• Innes McArthur

Are Sustainable Brands Really Sustainable? The Packaging Problem

As our love for internet shopping and instant purchases has grown, have we become ignorant to the issues of sustainability posed by e-commerce packaging?

Trash can filled with e-commerce waste

As commercial use of the internet and social media channels grew immensely, the rapid emergence of e-commerce was inevitable. In 2019, online retail in the US grew at a rate almost four times faster than retail as a whole. Forbes have estimated that the number of online sales are predicted to double in the next 10 years. Globally, online-retail reached a value of $4.9 trillion at the beginning of 2020.

Take Amazon for example, their annual net revenue has grown from $7 billion to $280 billion in just 15 years. And with much of the world enduring a lockdown for more than half of 2020 so far, our quarantine boredom has led us to shop online even more, helping increase Amazon’s revenue by 40%.

Amazon's net revenue growth between 2004 to 2019

Think about it, when was the last time you purchased on Amazon or any other online retailer? If you’re like me, Amazon purchases have become as frequent as the weekly grocery shopping, spending the week curating a list of products I’ve convinced myself I need. And with the introduction of same-day delivery, we are encouraged even more to rationalise our purchase, especially when it is free. In fact, it has become the expectation for consumers that same, or next, day delivery is included with their order.

But our love for online retail and next to instant delivery hasn’t come without a cost. The materials and processes that go into the packaging used by online retailers, even those who champion sustainability, are not using sustainable e-commerce packaging. In reality, most are causing detrimental impacts on our planet. The relationship between e-commerce and sustainability is not a pretty one.

Think Outside The (Cardboard) Box

Overflowing plastic waste

If you are one of the many people who have spent their quarantine lockdown on an online shopping spree, your home is probably filled with seemingly endless amounts of cardboard and plastic packaging from the likes of Amazon and other various retailers. It comes as no surprise that these materials are the favourite of online sellers, they’re the cheapest to use and easy to produce. However, the processes that go into creating plastic and cardboard packaging also pose great damage to our planet.

The US Environmental Protection Agency revealed that containers and packaging from materials such as plastic constitute 23% of landfill waste. While plastic is one of the cheaper materials to use, it can take up to 1000 years (yes, that is the correct amount of zeros) to decompose in landfills – resulting in unprecedented amounts of plastic ending up in the ocean.

Levels of plastic packaging pollution have become so severe, the UN has predicted by 2050 there will be more plastic waste in the ocean than fish. And while it is promising to see reductions in the use of plastic bags and incentives for companies to move away from plastic, it doesn’t address the issue of the second most popular packaging solution, cardboard. The fact remains that in the US, every year, 165 billion packages are shipped across the country – with the total cardboard used equating to roughly over 1 billion trees.

In the US, every year, 165 billion packages are shipped across the country - with the total cardboard used equating to roughly over 1 billion trees.

With one tree producing roughly 151.6 cardboard boxes, it may not seem like a huge deal, 151 boxes is a lot of orders right enough. However, the average Amazon Prime household makes 24 orders per year (requiring 15% of a tree’s resources), meaning, per year, an entire tree is used by roughly seven Prime households. Again, you may say this isn’t a huge issue, a year is a long time and that’s not bad for seven households. But the reality is, it isn’t just seven households, it is 150 million (that’s 3.6 billion orders a year from Prime members alone).

The impact of cardboard isn’t limited solely to trees however. Cardboard packaging is estimated to require three times as much energy to manufacture compared to plastic, and the additional weight of cardboard results in, usually overlooked, environmental costs posed by delivery logistics.

The Cost of Free Shipping

Delivery van full of e-commerce packages

It’s easy to forget, in an age before the internet and rampant e-commerce, manufacturers shipped products to warehouses, and then to retailers, in bulk - possibly one of the few examples of traditional methods being more effective and eco-friendly than the modern practices we see today. Nowadays, it is an expectation that not only our orders will be delivered the following day, but that they will also be delivered right to our door.

The average parcel is dropped 17 times during transit

The need to individually pack each specific item results in sellers using more and more cardboard or plastic to accommodate a higher number of shipments. And, with the average parcel being dropped 17 times while in transit, in order to protect the packages on their journey from A to B, suppliers often unnecessarily overuse materials to ensure products arrive safely.

But it’s not just the packaging materials themselves that are creating great challenges for sustainability within the delivery process. The ‘last mile’ stage of the supply chain is the worst offender for producing CO2 emissions. The ‘last mile’ stage is likely the most commonly known stage of delivery for online-retail consumers, as this is where their parcel is delivered to them, from wherever it has come from (that doesn’t really matter does it?). It is no longer a case of delivering many parcels in as few deliveries, instead we demand our orders to be delivered ASAP, resulting in unnecessary delivery schedules that throw efficiency out of the door.

What’s more, while we often hear that online-retail and delivery is better for the environment, compared to going to the shops physically to peruse the aisles, the reality is that this only applies to certain circumstances and a specific kind of e-commerce consumer. One study identifies three types of consumer; the traditional in-store consumer; the online consumer; and the impatient online consumer who always opts for the fastest delivery time possible. While the carbon footprint created by the online consumer was half the size of the in-store consumer, the impatient online consumer had a footprint that was three times as high.

All Packaging, No Solution?

Eco-friendly bag. Sustainability lifestyle and packaging

With more and more online retailers offering the enticing possibility of next, or even same, day delivery, it is easy to forget the impact our frequent and spontaneous purchasing can have on the planet. Yet, even with the gradual rise of electric vans being used by delivery companies, the most cost-effective packaging solutions remain cardboard and plastic.

Plastic’s extensive lifespan and enormous oceanic pollution levels coupled with the devastating number of trees required to provide enough cardboard make them far from what should be our first choice of packaging. However, what choice do many brands have? Both plastic and cardboard are the cheapest options for them to use.

The issue of packaging solutions is perhaps e-commerce’s greatest flaw. In reality, even for the most sustainable e-commerce companies, their choices in packaging materials only erodes the idea that their business model is ecological. Is there any such thing as true sustainable e-commerce packing?

Or perhaps it is the consumer, and not the brand, that poses the greatest issue in this packaging crisis. Online consumers, who don't mind waiting a couple extra days for their delivery, are the most eco-friendly of shoppers. If we as consumers resist the urge to always go for the next day delivery option (I know, I know… it’s crazy), we would allow for a much more efficient system of e-commerce delivery.

I know you may be reading all of this wondering how we can ever package sustainably. Well, don’t worry, all is not as bleak as it may seem. There is an abundance of sustainable e-commerce companies that are tackling wasteful packaging head on. In fact, at Fullest Media we are dedicating the entire month of September to promoting and recognising brands that are innovating new technologies and practices to provide more sustainable boxing and packaging solutions. We are working on some excellent brand features for brands that are showing us how to create and support sustainability through e-commerce.

Want to find about the brands who really matter? Why not check out our blog to discover the best sustainable start-ups innovating packaging solutions, as well as marketing tips and tricks for the modern age.