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GUEST COMMENT To box or not to box? That is the question

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A new trend has emerged in the world of ecommerce logistics: going boxless. Sending packages without an outer box has been pioneered by Amazon, but the trend is gaining steam, with retailers and brands following suit.

For returns, this has some advantages. It means customers do not need to take care of repackaging items before sending them back. Instead, they simply show up at a drop-off point with an unpackaged item they’d like to return, and the drop-off point takes care of the repackaging process. 

While the idea of returning items without the hassle of boxing them up might seem convenient at first glance – there are drawbacks, writes Emily McGill, sustainability communications manager at ReBound.

Emily McGill, sustainability communications manager at ReBound

Downsides of boxless returns
One significant drawback of boxless returns is the increased risk of goods getting damaged during transportation to the drop-off point. Without the protective barrier of a box or package, the items are more vulnerable to the elements or the paws of a muddy dog. 

Although not having to repackage items might seem more consumer-friendly, in practice, there are also some downsides for consumers. Firstly, transporting several items may be more inconvenient than just carrying one box. Additionally, some consumers might feel uncomfortable showing people in the post office what they are returning.

Contrary to the eco-friendly image often associated with boxless returns, it can actually lead to more plastic waste. At drop-off points, goods are often packed into thin plastic envelopes or bags, which can take longer to biodegrade than cardboard boxes and still leave the items within vulnerable to damage. Although many brands invest in sustainable packaging for the original delivery, this can get thrown away instead of being reused for the return journey. However, there are ways of making boxless returns more eco-friendly. 

Alternatives to boxless returns 
There are other customer-friendly options to make returns easier that are also more sustainable than boxless returns in the long run. Rather than opting for boxless returns, brands and retailers should consider these alternatives:

  • Reusable boxes and bags: Use boxes or bags that can be easily reused for returns. Adding an extra sticky strip on a box, for instance, allows customers to close it securely for return shipping. Even if the packaging is plastic, it’s better that it is used twice rather than being discarded and replaced with a new plastic package at the drop-off point. 
  • Adjustable packaging: Sometimes consumers don’t like using the original packaging, because it is too big for the return. For instance if a customer buys ten pairs of shoes and wants to return one pair, the original box will be far too large. This problem can be solved if the original packaging can be easily adjusted in size, for example, a bag from a sustainable material that can be refolded to fit the return.  
  • Retailer-controlled recycling: When original packaging is used for the return, the seller can properly recycle or maybe even reuse it. This keeps packaging materials under the retailer’s control and prevents unnecessary waste. 

Ensuring sustainable boxless returns
When implemented effectively, boxless returns can offer significant environmental benefits, but only if the process is organised properly. The following criteria should be considered when putting boxless returns into practice:

  • Size matters: The sustainability of boxless returns thrives when the new return packaging matches the item’s size. The consumer doesn’t need to use original, larger boxes,which allows to transport more packages in the same truck leading to higher efficiency. Imagine a scenario where you bought five items but only need to return one; a well-executed boxless system makes this a breeze.
  • Reusable packaging potential: The full potential of reusable packaging can be harnessed when both deliveries and returns are boxless. Consider a service operating from city hubs or drop-off points. Here, incoming bulk deliveries can be unboxed, and returns can be repackaged efficiently. This not only reduces packaging materials in consumers’ homes but also encourages better reuse of packaging materials.
  • Streamlined processing: Enhancements like processing centres at local hubs can expedite quality checks, refunds, and other return-related tasks, ensuring a smoother experience for customers.

It’s important to note that the true promise of boxless returns can only be realised when it encompasses the entire spectrum of sustainability, rather than simply substituting single-use packaging materials. As of now, achieving this ideal implementation remains a work in progress.

While boxless returns have the potential to reduce waste and improve sustainability, their success depends on proper implementation. Matching packaging to the item’s size, integrating boxless delivery, and implementing efficient quality checks are key factors. Currently, we are still far from realising the full potential of boxless returns. It’s clear that many boxless return schemes just add more single-use packaging materials, rather than removing it. It’s essential to  evaluate all opportunities and seek sustainable alternatives in the evolving world of returns management.

Emily McGill, sustainability communications manager at ReBound

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