With the arrival of the global COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the world was forced to pivot quickly, and on a large scale, to accommodate a way of life that was dubbed the “new normal”. This “new normal” included global citizens doing their part to avoid catching—and/or transmitting—the virus via cautionary measures and strict protocols.

Work and schooling “went remote” as offices and education centers were seen as proverbial petri dishes. No longer was in-house dining an option, leaving restaurants limited to take-out only or curbside pickup. Gyms, beauty salons, malls, and most retail stores had to shutter their windows while hoping for a swift return to business as usual. Of course, returning to “normal” has yet to happen.

But there is a bright side. People are resilient. We not only accepted, but some of us even embraced doing our absolute best to follow COVID-19 guidelines and protocols. And, in the process, we adopted new ways of consuming and purchasing.

Suddenly, a whole new demand emerged—and on a colossal scale— for online shopping, which offered buyers the convenience (and safety) of purchasing their needed items from the comfort of their own homes, even groceries. Foodies looked for alternative options to somehow create the fine dining experience at home. Enter a boom in restaurant delivery and drive thru services.

What does all of this have to do with sustainability and packaging? Everything. Because just as the consumer’s needs and demands changed seemingly overnight, so too did the needs change for the vendors and the suppliers. Never has the need for smart packaging been more acute, and, as many companies pivot to address the new demands post-pandemic, they are completely rethinking their packaging.

While 2020 brought many growing pains and a seismic and uncomfortable shift in the way things are done on myriad scales, it also brought an unexpected silver lining: a push for more sustainable packaging options as companies are being enlightened about the devastating impact of too much plastic and other non-sustainable packaging has on our planet.

The Bad News: Recently, Tetra Pak, a popular packaging company, revealed the abysmal fact that fossil-based plastic production is on the rise, with only 9% of total plastic currently being recycled. They also reported that 32% of all plastic packaging is never collected for recycling.

The Good News: Packaging is one of the simplest ways for a brand to pivot to greater sustainability and, therefore, greater success. For example, Generation Z (a group which makes up a huge portion of global purchasing), is hyper-focused on supporting businesses that protect the environment via the best ecological practices. Simply put, the brands and companies offering eco-friendly purchases by incorporating sustainable packaging for their products will be the ones getting the business.

And 2021 is looking to be the year of true transformation for packaging. Sustainability is the new “synergy”. So, as we wave goodbye to packaging that literally trashes our environment and say hello to more eco-friendly options, suffice to say that the industry is coming into 2021 eyes wide open, and sustainable packaging is what they are looking for.

To help on the hunt, we rounded up the top sustainable packaging trends for 2021.

Recruiting the Replacements

From biodegradable doggie poop bags to green urns for human ashes, replacements are the innovative and eco-friendly materials that will begin to replace the mountains of toxic plastic that has had a monopoly in the packaging market.

Let’s face it: Plastic is a problem. And more brands than ever are not only finally admitting this but are actively looking for innovative and creative ways to create materials that can completely replace plastic.

One ingenious example in 2021 comes from the furniture king IKEA, whose packaging specialists have thought out of the box (pun intended). They are making their packaging from mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms. The kind you put on your salad. The retail giant issued an official announcement this year stating that they would be replacing their old, wasteful packaging with MycoComposite, a mushroom-based packaging created by Ecovative.

We’ve heard of magic mushrooms before, but this promises to bring the industry to an entirely different high.

For more information about sustainable packaging from leading packaging experts, watch the panel discussion below.


High Fashion: But Make It “Globobo”

The demand for Haute Couture is no longer limited to designer duds. The world’s consumers also expect the packaging industry to deliver their ordered items in style, via aesthetically pleasing encasings. And with 2021 bringing an increased demand for eco-friendly options, marrying high style and sustainability has become priority one.

Designer recycling is emerging as a hot trend in 2021. Criteria for this “blessed” sustainability/fashion union is packaging that is completely recyclable and pretty as a picture.

Numerous brands are already adopting this design for recycling, one of which is wholesale retailer BOXED. The beloved brand’s recyclable water bottles are made of paper and are fully recyclable. They are also adorable, eliciting the oohs and ahhs that are musts in any successful sustainable packaging style campaign.

Quality Remains Key

Do you remember the first wave of environmentally friendly green straws that many fast-food giants introduced? The straws quickly turned soggy, or gummy, or both. They get an A for effort, but as for the execution, not so great.

But we have come a long way since those days because new technologies and insights are constantly evolving. Now, in 2021, industry and consumers can have it all. Sustainable packaging can be of the highest caliber quality and can honor the earth.

So, what exactly should consumers be looking for in sustainable and high-end packaging? Consumers should check the quality and eco-friendliness of the materials used. For example, if the brand uses glossy paper or mixed-material packaging, it cannot be recycled. Instead, consumers in 2021 should seek brands that offer sustainable packaging featuring FSC-certified paper. And if the brand uses traditional petroleum-based ink, consumers should seek a brand that uses natural and non-toxic dyes (think soy).

The Gucci brand is owning this niche and proving that quality can co-exist (and thrive) alongside sustainability. Recently Gucci launched a new (and stunning) line of packaging that is 100% recyclable, completely plastic-free, and incorporates eco-friendly water-based inks. It is just as chic — and well-received — as its luxury brand staples have always been.

François-Henri Pinault is the chairman of PPR (the parent company of Gucci). He sees sustainability as a smart business move and as true social responsibility. He believes all industry leaders must preserve the environment. Pinault said: “If we wait for customers to make sustainable development a condition for purchasing, then nothing will happen. It’s as if green products were somehow not normal. They are normal; it is the other products that are not normal. It’s up to us to work out how to make green products the new normal”.

Gucci is just one of many respected labels that is proving that companies do not have to compromise high quality to be eco-friendly: They can still offer customers a premium brand experience that is not marred by poor quality, earth-friendly packaging.

Breaking It Down

For those who do not buy in to the idea of reincarnation, 2021 just may be the year that you are converted. Of course, we are not talking about reincarnation in the traditional sense, but instead in the realm of packaging. Compostable and biodegradable packaging is perhaps the newest and hottest trend in sustainable packaging, a rebirth if you will.

Think about it. When suppliers and brands offer their products delivered in materials that are completely biodegradable or compostable, consumers eat it up…literally. For example, “plantable packaging” allows consumers to see their packaging “live” out a “second life” in their gardens. This process creates materials made specifically from seeds. After opening the package, the consumer can plant the seeds in their garden or disperse them wherever appropriate in the natural world.

There is an undeniable reward and sense of comfort in knowing that, as a consumer, you have chosen to support a brand that ensures that their product’s packaging does not end up anywhere it isn’t meant to be, like in a mountain of plastic or on a once pristine beach—especially when it can, instead, be creating things of beauty.

Forward Th-INK-ing

Although briefly mentioned before, the trend of swapping traditional petroleum-based inks for kinder, more eco-friendly versions is gaining such momentum in 2021 that we felt it deserved special recognition.

The traditional petroleum-based inks have been found to contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that do not jive with mother earth. Thankfully, innovative packaging specialists and scientists have begun using alternative inks, such as vegetable and soy-based inks. They are not only biodegradable and easier to de-ink during recycling, but they also have the same high-quality color vibrancy and aesthetics as the petroleum-based inks. That means your brand’s look does not have to be dulled to help the planet keep shining.

Nobody Wants to Be Extra, So I’ll Be Brief

Streamlined is the key word for 2021. Packaging is being designed specifically to be light, lean, and removed of all non-necessities.

Less is more. Packaging will be designed for packaging’s sake, with practicality in mind. Say goodbye to bubble wrap and put those packing peanuts on a one-way train to anywhere but here because streamlined is here to stay.


Packaging is far more than a simple box or container. It is an invitation and opportunity to unlock the power and potential of your entire brand. How your brand approaches and executes its packaging—from design to delivery—is the lasting and tangible image that consumers will associate it. In essence, packaging is perhaps your brand’s most powerful marketing tool, and its impact is lasting, not only regarding your clients’ esteem, but regarding the environment as well.

Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, said it best when he encouraged us simply to listen and provide: “Recycling and packaging: businesses are changing those things because that’s what consumers want.”

Need help with your packaging? RSN helps companies make their packaging more sustainable. Learn more about our sustainable packaging services here.

This article first appeared in Producers&ProcurersiQ here.

How To Get Started

Setup a free 30-minute consultation with an RSN print and packaging expert.