The Three R’s of Sustainability for Brands

August 09,2022 Category: Sustainability
At a young age, most American consumers are introduced to the three R’s of sustainability.  Reduce, reuse and recycle provide a simple framework people can use to make good choices when it comes to handling waste and minimizing their environmental footprint. As useful as those concepts are on individual level, they can be even more impactful when applied at a macro level by those who design packaging.

The three R’s are borrowed from the Hierarchy of Waste, a guide that stratifies waste management solutions for both brands and individuals from most to least preferred. Not creating waste in the first place is obviously the most preferred option, but reduce, reuse and recycle represent the next few layers of the inverted pyramid, just above disposal in a landfill. When designing packaging with a focus on sustainability, careful consideration of those three R’s can point packaging teams in the right direction.


As nearly all products require some packaging elements to protect them on the journey to their ultimate destination, the most sustainable option is to use less material. Sometimes referred to as rightsizing, this approach to packaging uses the minimum amount of material that will ensure it arrives in good condition. Accomplishing this feat requires thoughtful, efficient use of materials and well-planned testing. While it can be tempting to go overboard with protect to ensure the product arrives without damage, overpackaging can add significantly to COGS in addition to sacrificing sustainability.

Thorough and well-planned testing can help designers confirm that they’ve found the right balance to protect with product throughout its distribution environment without overpackaging or underpackaging. Optimizing packaging provides easily recognizable sustainability benefits in terms of responsible material use as well as an added benefit of smaller and lighter packages that enhance shipping efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions during transportation.


Reusable packaging has been on the rise, with program’s like TerraCycle’s Loop initiative partnering with CPG manufacturers, grocery chains and many other types of companies to make reusable packaging accessible to consumers. As adoption increases, these types of reusable packaging can make a big difference in the amount of packaging waste a brand produces, but consumer-facing programs aren’t the only way brands can take advantage of reusable packaging.

Secondary and tertiary packaging also represent opportunities to reduce waste by leveraging reusables. Swapping out single-use wooden pallets for more durable pallets can cut down on waste and help counter increases in the price of wood and other materials. Some case packs can be replaced with reusable bins and, in some instances, strapping and, reusable pallet wraps and pallet bands make great alternatives to single-use plastic wrap.


There are two different ways to look at recycling from a producer perspective. One requires a look inward; brands can reduce the amount of waste they generate by implementing robust recycling programs throughout their manufacturing facilities. The other focuses more on packaging material selection.

A recent study found that 42% of U.S. consumers want to be the type of person who buys eco-friendly products, and 26% can think of a specific example of when they made a purchasing decision influenced by the brand’s sustainability. Optimizing packaging for curbside recycling by consumers and clearly communicating how to recycle packaging materials are important both for reducing the amount packaging that winds up in landfills and for consumers’ perception of the brand.

Designing packaging from a single, recyclable material or a small number of recyclable materials that separate easily makes the experience simple for consumers, maximizing the chances that your packaging winds up in the recycling stream and potentially making consumers feel good about purchasing and using your products. On the flip side, there are options for using post-consumer recycled materials, especially plastics, aluminum and paper-based materials, much of which comes from materials recovery facilities (MRFs) that process materials from municipal recycling programs.

There are many ways to make packaging more sustainable, each with their own opportunities and tradeoffs. The three R’s are a helpful way to think about them, but there are a variety of other approaches to help you build sustainability into almost any packaging project

If you need help identifying sustainable packaging goals or making progress toward existing goals, get in touch. Adept Group has experience improving packaging sustainability for brands in many industries, and we can provide the expertise you need to get sustainability projects on track.