The wider sustainability of online retail has been placed under a spotlight recently – from how much water and energy fast fashion takes to produce; to the number of unsold or returned products sent to landfill – shoppers and businesses are looking at where they can make more environmentally friendly decisions. And packaging has a big part to play in cleaning up the ecommerce sector, the newly published DeliveryX Packaging 2023 report has found.
Looking firstly at online shoppers, 40% of UK consumers are worried about the amount of packaging waste from their online orders. And 74% think environmentally-friendly packaging is very important or important.
They also want sustainability to be simple, and 69% see ease of recycling packaging as very important or important. When packaging is made from cardboard this is quite easy to do, in fact, the Fibre Box Association estimates that 90% of corrugated packaging gets recycled.
Producers of cardboard packaging have worked hard to ensure packaging itself is made from recyclable content – on average boxes contain 50% recycled content.
Furthermore, the Forest Stewardship Council provides three different trademark labels for businesses to denote that products and packaging support responsible forestry:
- FSC 100%: All materials used come from responsibly managed, FSC-certified forests. Products with the FSC 100% label contribute most directly to our mission to ensure thriving forests for all, forever.
- FSC Recycled: The product is made from 100% recycled materials. Using recycled material makes the most of precious forest resources and reduces the pressure to harvest more trees.
- FSC Mix: The product is made with a mixture of materials from FSC-certified forests, recycled materials, and/or FSC-controlled wood. While controlled wood doesn’t come from FSC-certified forests, it mitigates the risk of the material originating from unacceptable sources.
Having control over the source of packaging and its percentage of recycled materials are ways retailers – and their packaging partners – can ensure their offering is sustainable. However, some are looking at different and innovative materials.
As previously mentioned in this report, removing single-use plastic where possible is becoming increasingly important. But what can be used instead? What materials offer the same protection for D2C goods?
Honeycomb wrap and hexagonal paper alternatives have been introduced as a bubble-wrap replacement. While, biodegradable packing peanuts made from natural, nontoxic sources such as wheat, offer protection to products inside packages.
In fact, packaging materials created from natural resources such as corn starch, mushroom root and even seaweed are offering a bio alternative.
These alternatives are still developing and will be expensive in comparison to their plastic and cardboard counterparts. There is also a limited supply. While these products develop further, one change that firms can make is to reduce the amount of packaging they use and how much empty packaging they ship.
Refillables: Bring your own
There is also an opportunity to step away from new and single-use packaging completely with the reemergence of refillable offerings. Once commonplace in the drinks industry, consumers received a small cash offering (often 20p) for returning glass bottles to a store, before it was sent back to the factory to be refilled. It also wasn’t too long ago that milk was delivered to consumers’ homes with empty bottles picked up as standard.
Now the cosmetics, grocery and even home care sectors are looking at reuse/refill concepts, featuring more durable packaging designed for repeat use and prolonged handling. Physical stores such as The Body Shop, Waitrose and M&S, as well as a number of independent retailers, are offering refills on a small selection of products.
Subscription businesses are primed for such a service with everything from cleaning products to candles and even coffee available as a refillable monthly subscription.
While not a new offering, the refillable comeback is a sector of retail that is expected to grow and mature – it is a movement that again will shape the properties of ecommerce packaging.
This feature originally appeared in the DeliveryX Packaging 2023 report. Access the full digital report, which uses RetailX research and industry insight to explain why ecommerce packaging is no longer simply about protecting goods in transit. This sector report will examine how retailers are adapting their packaging to tell their brand story and why they are ditching the plastic.