Picking Apart the Packaging Problem

ASKET
ASKET
Mar 11 · 12 min read

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.

Figure 1: Environmental Impact of an ASKET T-shirt from Raw material to customer (All values in kilograms CO₂ equivalent)

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:

Figure 2: Topline results of the packaging overhaul

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

Figure 3: An audit of our packaging before overhaul

FIRST THINGS FIRST

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

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.

Figure 4: The Four R’s Funnel

LIMITATIONS OF REUSABLE AND RECYCLABLE SOLUTIONS

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

Figure 5: ASKET’s new packaging highlighting reduction and replacement of components

REMOVING AND REPLACING COMPONENTS

  • 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%.
Figure 6: An overview of changes made to our packaging in regard to material input and components

PACKAGING MATERIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Figure 7: The material consideration matrix

PLASTIC NOT SO FANTASTIC

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

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.

Figure 8: An overview of changes made to our packaging in regard to material alternatives

Put It Into Practice

  • 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.

FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS

  • 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

Figure 9: Cost savings breakdown per average order

“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

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.

References:

  1. Pitney Bowes — Parcel Shipping Index key findings
  2. Frontier Group — Trash in America: Moving From Destructive Consumption to a Zero-Waste System
  3. Science Advances — Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made
  4. European Plastics — Environmental Communication Guide for Bioplastics
  5. Common Objective Article
  6. Ellen Macarthur Foundation — The New Plastics Economy
  7. Boustead Consulting & Associates — Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags

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