Sustainable packaging is the development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This involves increased use of life cycle inventory (LCI) and life cycle assessment (LCA) to help guide the use of packaging which reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint. It includes a look at the whole of the supply chain: from basic function, to marketing, and then through to end of life (LCA) and rebirth. Additionally, an eco-cost to value ratio can be useful
The goals are to improve the long term viability and quality of life for humans and the longevity of natural ecosystems. Sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability is not necessarily an end state but is a continuing process of improvement.
Sustainable packaging is a relatively new addition to the environmental considerations for packaging (see Packaging and labeling). It requires more analysis and documentation to look at the package design, choice of materials, processing, and life-cycle. This is not just the vague "green movement" that many businesses and companies have been trying to include over the past years. Companies implementing eco-friendly actions are reducing their carbon footprint, using more recycled materials and reusing more package components. They often encourage suppliers, contract packagers, and distributors to do likewise.
For example, researchers at the Agricultural Research Service are looking into using dairy-based films as an alternative to petroleum-based packaging.  Instead of being made of synthetic polymers, these dairy-based films would be composed of proteins such as casein and whey, which are found in milk. The films would be biodegradable and offer better oxygen barriers than synthetic, chemical-based films. More research must be done to improve the water barrier quality of the dairy-based film, but advances in sustainable packaging are actively being pursued.
Environmental marketing claims on packages need to be made (and read) with caution. Ambiguous greenwashing titles such as green packaging and environmentally friendly can be confusing without specific definition. Some regulators, such as the US Federal Trade Commission, are providing guidance to packagers
Companies have long been reusing and recycling packaging when economically viable. Using minimal packaging has also been a common goal to help reduce costs. Recent years have accelerated these efforts based on social movements, consumer pressure, and regulation. All phases of packaging, distribution, and logistics are included.
Sustainable packaging is no longer focused on just recycling. Just as packaging is not the only eco target, although it is still top of mind for many. Right or wrong, packaging is frequently scrutinized and used as the measure of a company's overall sustainability, even though it may contribute only a small percentage to the total eco impact compared to other things, such as transportation, and water and energy use.
The criteria for ranking and comparing packaging based on their sustainability is an active area of development. General guidance, metrics, checklists, and scorecards are being published by several groups.
Recycled content – as available and functional. For food contact materials, there are special safety considerations, particularly for use of recycled plastics and paper. Regulations are published by each country or region.
Recyclability – recovery value, use of materials which are frequently and easily recycled, reduction of materials which hinder recyclability of major components, etc.
The chosen criteria are often used best as a basis of comparison for two or more similar packaging designs; not as an absolute success or failure. Such a multi-variable comparison is often presented as a radar chart (spider chart, star chart, etc.).
Some aspects of environmentally sound packaging are required by regulators while others are decisions made by individual packagers. Investors, employees, management, and customers can influence corporate decisions and help set policies. When investors seek to purchase stock, companies known for their positive environmental policy can be attractive. Potential stockholders and investors see this as a solid decision: lower environmental risks lead to more capital at cheaper rates. Companies that highlight their environmental status to consumers can boost sales as well as product reputation. Going green is often a sound investment that can pay off.
The process of engineering more environmentally acceptable packages can include consideration of the costs. Some companies claim that their environmental packaging program is cost effective. Some alternative materials that are recycled/recyclable and/or less damaging to the environment can lead to companies incurring increased costs. Though this is common when any product begins to carry the true cost of its production (producer pays, producer responsibility laws, take-back laws). There may be an expensive and lengthy process before the new forms of packaging are deemed safe to the public, and approval may take up to two years. It is important to note here, that for most of the developed world, tightening legislation, and changes in major retailer demand (Walmart's Sustainable Packaging Scorecard for example) the question is no longer "if" products and packaging should become more sustainable, but how-to and how-soon to do it.
^Fecourt, Adrien; Li, F. (2013), "Report No. E2013:015"(PDF), Improving transport packaging sustainability – a case study in a production logistics company, Gothenburg, Sweden: CHALMERS UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, Department of Technology Management and Economics, retrieved 28 February 2014
^Kunstler, James Howard (2012). Too Much Magic; Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN978-0-8021-9438-1.
^McKibben, D, ed. (2010). The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century Sustainability Crisis. Watershed Media. ISBN978-0-9709500-6-2.
^Brown, L. R. (2012). World on the Edge. Earth Policy Institute. Norton. ISBN9781136540752.
^Speigleman, H, and Sheehan, B. (2010). "Climate Change, Peak Oil, and the End of Waste". In McKibben, D (ed.). The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Centery Sustainability Crisis. Watershed Media. ISBN978-0-9709500-6-2.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)