Picking Apart the Packaging Problem
We’ve got a packaging problem. A recent report found that global parcel volumes surpassed 100 billion for the first time in 201⁹¹, that’s equivalent to 3000 parcels shipped every second. And there’s no signs of this issue abating, the same report predicts that parcel volumes are likely to double and reach 220–262 billion parcels by 2026. This flood of packaging is a major source of waste, with landfill sites swelling around the world. In the US 30% of municipal solid waste is attributed to discarded packaging and containers² — with similar statistics around the world. And while online retail is not responsible for all that trash, the rise of e-commerce contributes to an increase in packaging production and waste.
We’re serious about reducing our environmental impact across our entire value chain, it’s an on-going and multifaceted task. In order, to better understand our impact and at the same time identify where we can make the biggest difference, we conducted a Life Cycle Assessment to calculate the environmental impact of our garments, across their entire lifetime; from raw material, through to manufacturing and shipping — including packaging.
While we’re generally advocates of structural business model change to combat our impact on people and planet, incremental improvements across the value chain are equally necessary. Even if packaging constitutes a small part of a garment’s total environmental impact across its lifetime, we take a holistic view of our supply chain and work on improving every aspect. Following a 12 month packaging overhaul project, we are proud to share how we managed to reduce packaging related waste, emissions as well as costs:
Like so many other e-commerce businesses, we rely on packaging to deliver our garments to the hands of our customers and so we wanted to share both our logic and learnings, to help others develop better packaging solutions. More importantly, solutions that are pragmatic, environmentally friendly and help the bottom line. We hope this document can act as a guide to others in helping them reduce the impact of their e-commerce packaging.
Starting A Packaging Overhaul
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Any packaging overhaul should begin with a full audit of what an organisation is already using.
What components do you currently have?
What are their individual purposes?
How much of them do you use?
What are they made from?
From there you can meaningfully start to assess and move towards a more responsible packaging program that works for you.
REMOVE, REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE
When starting any packaging overhaul, you’ll find there are multiple schools of thought and countless approaches on how best to minimise the impact of packaging, from re-use to circular solutions as well as recycling options or new materials solutions. There are always tradeoffs to consider: reusable packaging requires more durability, thus more input material. Recyclability may impact durability and novel materials are rarely validated at scale. It can initially seem overwhelming, which is why we recommend starting with a familiar hierarchy: remove, reduce, reuse and recycle. Consider how your packaging might change with each tier and identify where you will be able to affect the biggest change. You may find that one approach works best — or a combination of approaches depending on your set-up.
We investigated each category within our current set-up, to deduce where the biggest gains could be made and our research found that the most feasible and effective solution, in minimising the impact of our packaging, would be to both REMOVE and REDUCE the amount of resources used. From there, our strategy had a simple and singular focus, to keep our packaging simple in form.
LIMITATIONS OF REUSABLE AND RECYCLABLE SOLUTIONS
REUSABLE PACKAGING: We considered possible areas for packaging re-use including; factory-warehouse, factory-warehouse-customer or warehouse-customer. We found the main limitation for reuse is lack of appropriate packaging solutions, as the bags would require more input material to meet durability standards and this would likely not outweigh their impact, even in a reuse scenario. We also investigated the infrastructure that would be required to implement a reuse set-up and found issues pertaining to the environmental impact of shipping back and forth, as well as challenges in finding an effective cleaning and reuse setup.
RECYCLABLE PACKAGING: We also considered recycling solutions for end-of-life scenarios, with a particular focus on recyclability. Our research found that recycling, while in theory is a pragmatic solution, in practise even recyclable materials end up in landfills. Plastic is an especially pertinent problem — while it has the potential to be recycled 2–3 times, recycling rates varying across markets and as much as 91% of plastic waste is not recycled³. While we will ensure our packaging has an appropriate end-of-life option, we could not warrant pinning our approach simply on implementing recyclability or circularity as a viable option at this time.
Cutting The Crap
REMOVING AND REPLACING COMPONENTS
Having taken full stock of our current packaging, the team revisited every component working to identify which parts served an essential purpose, which didn’t or which components could be streamlined, in order to REMOVE material input as much as possible. Here’s what we found:
- Our existing e-commerce packages consisted of 6 cardboard boxes in sizes; Mini and XS through to XL. We found that we could easily replace both the Mini and XS boxes with paper mailers. Paper mailers demonstrate enough durability to bear and protect 1–2 garments during transit, allowing us to replace 35% of our boxes, with lightweight mailers. This not only reduces the amount of input material, but also increases transport efficiency by taking-up less space and having a lighter haulage.
- For the remaining boxes (S — XL) we still required the durability of cardboard to protect the garments during transit so instead set out to optimise the size and thickness of the cardboard, to reduce the input material. Our analysis showed that our average order sizes had increased over the last 5 years, which often meant our customers would receive two boxes. In order to better accommodate for the average order, we increased our box size but worked to minimise the material input by reducing the thickness of the cardboard.
- Finally, we also realised we could merge both the welcome card and return instructions card, with it reducing the use of material by 50%.
PACKAGING MATERIAL CONSIDERATIONS
Having identified areas where we could all together remove materials, we then turned our focus to material alternatives to further reduce our impact. Behind our material selection strategy was a complex matrix of decisions, from a materials’ ability to protect clothing during shipment and storage, ease of supporting logistics during pick and pack, to environmental impact, end-of-life scenarios as well as cost. All the criteria can be grouped into 3 core categories: Environmental Impact, Operations and Cost. We then assessed a range of material alternatives using the matrix below. We’ve included our top criteria for each category but our check list went much deeper:
PLASTIC NOT SO FANTASTIC
Paper and cardboard are by far the most commonly used material for e-commerce packaging, and while they are readily available and commonly celebrated for being plant-based/renewable, biodegradable and recyclable, upon closer inspection virgin paper and cardboard can be very damaging to the environment. Paper requires more energy to produce than plastic — statistics vary but it is thought to be 3 times higher⁴. To boot issues with deforestation are rife in the paper industry. However, our material research found that recycled paper and cardboard are much more energy efficient to produce, using 70% less energy than when made from virgin materials and as such, for us, proved to be the most effective solution for our mailers and boxes⁵.
Both reducing and selecting better material for the boxes saw the biggest gains in terms of reducing the environmental impact of our packaging, but far more challenging was finding an alternative material for the polyplastic garment bags. We use polybags to individually wrap products, to protect the garment during handling and shipping, from our factories, to our warehouse and through to the consumer. As we do not replace the bags at each step, we needed to find a material alternative that would hold-up along the entire process.
Plastic has undeniable benefits, it’s durable, lightweight, easy to handle, has clear cost-efficiency benefits and is recyclable. Yet, of the half a billion plastic garment bags produced every year, the majority are not recycled and end up in landfill or the environment. A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation⁶ says by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight), not to mention the growing impact of microplastics in the ecosystem. As such, we decided to eliminate polybags entirely from our packaging.
For the plastic bag alternatives we considered water-soluble plastics, biodegradable and compostable plastics as well as paper bag solutions; Paptic and Glassine.
CHOOSING BETWEEN PLASTIC ALTERNATIVES
There are three types of bioplastic, each with its own individual characteristics; bio-based, biodegradable or both. Contrary to what the name implies, these bioplastics are little better than regular plastic, when it comes to biodegradability. In order to decompose, biodegradable plastics need to be subjected to specific conditions, however with lack of supporting infrastructure much of this packaging ends up in the natural environment, where they decompose at the same rate as plastic. Without that intense heat, bioplastics won’t degrade on their own in a meaningful timeframe, either in landfills or even your home compost heap. If they end up in marine environments, they’ll function similarly to petroleum-based plastic, breaking down into micro-sized pieces, lasting for decades, and presenting a danger to marine life.
Compostable plastics are plant based, from crops such as corn starch or sugar cane. Upon considering compostable plastics, we found there is much debate whether production of these types of plastics comes at the expense of the food supply chain. In addition, compostable plastics cannot be placed in a home compost and require industrial facilities. Again given the lack of infrastructure to support this, at this point in time compostable plastic did not provide a viable end of life alternative. While water soluble plastic offers a viable alternative, we found that the bags did not hold up in our warehouse. Our permanent collection means slower inventory turnover, requiring packaging solutions with a long shelf life.
With that we narrowed our search down to paper bags, ultimately opting for the Glassin paper bag, which scored highly on several criteria. Firstly it is made from renewable, FSC certified materials. Secondly it has lower CO2 manufacturing output compared to our existing polybags, partly due to lower total material consumption at 45gsm, compared to 90gsm of our previous polybag. Thirdly it can be sorted as paper for ease of recyclability. Lastly, an additional benefit is that the Glassin paper bags are transparent, allowing us to remove one barcode sticker, as the barcode on the hangtag is able to be scanned through the bag.
It is however important to note that when choosing to work with paper over plastic, every brand should consider the amount of material input, even some recycled paper bags may have a larger carbon footprint than plastic if they have a greater material density. It’s a careful balance to strike.
Put It Into Practice
Having developed our packaging solution, we needed to ensure that all the changes worked seamlessly within our operational set-up. We conducted numerous trials with our factories, warehouses as well as customers to ensure operations ran smoothly and that the unboxing experience was appreciated. Some of our key learning for other brands to consider are:
- The glassine bags are more fragile than polybags, and while they effectively protect the garment, it does reduce handling efficiency at both the factories and warehouses, with bags being torn if not handled properly. While handling times may be marginally slower, it was not significant enough to switch back to a plastic solution — and can be mitigated through better training and allowing more time for packing. Moving a little slower will certainly do the planet some good, if not people as well.
- Many packaging solution providers require large minimum order quantities, which can be prohibitive for start-ups or SME’s. To put it into perspective for the Glassine Paper bag we were required to purchase 100,000 pieces per size to meet the necessary order quantity. One solution may be to collaborate with similar companies in your region to bulk buy packaging which can then be divided and uniquely branded by each individual company.
Following the packaging overhaul, visually our packaging continues to have the same minimalist aesthetic but with the reduction in material inputs, the packaging does not have the same luxurious feel. To ensure this didn’t undermine the user unboxing experience, we conducted a customer survey on the new packaging — and found that while many customers did notice the change, the appreciation for our efforts in impact reduction outweighed any loss in the unboxing experience.
Beyond our ‘remove and reduce’ approach we considered other aspects of packaging where we could decrease our impact and we encourage other brands to carefully consider the following three areas in their packaging overhaul too:
- Supplier Selection — where possible choose packaging suppliers that demonstrate certified production and that are close to your factories or warehouses to minimize transportation.
- Certification — research which standards and certifications apply to the materials you are using. For paper look for FSC and for bioplastics keep an eye out for Seedling and OK compost.
- Communication — consider how you want to educate your community and followers on the work you have done. Support your consumer on educating on how to properly dispose of packaging and work to share your learnings with the wider industry.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
It makes commercial sense too. Not only did we reduce our material input and our environmental impact but the packaging project was also effective in cutting down costs. It goes to show that running more efficiently is not only good for the planet but also for your bottom line. Sharing a full breakdown of saving per average order below:
“When I saw the paper bags and the note that you are leaving plastic I became a promoter of your brand again. Thank you for caring about our world!”-Quote from one of the 578 respondents to our packaging beta survey
WHAT’S LEFT TO DO
While we’re proud to tout these numbers, there is always more room for improvement. We have further opportunities to cut, reduce or switch our input materials, for components including the hangtags and their thread, the box stickers and shipping labels which are part paper and part petrol-based glue material. For the hangtags and box stickers, we have stock to last for the remainder of the year, in which time we’ll continue to investigate alternatives. Whereas with the shipping labels we’re in on-going discussion with our warehouse and delivery service providers for better alternatives.
Many e-commerce companies and retailers are just getting started. In sharing our work we hope not only to highlight the clear benefits (environmental, cost and brand) associated with an improved packaging set-up but also inspire other companies to act quickly, to better understand where they can make the biggest difference and which partners to work with in order to drive change. We hope that this paper goes some way in unifying everyone’s efforts.
- Pitney Bowes — Parcel Shipping Index key findings
- Frontier Group — Trash in America: Moving From Destructive Consumption to a Zero-Waste System
- Science Advances — Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made
- European Plastics — Environmental Communication Guide for Bioplastics
- Common Objective Article
- Ellen Macarthur Foundation — The New Plastics Economy
- Boustead Consulting & Associates — Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags