Waste Reduction: The Key to Sustainability?

Reduce, reuse, recycle—each a core tenet of sustainability, right? While immense emphasis is typically placed on the recycling component—and about half as often, the reusing component—little attention is paid to reduction.

Reduction,  the most neglected of the three R’s, is the real key to sustainability – especially in terms of reduction of damage. Reducing damage to products is not only imperative to customer experience, but to sustainability as well. Ken Chrisman, President of Product Care at Sealed Air, wrote recently that reducing damage is the most impactful thing you can do to become a more sustainable company.

No amount of recyclable, biodegradable, or reusable packaging can counteract the increased carbon footprint of a damaged item. Think about it: Damaged items are sent back on a truck or back on a plane to return to their origin point. Damaged items must be rebuilt, repaired, restocked, rehandled, or worse –  relegated to the landfill. Replacement items must then be re-shipped, making another journey through the supply chain, in another box filled with packing materials that will have to be reused, recycled, or disposed of.

To offer a real-world example, according to data publicly shared by Apple, manufacturing and shipping a single laptop computer creates approximately 460 kilograms of CO2 emissions. If that item is damaged in transit and sent back to be rebuilt, repaired, and reshipped, the number of emissions increases anywhere from 150 to another 200 kilograms. That is an increase of 43% for a single damaged computer!

computer shipment forecast

Shipment forecast of laptops, desktop PCs and tablets worldwide from 2010 to 2021 (in millions of units) | Image source: Statista

For context, there were approximately 156 million laptops shipped worldwide in 2016 alone, not including desktop computers or tablets (when those are added in, the number approaches 500 million). If just 1% of that number were to be damaged in transit and returned, an additional 234 million kilograms of CO2 emissions could be added to the atmosphere annually.

As one can imagine, items damaged in transit have a massive and costly impact on companies’ abilities to make sustainable choices. With ecommerce booming, there are more items in transit now than ever before. Virtually anything can be bought online. A bit of typing, a few clicks, and a few days later almost any item you can think of might be waiting on your doorstep.

Packaging World offers a unique example of this phenomenon: online grocery.

Chances are you have seen their trucks or even used these services yourself (especially if you live in a major city or if travel by car is not an option). Think Peapod, FreshDirect, Instacart, and now, of course, Whole Foods, who famously entered the game through their purchase by Amazon in 2017. Your favorite grocery store probably has their own version; Harris Teeter, Safeway, and even Walmart now offer online grocery shopping.

Online grocery shopping (or e-grocery) can be broken into three models: at-home delivery, click and collect, and personal shoppers. With at-home delivery, online-only companies like Peapod and FreshDirect deliver a full range of groceries to the consumer’s door. For unattended deliveries—where the consumer is not at home at the time of delivery—products are often packed in insulated plastic totes, and frozen goods are packed with dry ice. The totes are then picked up on the next delivery, or consumers can schedule a pickup time.

No matter the product or model by which it is received, online shopping means packaging—lots and lots of packaging—and product protection is necessary to reduce damage and mitigate waste. The consequences of damaged products in both dollars and the effect on brand reputation, compares to Chrisman’s energy consumption and sustainability toll: “The cost of replacing a destroyed item can be up to 17 times the cost of shipping, and negative website reviews resulting from the destruction of an item can take months to counterbalance with positive ones.”

A recent Packaging World article cites a presentation from The Packaging Conference 2016 in which the results of a study on the effect a damaged product has on consumer preferences were shared. According to the study, 82% of those surveyed had received a package containing a damaged item in the past. When asked how this influenced the likelihood of them purchasing from that supplier again, 58% reported that they would be “Somewhat unlikely” to purchase from that retailer again, and 15% said they would be “Extremely unlikely.”

It is clear that damage woes can wreak havoc on more than the environment, but the sustainability imperative is this: companies must minimize damage on the first try through the use of well-engineered packaging materials. At FP International, sustainability is a primary component of our company and our mission – so if well-engineered packaging materials can also be made reusable, recyclable, and responsible, so much the better. We agree with Chrisman: “Performance and sustainability are not and should not be mutually exclusive.”

Packaging for Protection

The explosive growth of ecommerce means a lot of fragile, bulky, and oddly-shaped items are now being put through a delivery chain that wasn’t designed to handle them, via packaging solutions that weren’t designed to fit them. Keeping the reduction of damage in mind, what is the solution for these hard to ship objects?

Brand owners have always faced challenges when it comes to selecting packaging that provides the best mix of functionality and aesthetics. In the new era of ecommerce, companies are forced to rethink the way they package their products. Packaging must now provide sufficient product protection through an unpredictable postal system while at the same time delivering a positive brand experience.

Kevon Hills, Vice President of Research at StellaService, a New York City-based company that gauges services provided by online retailers, calls packaging a make-or-break factor in customer satisfaction in the Packaging World article. The company conducted a study in 2014, that highlighted the importance of using appropriately-sized packaging for each product. To rate retailers’ proficiency at package fit, StellaService analysts scored each ecommerce order on a scale of one to three, with one being “poor and extremely wasteful” and three being “excellent and highly efficient.”

“[A] proper package fit leaves a better impression with shoppers, saves retailers money on shipping costs, and reduces the possibility of damaged products,” Hills said. “You would be surprised to learn how many packages we get where perhaps the order is a thumb drive, and it comes in [a] box that could probably fit a microwave.”

Most of us can relate to this. After all, who hasn’t received a comically large box with one tiny item bouncing around inside it?

Frustration-Free with Amazon

A notorious offender of sending large boxes for small deliveries is Amazon, but they’re working on it. The company notes that scaling back on the mismatched sizing of products and their packaging is a priority. Now, Amazon is committed to the adoption of right-sized, minimal packaging that protects against damage and is made from environmentally responsible materials. They’re also working on initiatives to further reduce packaging waste while protecting orders for customers.

One of those initiatives is the Amazon Packaging Certification program, which includes their “Frustration-Free Packaging.” According to the company’s Customer Service portal, Amazon Certified Frustration-Free Packaging is recyclable and comes without excess packaging materials. The product inside is the same, and everything is included in the Certified Frustration-Free Packaging that would be in the original manufacturer’s packaging.

In 2016, Amazon’s Packaging Certification program and Frustration-Free Packaging collectively eliminated nearly 83 million corrugated boxes. As of this article’s publication date, more than 1.1 million items on Amazon.com are available in certified packaging.

Sustainable and Safe

Sustainability and conservation of materials are not without their challenges. Packaging has had to change to incorporate ecommerce. For example, packaging designed to stand out on a retail shelf is often oversized, with expensive, flashy design aesthetics and redundant features to prevent theft. These packaging models are not necessarily capable of surviving their journey to the customer. Frequently, these features can lead to suboptimal packaging for online distribution.

It’s time now to reimagine packaging that enables companies to thrive in an ecommerce business model. Online retail (as opposed to traditional retail) provides distinct and powerful enablers to invent packaging that pleases customers, reduces waste, and minimizes cost throughout the supply chain.

Sustainability provides a critical catalyst for challenging norms and promoting systemic change in packaging. But what does that change look like?

Up and Coming Ideas

Packaging Digest rounded up five up-and-coming packaging trends to look for in 2018.

First on the list is, unsurprisingly, the very same program Amazon touted: a frustration-free customer packaging experience.

Packaging must be able to perform its basic function and should be optimized to house products safely and securely. Since Amazon represents the pinnacle of ecommerce, it comes as no surprise that its internal packaging protocols are also worthy of note. (Take a look at Amazon’s frustration-free packaging homepage for more advice and tips for industry professionals and customers alike).

Next up: Unique design features. Packaging designs that are unique can elevate a brand in the eyes of the consumer. Whether functional or purely decorative, the design makes the process of receiving a package that much more exciting. Everyone enjoys getting packages in the mail, and that delight is only compounded when the packaging design itself elicits joy.

A great example of this trend is a packaging campaign by Absolut Vodka. Absolut teamed up with app makers Shazam to create a wealth of creative content, supplying smartphone customers with exclusive drink recipes and social media content. The campaign utilized augmented reality to create a highly immersive user experience for customers – ultimately making the brand more memorable.

Similar to the incorporation of tech used in the Absolut campaign, item three on Packaging Digest’s list is Big Data design optimization. Optimizing packaging infrastructure with ecommerce storage in mind could help with organization and efficiency in large fulfillment warehouses, and the addition of barcodes quickens the process of picking and packing from shelves.

Packaging analytics data can also be gathered to increase efficiency at all stages of packaging development, from design to fulfillment. Data can be used to analyze unit measurements on a large scale, pinpoint inefficiencies in the manufacturing process, and gather audience feedback signals.

Speaking of audience feedback, personalized packaging is the fourth trend to watch for this year. Good packaging should raise levels of customer satisfaction, enhancing the buying experience and bridging the gap between online and traditional retail shopping. Luxury brands have been providing premium packaging options for decades, but thanks to personalization software developments in the last few years, this experience can now be integrated in an affordable way for businesses of all sizes and types.

One example ties together the tech and data pieces: packing slips, invoices, and receipts can now be auto-generated with customer personalization through use of apps. This simulates a closer relationship between consumer and producer, ultimately making the consumer feel more affection and, in turn, loyalty, to the company who’s getting its packaging game right.

Finally, we come back to the real focus of this article: sustainability. Currently, consumer demand for environmentally friendly packaging is poised to expand to any and all types of ecommerce products. Companies that choose to explore recycled material options or redesign packages to fit products as snugly and securely as possible in sustainable and slim-lined packaging are most appealing. When considering the (sometimes short) lifespan of a product, providing reusable packaging gives brands the opportunity to have their products showcased in a user’s home a long time after the product itself has been consumed.

We at FP International suspect 2018 will be a big year for packaging innovations in the arena of sustainability – and we can’t wait to see what the future holds. What do you hope to see in packaging innovation this year?

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