Box cleverer: how to cut waste in ecommerce

The pandemic-driven boom in online shopping has highlighted the challenge facing etailers and brands in finding packaging solutions that are sustainable and accessible, yet also cost-effective and secure


A meme on social media showing a tearful woman with a caption that reads “I get more Amazon boxes in a week than I can fit in my recycle bin” sums up the problem with packaging in 2021. 

The growth of ecommerce since the start of the Covid crisis – online sales in the UK during the first quarter of this year were 54% higher than the total for Q1 2020, according to research by Adobe – has heightened concerns about packaging waste. 

On the one hand, online shoppers complain about excessive packaging. On the other, a purchase that arrives damaged, needing to be returned and replaced, will have a far bigger environmental impact. 

While consumers are becoming increasingly eco-conscious and mindful of waste in packaging, etailers must consider several other factors, including cost, security and accessibility (23% of online shoppers in the US have damaged at least one purchase during the unboxing process, according to packaging firm DS Smith).

In December 2020, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) warned that the growth in ecommerce was the main reason why 85% of the UK consumers it polled thought that etailers were using too much packaging. Amazon was singled out as the worst offender by far, but other big companies attracting criticism included Asos and supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

“We know the lockdowns have changed buying behaviour and there has been a considerable increase in online purchasing, which means more home deliveries,” says the CIM’s marketing director, Gemma Butler. “Even where companies have improved their packaging, the increased volume of purchases will naturally push up the amount of packaging in circulation.”

Innovation needed: recycling is not enough

Stressing the need for innovative packaging solutions, Butler calls for an update of the popular ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ maxim. 

“Recycling cannot be seen as the answer,” she argues. “It should be considered only after reducing and reusing. Our recycling infrastructure cannot support the volume and variety of packaging in circulation, so most of the material still ends up in landfills. Organisations must rethink not only the materials they use in their packaging, but also the lifecycle of that packaging.”

A pan-European survey conducted by DS Smith in March supports her view. Nearly half (46%) of the consumers it polled said they wanted to see more cardboard or paper-based packaging, rather than plastic, while 58% wanted an overall reduction in the volume of packaging. Most notably, almost a third reported that they had stopped buying certain brands because they considered that their packaging was not sufficiently sustainable.

Organisations must rethink not only the materials they use in their packaging, but also the lifecycle of that packaging

Another finding – that 22% of UK respondents don’t always have room in their recycling bins for all the packaging they receive – is one that’s “disturbing” to DS Smith’s sales, marketing and innovation director, Marc Chiron. “Some boxes are being put to good use – people are reusing them for storage, for instance – but many aren’t finding their way back into recycling streams,” he reports.

Awareness about packaging that’s “fit for the circular economy and ecommerce age” is growing steadily, according to Chiron. “Companies can contribute by choosing solutions that eliminate waste and keep materials in use. But this goes beyond material choices, as supply chains need to be optimised to avoid the unnecessary use of transport too. That would be the win-win outcome for business and environment.”

Win-win: sustainable and branded packaging

Chiron adds that high-quality branding that explains an etailer’s approach to sustainability in packaging has become a key marketing tool. 

“Storytelling is a growing trend in the retail sector. It can elevate on-package branding to the next level,” he says. “Innovative businesses are using packaging that conveys their craftsmanship and passion. This enables a company to connect with customers in new ways, eliciting emotional responses and making it easier for them to identify with the business and its products.”

Jonathan Dixon, senior vice-president of sales at Arla Foods UK, agrees that it is crucial for “brands to get their packaging right”. He notes that ecommerce sales in the grocery sector are 70% higher than they were at the start of the pandemic – and that consumers spend only 15 minutes doing their weekly grocery shop online on average, compared with 43 minutes in a supermarket. 

“For new brands, packaging is their main marketing tool when selling online,” Dixon says. “It must therefore stand out to prevent shoppers from scrolling past.”

Companies that have created sustainable packaging solutions in recent times include Italian pasta brand Barilla. It adopted 100% paper-based containers in May 2020, taking out the plastic front windows that had made the packs less easy for consumers to recycle. Its move followed that of rival brand Napolina, which in September 2019 had switched the packaging of some lines from plastic to cardboard. Napolina estimates that this change has taken 16 tonnes of plastic out of the waste stream each year in the UK alone. The company is has started to extend plastic-free packaging to its core range in a bid to push the total up to 200 tonnes.

Wilkinson Sword recently switched to plastic-free packaging when it relaunched its Hydro shaving razor range. The change has removed 88 tonnes of PET and 35 tonnes of virgin paper from its supply chain every year, achieving a significant cost reduction in the process.

Wayne Snyder is vice-president of retail industry strategy for EMEA at Blue Yonder, a US specialist in supply management software. He believes that technology can help businesses struggling to strike a balance between packaging cost, security, accessibility and sustainability. 

“Retailers cannot look at any of these factors in isolation,” Snyder argues. “Each requires a different weight based on its characteristics as well as the business strategy. While this task may seem daunting, new AI technologies will enable an optimised method that factors in these questions to find the right balance.”

It’s clear that consumer brands looking to thrive in the ecommerce age must make sustainability a priority and think both inside and outside the box when it comes to packaging.