Written by Howard Weinstein, AnnJoy Imports, Co-founder and Managing Partner –

I was surprised recently by the claim made by a young cashier who was bagging my purchase at a large retail chain.  “Don’t worry that we are using these plastic bags – they are environmentally friendly!”  He went on to assure me that the bags were made entirely of recycled content and that their use was something I could actually feel good about.

Really?  As the founding partner of a large packaging business, with forty years of expertise in the manufacture and distribution of shopping bags for major retailers, I couldn’t believe my ears.  My industry has worked for decades to reduce the environmental impact of its products, but I have a quarrel with the term “environmentally friendly.”

As Hope Jahren makes clear in her excellent book ­The Story of More, the most environmentally friendly option available to consumers is not to consume at all.  Anything your company produces and sells will have an environmental impact, including your packaging. Balancing the need for economic activity against the need for environmental consciousness, we must make intentional choices in the selection of the products we use with the goal of minimizing environmental impact.

In my shopping example above, did this major retailer really want its clerks telling customers they could feel good about using the store’s plastic packaging?  In

 the age of social media and viral outrage, I could easily envision such claims being the cause of serious brand damage.

My company and industry are working hard to reduce our environmental footprint, but let’s sell the story straight. Recycled content is increasing, more packaging is easily recyclable, efforts to reduce carbon emissions are growing, and reusable bags are becoming commonplace.  We, like our customers, are committed to continual improvement and reduction of environmental impact.  But I never use the term “environmentally friendly” because all products have some negative impact on the environment.

To help retailers better understand the environmental impact of their packaging choices, I offer this brief outline of common packaging options ranked roughly from least environmental impact to most.

Brown Kraft Paper

Quality brown kraft paper can be made with a high percentage of recycled content and is recyclable in most localities.  While some handles formerly rendered many brown paper bags unrecyclable, high-end macramé and rope handles are now available that are made of paper that solve this problem.

White Kraft paper

White kraft paper can also be made with recycled content and is recyclable in most locations.  It’s a great choice for brands looking for more punch in their graphics.  A chemical or bleaching treatment is required to transform the paper from brown to white, increasing environmental impact compared to brown kraft.

Laminated Paper Bags

Like regular paper bags, laminated bags can be made with recycled content.  However, few municipalities have the capacity to separate lamination from recyclable paper.  Even those that do typically cannot recycle the lamination.

Plastic Bags

Increasingly, plastic bags are made with post-consumer and/or post-industrial recycled material, which reduces plastic’s environmental impact.  Plastic bags require less room in landfills and plastic is lighter than paper, which reduces the carbon impact of shipping (though this is likely to become less an issue as the transportation sector moves toward electric vehicles and more efficient use of energy). Sadly, plastic packaging materials have made their way to our oceans and other outdoor spaces, with a deleterious impact on aquatic and other wildlife.  There is also growing scientific concern about airborne plastic particulate matter and its potential negative impact on human health.

Reusable Bags

Reusable bags are a growing consumer trend.  These bags can be made from natural fibers like jute and cotton or man-made “plastic” fibers like PET and polystyrene.  These bags are durable and can be reused many times.  Reusable bags made from recycled plastic bottles have the benefit of reducing solid waste that might otherwise end up in oceans or landfills.  That said, I am concerned that many bags sold as reusables do not actually get reused, and the significantly thicker gauge of plastic in reusable bags dramatically increases their environmental impact.

A good packaging supplier has always been one that can help your company best reflect its brand image and create a tactile, personal shopping experience through thoughtful choices in bags, gift boxes and papers. But increasingly a good vendor is also one whose guidance your company can rely upon to help you correctly understand the environmental impact of your packaging options and properly communicate your efforts to your customers.

“Eco-friendly” is a great goal, but it is a nebulous term that can falsely give the impression that using more of anything is actually good for the environment.  I strongly challenge the use of the term and encourage my industry, my customers, and consumers to be honest and specific about their efforts to minimize necessary environmental impact in all of their product choices.