With eCommerce sales rapidly on the rise, packaging waste has reached shocking amounts. The US alone produces nearly eighty million tons of packaging waste each year. To put that in perspective, the cardboard waste alone results in the loss of one billion trees annually. Just the ice packs Blue Apron sends end up adding the equivalent weight of two million adult men a year to landfills. By 2050, there will be more plastic waste than fish in the ocean.
Not only is it ethically irresponsible for brands to ignore the environmental impact of their practices, both packaging and otherwise, it’s bad for business. 61% of consumers will switch to an eco-friendly brand if they find out their current favorite brand is not using eco-friendly practices. 59% of consumers are even willing to pay more for eco-friendly packaging.
Of course, it’s one thing to decide to use eco-friendly shipping practices. It’s entirely another thing to implement them. So let’s look at some tips and tricks that you can borrow from pioneering brands to get started, some of which can even save you money!
1. Use recycled cardboard boxes.
Using recycled cardboard boxes, rather than virgin cardboard boxes, is a very popular green move amongst retailers today. It’s also highly effective. Recycling just one ton of cardboard saves 17 trees and 7000 gallons of water.
Recycled cardboard doesn’t need to be more expensive either. The Bircher Bar was able to save $0.10/box by switching to recycled boxes. Many, many packaging material companies now produce recycled cardboard boxes, making this switch low hanging fruit.
2. Reuse boxes.
Simply using recycled cardboard boxes doesn’t have to be the only way you recycle boxes. Reusing boxes is also a good idea.
Plaine Products, a personal care company, uses reusable aluminum shampoo bottles that customers send back to be refilled. In order to maximize the environmental impact, Plaine also reuses their boxes (already made out of recycled cardboard) up to five times before recycling the box. Plaine estimates their reuse system has saved 15,000 boxes in the past eighteen months. Jennifer Bucholz from Plaine says, “We have found that the easier we make the process, the more customers we have adapting to eco-friendly, no-waste products, which is good for our business and good for the Earth.”
Then there’s Returnity, a company that is taking reusing boxes to the next level. They create reusable mailers that are guaranteed to make at least forty trips. At the end of its lifespan, the packaging is recyclable. Returnity is on track to save more than ten million cardboard boxes and poly mailer bags in 2020. For companies with circular shipping models, like Rent the Runway, these mailers pay for themselves within 15 trips.
Returnity does recognize that their mailers face a challenge in cost-effectiveness for standard one-way shipping companies, as they require customers to return the mailers. Returnity is currently working with shipping companies to design cost-effective closed-loop logistics systems to spread the use of their mailers to all types of companies.
3. Minimize packaging.
Minimizing packaging (both of your products and your shipping containers) is a simple change that can make not only a huge impact on the environment but also on your bottom line.
Lizabeth Crump, owner of Rayven’s Chainmaille, points out a number of solid reasons to minimize packaging beyond saving the environment: minimal packaging is “more likely to fit in my mailbox and not have to sit in the open on my porch…. It [also] gives the impression that the packaging was made for the product if it fits it really well. It tells me that you took the time to measure and pack appropriately.” She also adds that, “it’s cute to get tiny boxes and watch cats try to get into tiny boxes.”
Nick Schiffelbein from LOCATE Inventory points out that using a fulfillment software tool that can automatically choose the optimal size box for a shipment not only saves packing materials, but it can also result in a massive amount of freed up labor. He points out that even just a single second saved in the box choosing process results in one freed up hour for every 2,000 packages.
4. Use cornstarch-based packing peanuts.
Styrofoam packing peanuts are made from petroleum and result in the release of 57 chemical byproducts during creation. Companies have been offering more environmentally friendly alternatives to the traditional styrofoam packing peanut since the mid-1990s, perhaps the neatest of which is the cornstarch-based packing peanut.
Cornstarch-based packing peanuts are a wonderful alternative because they are fully biodegradable – in fact, they dissolve completely in water. (And they can be repurposed by the adventurous as homemade cheese puffs!)
In 2017, personal care brand Lush landed on this type of packing peanut after experimenting with popcorn for a while. The starch packing peanuts weigh less than popcorn and are also more energy-efficient. They require 23% less energy to produce and result in 7.5 times more packing material.
5. Ditch the plastic packaging.
Calloway Cook, founder of Illuminate Labs, says, “The quickest and easiest way to reduce the environmental impact of an eCommerce store is to make the packaging plastic-free.”
There are various ways that companies are choosing to go plastic-free that you can take inspiration from.
- Cook himself had Illuminate switch from bubble mailers to corrugated boxes, a switch which will save one ton of plastic in 2020. He also says when working with a fulfillment partner the cost of the switch should be minimal – around $0.50 per shipment. He adds that any added expense is worth the lift in brand perception by his customers. Illuminate uses ShipMonk, but Cook recommends calling several providers to get a full idea of what shipping materials are available.
- As early as 2008, Dell made the switch to sustainable packaging. They replaced foam and plastic inserts with various types of cushions made of natural materials, such as bamboo and mushrooms. These cushions are completely biodegradable. The bamboo cushions, in particular, are highly sustainable because bamboo grows back at a rate of up to one inch per hour. Dell saw some excellent results. They eliminated twenty million pounds of packaging.
6. Use soy ink.
Did you know that ink is typically made from petroleum? Using petroleum-based ink on an otherwise fully recyclable box renders that box unrecyclable.
A smart alternative is soy ink. Soy ink is biodegradable and requires less ink to achieve the same amount of print outs because soy ink results in a more intense color. The best part? Because less soy ink is required, soy ink is actually cheaper than traditional ink.
Pure Earth Pets uses biodegradable boxes printed with soy ink. Leanne Pinard Baum, a founder, states that despite being a new brand, they were able to get this eco-friendly packaging for a cost-effective amount from EcoEnclose, proving even the smallest brands can make a difference. “We were able to purchase a low number of 250 boxes in our custom size and design to get started – which allowed us to invest in other areas of our business!”
7. Go carbon neutral.
Shipping packages around the world or even in just a single country produces a large carbon footprint. In the US alone, package delivery produces 55,000 metric tons of CO2e per day.
Carbon neutrality is a commitment to funding activities that reduce the carbon in the atmosphere in the same amounts as your business produces carbon emissions. A common method to reduce carbon is to fund the planting of trees. Vatican City, for instance, has pledged to plant a thirty-seven acre forest in Hungary to neutralize the city state’s carbon emissions.
For retailers seeking to create a carbon neutral footprint, the easiest way is by partnering up with carbon neutral shippers or dedicated nonprofits.
Living Entertainment North Coast uses a carbon neutral shipping company, Sendle, to completely eliminate their shipping carbon footprint in Australia. What’s even better is that they save between $5-20 per package compared to normal carriers. As owner Darcy Ogdon-Nolan says, it’s a “win-win-win.”
Fracture, a glass photo prints company, partners with We Are Neutral to neutralize their emissions through a variety of means, including tree planting and upgrading low-income residents to energy-efficient appliances free of charge. They started in 2015 by just offsetting the carbon footprint of their facility and shipments. In 2017, they added the footprint from company air travel. As they look to the future, they aim to also offset the carbon footprint from the shipments of raw materials and inventory they receive.
Start Saving the Planet
Eco-friendly shipping practices are surprisingly easy to start implementing. We all have a responsibility to help keep this planet healthy for future generations and these seven options provide some smart ways to do that.