“Beauty is as beauty does”
— Chaucer in The Wife of Bath’s Tale (c. 1387) (Originally “Handsome is as handsome does.”)
The other day an ad for “sustainable” branded packaging passed through my Instagram feed. The eye candy hooked me, and I clicked through.
…to provide makers, brands and businesses of all sizes access to custom, sustainable packaging.”
Oooh…Come Here My Pretty
Just like anyone else, as my business has grown I’ve worked to develop a distinct brand identity. At first glance, I figured custom packaging might add charm to my high-end vintage fabric offerings when they landed on my customers’ doorsteps.
There’s a lot of pressure to think this way, especially as the fetishization of the “unboxing” video phenom goads even the smallest brand into thinking they’ve got to have a flush look or they won’t make the grade on Instagram.
With that fear churning in the dino part of my brain, I checked out Noissue and played around with their branding tools. It was catchy and I wanted to know more, which led me down an Internet rabbit hole of comparing “sustainable” branded packaging suppliers, what they offered, and at what cost.
I also checked out whether “sustainable” and “compostable” claims were really true.
Though I was definitely tempted (manipulated?) by the idea that, as Noissue says, “Plain packaging has been done to death, time to kick yours up a notch,” in the end I wasn’t convinced that producing new tissue paper and mailers emblazoned with Lady Virginia Vintage, was wise, environmentally sound, good for my bottom line, or in any way “sustainable.”
Don’t get me wrong — I know that the perfect is the enemy of the good and that efforts by any company to source acid-free Forest Stewardship Council paper and to use soy inks are an improvement on those that don’t. This isn’t to pick on Noissue — I’m sure they’re offering what they think is a step up over companies that churn out environmentally reckless products with impunity (or worse, with greenwashing).
But then, are Noissue and companies like it maybe greenwashing a bit, too?
I have to fall back on the years I’ve spent as a researcher and writer on energy, the environment, and consumer waste, none of which suggests that more packaging will fight climate change or clean the oceans, however incrementally greener that packaging is.
Each Drop Makes the Ocean
I’ve always been a tree hugger. As a kid, I was a cloud watcher and flower chain maker and bumble bee follower. This beautiful natural world — what child hasn’t felt that?
I’ve never grown out of this love.
I could feel the joyful imperative of creation care — how we steward and manage our amazing world, our resources, habitat, and waste — in my heart, soul, and bones from my earliest memory. That I now live on a planet with nearly eight billion souls only makes that responsibility more, not less, urgent.
But how to do it?
I know that getting good laws passed to fight climate change and protect clean air, water, and land is more important than whether I use cloth at home instead of paper towels, or new packaging instead of re-used. Because the planetary climate and waste crisis isn’t really the little guy’s fault.
But I’ll never be able to live — or do business — as if my own role is irrelevant. I find it both cynical and dispiriting to regard my actions as not mattering even if I’m only 1 person in 8 billion. Our actions matter. My actions matter to me.
I have to take sustainability as far as I can within my sphere of influence. And to that end, for me, what makes my packaging sustainable is that it’s almost exclusively re-used.
Of the Three R’s the Most Important is Re-Use
By re-used I mean packaging with an envelope that’s already been used at least once to mail something, and using it again, warts and all — with scuffs and older address labels and tape tears, etc.
Here’s my recipe:
- Outer packaging: Source boxes, envelopes, sleeves, tubes, etc., from anything that comes through your own home, as well as from neighbors and local businesses.
- Inner packaging: Ditto the above on peanuts, bubble wrap, foam padding, etc.
- Item packaging: Buy old stock tissue paper, ribbon, string, bows, and tags from antique and vintage shops, thrift stores, tag sales, church bazaars and more. Basically stuff made 20 years ago or more.
- Note cards: I cut up old paper calendars with cute images on them to add a charming touch to the top of sold items and add a handwritten note on the backside.
- Tape: Let this be your one (unbranded) pull from new resources if necessary.
Finally, all of this obviously costs less money, making slim margins in the gig economy just a little more tenable.
Of Saints and Sinners
Is this perfect?
Many of the above products contain plastic and other toxins. But I also don’t live in a hillside dugout wearing a loincloth.
Still, I’m trying to help, or at least not add more harm.
I’m not asking virgin forests and all the creatures that depend on them to die off for my branded packaging materials or for the soil to suck up dubious claims of my poly bag being “compostable.”
Nor am I asking for water drawdowns or for the fuel from coal-fired plants that are used in manufacturing even post-consumer waste type goods.
There’s packaging material EVERYWHERE, with millions of tons of it tossed each year. This perfectly good material is ripe for re-use.
Re-using keeps toxic-embedded packaging materials out of the landfill even if only for a few more days. And not buying supplies in the first place avoids sending even my own tiny signal to the industrial economy that I have packaging needs.
Hopefully my end customer re-uses the packaging again. It’d be great for an envelope to get some kind of personal rubber stamp for each time it’s re-used, ultimately covered over many layers deep and creating its own kind of viral brand story that people can have fun with.
“Take the fruit, Forsake the flower” — Tao Te Ching
People want fun when shopping, I get that. And businesses want to stake out market share with a clear identity. I get that, also — I totally want Lady Virginia Vintage to be irresistibly unique!
But to meaningfully move forward on sustainability we have to, frankly, grow up on what matters and what doesn’t.
I’m not suggesting that all branding be tossed, or that no one should ever buy anything new. I know it’s a big shift for consumers to get less of a look when buying goods, and for businesses to go generic on a whole spectrum of branding opportunities.
But what if doing so means less carbon-belching into the air? What if it means more oil stays in the ground and the oceans and for heaven’s sake, in the tar sands?! What if doing so fells fewer trees, taps less water, impacts fewer creatures and their homes? These are exciting questions!
Hype Man for No Hype
We’re not at full bore cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, nor at zero waste, nor anywhere near meeting our climate goals. To do all of these means we have up our game as consumers and businesses beyond the typical “go green” pitch.
We also need to deconstruct product fetishization a bit to know the difference between special things that deserve fabulous packaging and routine purchases that don’t.
None of this — none of this — is an economic killer. Rather, it’s a path for a different way forward that can grow jobs, move goods, and allow for the human creativity that makes life worth it.
What all that might look like in its best iteration I don’t know, but in art school we learned that limitations make us more creative. Said another way, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
For me it starts with this little thing: Resisting the alluring call of all the packaging companies and their spin — basically trying to convince me that I can have my cake on this front, and eat it too.
Instead, like many other small scale vintage sellers who are already in it for the indisputable greenness built into antique and vintage goods, I’ll continue to re-use packaging when I wrap up my sales and send them (via carbon offset shipping) to my customers.
Those customers learn about my re-used packaging on their digital confirmation and that the real treasure is inside. Fortunately they don’t seem to mind — I actually get high reviews for packaging and the effort toward sustainability.
The outside may not be pretty, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.
— Lady Virginia