 100 per cent fresh fibre from responsible forestry sources.”

He adds: “Furthermore, we are now using plant waste to create coloured paper. It’s the first-time plant-based dyes have ever been used in modern papermaking. Using dye derived from rosemary plant extract, which would have otherwise been wasted, we’ve added the Wainwright Colours from Nature range to our portfolio. This latest innovation heralds the first step in developing more sustainable colour options sourced from renewable origins that can be replenished responsibly, including food waste and inedible plant sources.”    

Finally, James Cropper’s Tailor-Made service allows retailers to design a paper to suit their brand in terms of colour, surface texture and paper fibre selection, giving full access to all of its innovations in a completely bespoke solution.

So, when it comes to choosing your boutique’s bags, gift boxes and parcels in 2022, there’s a clear need to do so responsibly. Not only will this help strengthen your brand values, but it will also help convince shoppers that you are fully committed to reducing your environmental impact and caring for the planet.