So you want to be sustainable? Don’t forget this part of the equation. As difficult to implement as eco-friendly fabrics and fair trade labour, the tackling of packaging waste generated by global apparel industry consumption must be addressed.

(Not to point fingers at only the fashion industry, when all product consumption today must contend with the consequences of packaging waste.)

Consider: an estimated 150 billion new garments are produced each year. That likely means (take a deep breath) that at least 150 billion plastic polybags are also produced each year, as each garment is wrapped and protected from harm on its way from the factory to the end destination. It should also be assumed that billions of more bags—plastic or otherwise—are produced to either ship these pre-wrapped garments, or send them off with a customer from a store.

And of course, most of these bags end up in the landfill. Queue Wall-E for imminent necessary clean-up.

The purpose of packaging is, per above, simple if not innocent: to protect a precious product from damage while it’s in transport. This protection is needed in both the pre-consumer phase of apparel product development (what customers don’t see) and in the sales stage, the consumer-facing phase.

Boxes pre-consumer packaging involves first the wrapping of textiles and trimmings to ship to factories, safely and without water damage. Then, it involves safely wrapping finished garments in plastic polybags, in preparation for shipping overseas. In these stages of textile and apparel manufacturing, protective packaging is hard to eliminate, because damaged materials mean cancelled orders.

Pre-consumer packaging uses both plastic and cardboard/paper. Currently, plastic is the only water-impermeable packaging material we have that all but guarantees to protect a material from water or liquid damage. A subset of this pre-consumer plastic is also styrofoam wrapping, which is used to protect harder product elements like buckles on handbags and zippers on sweatshirts from scratching, etc. For the most part, all garments, shoes, and handbags receive their own individual plastic protection.

Patagonia, a pioneer in sustainable fashion business practices, actually tried to eliminate plastic polybags from its production, only to find that without them, garments do get damaged, resulting in both financial and environmental costs. And a damaged garment is more garbage than a plastic bag.

Moreover, plastic bags can sometimes be recycled, if companies and customers make the effort at bringing them to appropriate recycling drop-off locations—which are, of course, few and far between.

Shipping these pre-wrapped packages usually involves cardboard boxes and tape, which hopefully get recycled. But how many trees are we cutting down each year to make cardboard, and how does the tape get recycled?

You get the point. Behind all of our clothes, there is a lot of plastic.

Now on to consumer-facing packaging

The purpose of consumer-facing packaging is partly about protection and partly about the visual experience. Packaging—pretty bags, decorative shoe boxes—has become part of branding, and part of the total brand experience that customers now expect when they pay money for new clothes. Assumably, many of these bags and boxes can be recycled if made of paper, but perhaps brands should make sure that their paper quality, handles, and colorants are not making the recycling of single-use retail packaging too difficult.

Reportedly, the continued growth of online shopping has helped increase the amounts of clothes purchased each year; we are therefore seeing an increase in plastic shipping packaging used by brands. However, e-commerce is only to blame if it indeed has helped increase the number of garments—and thus polybags, shipping containers and shopping bags with them, etc.—that we are producing. But it should be noted that garments and shoes still arrive individually to brick-and-mortar, stores where they are then unpacked and then rebagged (perhaps with tissue paper) in aforementioned paper or plastic bags with brand logos—the equivalent of branded packaging we receive from online orders.

There are some new ideas and technologies for more conscious packaging, which some companies are embracing.

One exciting such innovation is compostable mailing bags, which can replace conventional plastic envelopes. These compostable bags are said to break down in a compost—however, they only actually work and break down if all non-compostable mailing stickers are removed from the compostable package, and if the package is placed into an actual compost. For the bags to successfully biodegrade, they require compost conditions. If simply placed in the regular trash, this plastic-like material will behave just like plastic, and sit in the landfill for years.

Companies who switch to compostable mailers need to educate their consumers of these inconvenient truths, otherwise, promoting a compostable mailer as an effort at sustainability could be considered greenwashing.

Could companies at least use compostable bags as polybags? On which, perhaps, SKU numbers could be stamped onto bags with biodegradable ink, instead of placed onto each individually wrapped garment in sticker form? Why not?

Meanwhile, when it comes to shipping a pre-wrapped garment, using recycled paper is probably the most efficient and easily adoptable way to go. If mills and factories/brands can source paper packaging made of recycled paper—the way some grocery stores do—we’d save a lot of trees from being uprooted and thrown away.

Plastic bags made of recycled plastic aren’t here yet, but according to rating site Good on You’s assessment of the packaging conundrum, sustainable fashion platform Fashion For Good has launched a pilot in partnership with Adidas, C&A, Kering, Otto Group, and PVH Corp., titled “The Circular Polybag Pilot”, in effort to reduce the use and impact of polybags in the fashion industry by manufacturing a recycled polybag, using a high percentage of post-consumer polybag waste.

Also according to Good on You, one notable brand using particularly different materials innovations in their packaging is Finisterre. The outdoorsy brand is using the marine safe garments and mailbags called Leave No Trace bags made from unbleached kraft pulp, which are water-soluble, recyclable, and biodegradable, and break down harmlessly into non-toxic biomass in soil and sea.

Finisterre is the first to embrace this amazing material technology. But can these biological innovations be produced at a 150-billion-per-year scale?

Another innovative packaging technology has been adopted by an athleisure start-up called Bscly. Bscly is packaging its clothing in a 100% home compostable box made from sugarcane fibre—a raw material that grows faster than trees while helping absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and returning some nutrients into the soil it is grown on. Bscly’s moulded fibre box has little embellishment and sports a debossed wordmark—but again, the company must alert customers that it needs to be actually composted. (We have yet to contact the brand to see if sugarcane science decomposes naturally in a landfill.)

Imperfect though these solutions maybe, they’re also promising; plastic is such a pressing issue, as is deforestation, that we welcome any innovation with other, renewable materials.

This article has not been edited by Fibre2Fashion staff and is re-published with permission from