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Challenges Facing Supplement Brands Pursuing Sustainable Packaging

I'm an accredited journalist working at the intersections of science, food and public health. I am also a certified nutritionist.


In order to align with the U.N.'s environmental goals, many dietary supplement brands are beginning to focus on elements of sustainability throughout their product portfolios. In doing so, they are attracting new segments of consumers who prefer to support companies that are migrating their products to green packaging.

The Race to Zero Carbon

In the face of changing consumer demands, sports nutrition businesses are quickly placing the “widely recyclable” symbol front and center on their flagship product pouches.

The European market—especially the Netherlands and Germany—is seeing growing momentum for environmentally friendly solutions to meal replacement powders, protein bars, and other energy, hydration, and recovery drinks.

In contrast, the U.S. dietary supplement industry has seen a slower rate of adoption of sustainable packaging measures. “Execution is hard due to the many challenges sustainable packaging presents,” NSF Senior Manager of Global Certification Katherine Fillinger told me.

The list is dizzying: “First, there is availability of sustainable materials and their weight variability during shipment, then supply chain harmonization, the cost of material and price sensitivity, and on top of that, desirability drivers around convenience products, product integrity, and stability concerns,” Fillinger said.

While it may be complex, the move to fully recyclable packaging is still on the radar for many brands if manufacturers keep innovating.

“As time continues to pass and technology around packaging material improves, we will see a shift,” Fillinger told me.

There is a strong buyer demand for sustainable solutions. One 2020 Buying Green survey by the Boston Consulting Group looked at 15,620 consumers across the U.S., Europe, and South America and found that 74% of consumers were even willing to pay a premium for sustainable packaging.

Reducing the environmental impact of the manufacturing footprint, in addition to that of the product itself, is another widely adopted practice for brands over the short and medium-terms. Sustainability commitments could one day be a part of a product’s certification.

“Certified Sport is not currently assessing a brand’s sustainability efforts at this time, but if our joint committee or stakeholders see the need to incorporate such requirements, we will certainly add them or leverage other standards provided by NSF and our sustainability division in the future,” Fillinger said.

At a time when many brands are reconsidering their supply chain strategies, the product’s entire lifecycle gets examined too. This means looking at the package as a whole, in terms of the raw materials and fossil fuels used, the production and distribution emissions, and disposal.


Approaching the Transition to 100% Recyclable

Creating reusable packaging is an intentional design process in many respects—one that requires all supply chain partners and manufacturers to come up with the best innovative solution. Packaging design goals need to align in terms of the amount of packaging used and creating packages that can serve secondary purposes.

The recyclability of packaging materials must be endorsed by a certification system, like the ISCC system, for the approval of sustainable, deforestation-free, and traceable supply chains of waste and residue raw materials, recycled materials, and fuels.

The choice of raw materials and eco-friendly packaging options is also guided by the certified mass balance principle, which is the chemical industry standard for managing and tracing sustainability characteristics of bio-based materials.

There is a lot of power in having third parties review and evaluate the truthfulness and accuracy of information on products based on these indicators, according to Fillinger.

“What we could start seeing is the development of a global sustainability packaging standard by a third party that would be an add-on to other certification programs,” she told me.

Having a third party review this information removes that barrier altogether.

“This creates a win for both sides, by helping the end consumer establish a baseline and by not being overly transparent that it hurts the competitive nature of the supplement game,” she said.


Eco-Friendly Packaging Industry Solutions

The low-hanging fruit is, of course, a more sustainable alternative to plastics. By 2030, all plastic packages within the EU will need to be entirely recyclable and/or reusable.

There is a move away from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), using fossil resources, to certified compostable, polylactic acid-based bioplastics made from plant starch such as tapioca and corn. This is replacing rigid protein powder tubs with flexible packaging.

The trend for improving the paper wrap or liners of bars, among other things, is to opt for mono-material film packaging that contains no additional composites, like aluminum foil, which are problematic in the recycling process.

Traditional sealing technology uses a lot of heat, and manufacturers are finding solutions to build packaging structures that are less dependent on a material’s thermal resistance. This is being utilized in liquid spouted pouch packaging and paper-based pack seals to improve production efficiency.

Ultra-low-carbon primary aluminum is being trialed by many brands for superfood beverage cans, to reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing processes like smelting.

More and more manufacturers of daily vitamin, mineral, and supplement packs are turning to reusable dispenser boxes made from 100% postconsumer recyclable materials, as well as recyclable shipping boxes consisting of sustainably sourced wood fibers.


Challenges to Designing Sustainable Packaging

Companies can run into several challenges when starting to move their brand(s) toward sustainable packaging. Here are some considerations and workarounds.

  • Transportation—The size, shape, and weight of the new containers or packages will impact shipping methods and costs. Optimizing products for air shipments should be considered.
  • Product protection—The sustainable packaging should provide the same level of protection over the nutritional properties of drinks and powders from deterioration in sunlight as the original packaging. It should also provide barrier properties against humidity, oxygen, grease, mineral oils, aromas, and gases—and, if applicable, maintain medical-grade sterilization for storage.
  • Design—The visual appeal of supplements’ sustainable packaging is an important aspect of its promotion. Prioritize matte or glossy finishes, adequate stiffness, good aesthetics and haptics, and performance when it comes to printing, lamination, and filling operations.
  • Carbon footprint ambitions—Greenhouse scope 2 emissions can be reduced by using a renewable electricity supply in manufacturing. This means supplying nutrition factories with certificate-backed natural renewable energy generated by wind turbines, solar farms, or water power.

All in all, the introduction of a sustainable packaging range is a defining moment in a brand’s history, and it should be carefully planned to meet renewable energy goals and provide consumers with a high-quality product they will love to use.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Camille Bienvenu