It’s a feeling most of are familiar with. The product you ordered online a few days ago has arrived. But the excitement is soon tinged with frustration when you see just how big the box is, two-thirds of which is filled with cushioning.
Of course, packaging has to be durable – nobody wants their purchase to arrive damaged. That’s why retailers tend to ship products in large boxes with lots of padding. But all that material must be created, transported and then disposed of. Currently, the safest solution is not the most sustainable.
And with more and more people shopping online, material waste in e-commerce packaging is becoming an increasingly important subject. In 2017, global e-commerce sales grew 24.8% compared to the previous year.
Critical customer feedback
But as this volume increases, so too does the awareness of the issue. Negative customer feedback has grown louder in recent years and companies are addressing the issue. Online return forms cut down on paper use, for example, while smaller items are now often shipped in padded envelopes, rather than boxes. Complex algorithms and machine learning can help decide on box size and how many items should be packed together, with customer reviews and other data driving constant improvement.
“There is also now more emphasis on sustainable materials across the packaging industry,” says John Nelson from Smithers Pira, an international market research provider for the packaging supply chain. “In e-commerce, where 80% of the material is corrugated board, this means a focus on board grades with a higher recycled content, including those that can carry good graphics.”
That final point is an important one. For online retailers, the packaging is the first physical contact a customer has with a brand. “This makes the e-commerce pack an important medium for transmitting brand values,” explains Nelson. “If sustainability is a major concern for the brand or its buyers, this will naturally translate into the materials of the packaging.”
When it comes to materials, cost, efficiency and practicality mean that paper, card and plastic still dominate. “Sustainability will always be be a second-tier priority,” Nelson says. “The primary function is still to protect a product during shipment, which is why e-commerce uses more material per item than standard retail.”
But there are some eye-catching alternatives seeking to boost the industry’s sustainability. The US company Ecovative, for example, makes 100% compostable packaging from a mixture of agricultural waste and mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. Computer manufacturer Dell is just one of the companies to adopt the material, using it to cushion products during shipment. It also uses wheat straw, which is fully compostable, as well as bamboo or paper pulp cushioning.
Beyond recycling, Finnish start-up RePack has created a selection of reusable packaging for online retailers made from recycled materials. Customers can pay a small deposit when they purchase a product, which is later reimbursed after they return the bag or box via any post office in Europe. In the United States, LimeLoop uses a similar approach. It estimates that its lightweight, waterproof pouches, made of vinyl from recycled billboards, can be reused up to 2,000 times.
Sometimes, the most effective solutions can seem the most simple: In June 2018, DS Smith, a UK-based international packaging maker, unveiled Made2Fit. It claims to be the first ever 3D adaptable packaging, capable of creating 33 different box sizes from just three sizes of cardboard sheet. The company claims it can reduce void fill – the empty space around a boxed product – by an average of 80%.
Impetus for improvement
Nelson says that brands and retailers are waking up to the fact that packaging can be an easy way of boosting their green credentials as they adopt stronger commitments on sustainability. And while they must lead the drive for change, there are several elements about e-commerce that empower the consumer.
“It is easier to switch where you shop if you’ve had a bad packaging experience – you just reopen the web browser, you don’t need to walk or drive to a different shop. The review and feedback area of e-commerce websites also give a great forum to complain if you think you’ve been given unsustainable or excessive protective packaging. Ultimately, they have to respond to the needs and priorities of the consumer.”