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Communicating sustainability – the broad spectrum of eco-claims on packaging

Communicating sustainability – the broad spectrum of eco-claims on packaging

Packaging acts as a central communicator, conveying the characteristics and benefits of the respective products to the consumer. Sustainability messages are also increasingly found on packaging. The main reason for this is the increased consumer awareness of the enormous importance of environmental protection, which has logically changed the market dynamics as a result.

Put simply, more and more consumers are buying (environmentally) consciously sustainable products. And brands are turning packaging into storytellers that explain to consumers, among other things, how the brands are working to protect Mother Nature. This is mainly done via special eco-labels but also eco-claims. In our article, we take a closer look at the most important sustainability messages on packaging.

General features of the sustainability messages on packaging

Brands communicate sustainability on their packaging using both graphic and written elements. In some cases, they combine images and text. Examples of graphic representations are seals and certificates as well as symbols and icons. Written sustainability communication usually takes the form of single concise words, striking slogans or informative short texts. Brands also use colors, materials, shapes and symbols that are appropriate to the topics of sustainability and environmental protection.

1. certified eco-labels


In the eyes of most consumers, certified eco-labels are the most trustworthy eco-claims. After all, products and brands have to meet certain, often very strict criteria to be allowed to display eco-labels on their packaging. This clearly distinguishes eco-labels from other sustainability messages. The specifications come from independent specialist institutions.

Here are some examples of certified eco-labels:

– The Green Dot
– FSC labels
– PEFC seal
– DIN-Geprüft mark
– DIN-plus label
– Blue Angel

These eco-labels make it easy for environmentally conscious consumers to identify products that match their values.

2. Material instructions


Many brands like to indicate the percentage of recycled material used in a prominent place on the packaging to draw attention to their sustainability efforts. Examples:

– “Packaging made from 40% recycled material”
– “Made from 100% recycled plastic”
– “Tray 95% recycled”

Other brands point to a low use of plastic.

It can also be observed that brands specifically communicate the use of materials that are considered particularly sustainable in society. Examples:

– “Paper packaging: I belong in the waste paper.”
– “Paper bag”
– “In the cardboard tray”
– “Now packaged in a cheeky paper composite.”

Bio-based and biodegradable materials are also explicitly highlighted on the packaging. Examples:

– “96% made from plant-based raw materials”
– “48 biodegradable pods: 100% sustainably produced coffee”

3. Disposal instructions


The majority of brands provide specific instructions on how the packaging should ideally be disposed of after the respective products have been used. With this measure, companies want to further strengthen the impact of sustainability messages on consumers. The focus is on communicating the correct disposal route briefly and clearly.

This is particularly important, but also challenging, if the packaging is not made of one material, but of several materials that need to be disposed of in different ways. It often happens that parts of the packaging are made of plastic and others of paper. The following examples show how brands point this out:

– “The paper bag belongs in the waste paper. The foil of the minis belongs in the yellow garbage can.”
– “Tear it off, dispose of it separately and do something good for the planet.”
– “Join in and close the recycling loop!” (supplemented by a pictorial representation)
– “Throw me away, but do it right.”

Not to be forgotten are references to the recyclability of packaging materials. The majority rely on the best-known symbol in this context, the so-called Möbius strip. If the three arrows of the band (which stand for recycling) include a number and/or a material abbreviation, the recycling symbol becomes a recycling code that informs consumers precisely about correct recycling. Examples of recycling codes:

– “01 – PET”: polyethylene terephthalate
– “41 – ALU”: aluminum
– “70 – GL”: colorless glass
– “71 – GL”: green glass
– “72 – GL”: brown glass

In addition, material and recycling information on packaging is often located close together. The combined sustainability message informs the consumer about the composition of the material and also explains the ideal disposal route for the packaging above, next to or below it.

4. CO2-/Climate information


In times of climate change, climate-related claims such as CO2 neutrality are not only in demand, but indispensable. This is why more and more companies are taking measures to reduce – or rather offset – their carbon footprint. These measures usually involve carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting refers to the compensation of unavoidable CO2 emissions from one’s own operations through more or less equivalent savings of environmentally harmful carbon elsewhere. Examples:

– Investments in renewable energies, such as wind farms
– Installation of energy-saving appliances in developing countries
– Reforestation programs

Brands therefore support recognized climate protection projects or set up their own in order to earn their CO2 neutrality and be able to present this on packaging. The communication of sustainability messages in this regard is usually carried out via corresponding labels, which most consumers are familiar with.

5. Other eco-claims


In addition to the sustainability messages already presented, there are many other eco-claims that brands use on their product packaging. Even if they cannot compete with certified seals in terms of their impact, they are still extremely helpful in characterizing the general environmental commitment of the respective brand. Every additional reference that draws attention to the company’s own measures and claims in favor of a more sustainable world strengthens the image of an environmentally conscious brand.

Here are a few examples of typical sustainability messages that cannot be assigned to the other four types described:

– References to material or packaging reduction, e.g. “18% less plastic” or “-25% packaging material”
– Information on reusability, e.g. “refillable and recyclable” or simply “reusable”
– Information on the general sustainability of the packaging, e.g. “more environmentally friendly packaging” or “in an environmentally friendly lightweight can”

However, it is important that brands are able to present their sustainability activities authentically and provide real proof in order to gain and retain the trust of consumers. Modern consumers are increasingly taking the trouble to do extensive research in order to verify the environmental promises of brands. If you pass this check, you have the best chance of retaining consumer loyalty to your brand in the long term. Greenwashing is still practiced by some brands – but the long-term chances of success in such cases are low.


To a certain extent, modern packaging has become a kind of environmental and sustainability ambassador. Eco-claims using certified labels, specific material and disposal instructions, CO2 and climate information and other sustainability messages can now be found on almost every type of packaging. They are more than just effective marketing strategies: they encourage consumers to act in a more environmentally conscious and therefore more responsible way – both when buying products and when disposing of their packaging.

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