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Why sustainable packaging must be the starting point to fashion's waste problem

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

Oct 15, 2021

Fashion |Opinion

Image: Packaging via Pexels

Let’s consider for a moment the packaging journey of a garment prior to it arriving in one’s wardrobe. Most garments are packaged several times over before it reaches the customer, seeing multiple variants of discarded single-use packaging.

More than 80 billion garments are produced annually across the world, many of which are shipped and packed multiple times. There is no denying most packaging ends up as waste in landfill and incinerators.

A journey of multi-packaging

To start, there is the manufacturer’s packaging in the factory, where finished garments are typically tagged and packed according to style, colour and size but not per store or end user. The usual process sees factories send collections directly to a brand’s warehouse, where they are re-sorted by retailer in the case of wholesale, or housed for DTC brands.

Warehousing is one of fashion’s most complicated logistics processes. Here garments may be stored folded or hanging or even on pallets and docks, ready for fulfilment. Garments are often packed in preparation for short seasonal product life cycles, meaning frequent changes in the product rage and managing returns. Extra services include labelling and re-labelling as well as ironing of garments before sending. All of these will need garments to be repackaged in the case of sending to the end user or compiled as an order for a retailer.

The majority of larger retailers have their own warehouses - think of online giants like Zalando and Net-a-Porter or department store groups. Retailers with multiple store channels will need orders to be divided per store and often have these shipped to several locations. Retailers will then repackage garments for their e-commerce channels, ensuring their branding is visible, or ship directly to their brick and mortar outlets.

In 2018, packaging waste generated an estimated at 174.1kg per inhabitant in the EU, but this figure does not account for the previous iteration of packaged items before it reaches the customer. While consumers are expecting brands to deliver products to them more responsibly, there is a lack of supply chain transparency to see how much waste has been produced before the end phase. This would require a shakeup of the entire manufacturing and shipping ecosystems, implementing efficient alternatives for delivery from the source, as well as eliminating single-use disposable packaging methods and focusing on recycling, circular and environmentally friendly alternatives.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is one company aiming to solve the issue. Having developed tools and services to help companies tackle meaningful action toward packaging sustainability, even for those who have large volumes of garments.

Covid didn’t help

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic spurred online sales and caused a significant increase in the usage of single-use plastic bags and boxes, thus, positively impacting the usage of plastic packaging in e-commerce. Fashion is a key driver for online sales and the majority of factories use virgin plastic to package garments. Single-use hangers add to the problem, with 85 percent ending up in landfill.

Where to start

The problem of sustainable packaging is complex and there is no industry standard solution, no one-fits-all application that waives away the issue. There are lower-impact options, a switch to paper and natural materials, not taking into account issues of rain, damp or moisture during shipping and warehousing. There is the option of using recycled shipping boxes, but paper is much heavier than plastic and would increase shipping costs.

Say no to virgin plastic

The best place to start is for manufacturers, warehouses and brands to make a commitment to end using virgin packaging and single-use plastics. There are many global organisations from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to Fashion For Good to the Better Packaging Company that are here to advise companies and offer manageable and sustainable options to the table, even for high volume businesses.

Switching to natural materials will come with its own set of challenges, but there are a multitude of innovators who are creating options for different stages of the supply chain and shipping journey. At best, factories, brands and consumers will all reduce their waste volumes, by looking at the impact of how and what we make and how much we consume.