Your order finally arrived!
Typically the package is in a brown corrugated box.
You are probably careful to check, that the box is in good condition: no yucky stuff on it, and hopefully the content is safe. You begin opening the box, but it's not the box that you care for, it's that dress, that you've been waiting for. While doing this, you may or may not have “damaged” the box a bit.
What happens typically?
Two scenarios here:
The first: The dress fits, and you keep it. The box – you tossed aside along with the paper and the plastic or paper wrap.
And like most urbanites, you need to bring the boxes to a recycling center or are only allowed to throw them out on certain days. If you are like most people and you have another order due to arrive, you store them and bundled them down together to save a trip . Before you know it, you have a stack of boxes stuck between cupboards in your apartment creating a bookends in your kitchen or stacking up in your precious broom closet. Marie Kondo, help!
The second: The dress does not fit. You call the customer service or go online to start the return process. You place the dress back in the box. If the box is a little ripped, you find any tape - masking, scotch or duct tape or whatever you have in your home and tape it together. Place the return label and plan to make your way to the nearest return point.
If you shop online regularly, this all sounds familiar. But why are we talking about it?
The role of the corrugated box in ecommerce
What is a corrugated box?
A corrugated box is made up of three layers of paper that includes an inside liner, an outside liner, and fluting with a ruffled shape, which runs in between the two. Citing from The Future of Corrugated Packaging to 2023 report by Smithers Pira, the nature of e-commerce packaging favours the use of corrugated board as a major medium and it is now estimated that upwards of $20 billion worth of corrugated materials are used in this sector as a whole.
This is huge business! Its use is common due to is lightweight, durable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly nature.
Whether it is entirely environmentally friendly can be argued especially after it has been shipped to consumers.
Here are a few quick facts:
- A corrugated box lifecycle begins with a tree. There are not many reports about exactly how many trees have been cut down to make these boxes. One article wrote 1 tree = 151.6 boxes. According to Fast Company, about 165 billion packages are shipped in the US each year, with the cardboard used roughly equating to more than 1 billion trees!
- Paper can be recycled but its lifetime is limited to 6-8 times.
- Damage during handling or shipping reduces a box’s lifecycle
- It is not liquid proof thus you need to use extra packing e.g. plastic to further protect it.
And the ugliest truth – often these boxes end up as a single-use packaging, because customers perceive it as low value. This results in an incorrect way of disposing it, which means it doesn't get recycled properly. In a recent article it's been reported, that 25% of all recyclable products end up in landfills.
In the scenarios we provided earlier:
- Masking, duct or scotch tapes are non-biodegradable and processing such waste takes energy in the sorting plant.
- Boxes, that you stored in your kitchen area and if you happen to spill oil, dish washing liquid or other greases, cannot be recycled.
- If it gets wet, you need to dry them before recycling but often we don’t wait until it's dry and dispose it right away. This can lead to further damage and ends up in landfills.
Single use packaging is not sustainable and does not create any value to your brand.
Reusable packaging as an alternative
Reusable packaging is typically made out of materials, that can withstand 30 times or more usage. It is often designed to promote durability, ease of use, ease of cleaning, ease of repair, and collapsibility or nestable design to provide inexpensive return, when empty. It can also be used for other purposes, such as storage of fresh food etc.
The move for reusable packaging in fashion e-commerce is on the rise, with many slow-fashion brands already adopting it. In fast-fashion, the UK's leading online-fashion retailer ASOS.com, have communicated in their CSR policy a desire to explore the feasibility of launching a pilot to introduce reusable customer mailing bags in at least one territory in 2019.
Many companies have introduced reusable packaging for ecommerce shipping, here a few examples:
How they work:
- Shops utilise their reusable packaging to ship items;
- Customers use a return label and mail it through an ordinary post box without cost;
- The packaging is reused for another customer.
These packaging options are typically easy to carry and can be flattened down to fit your typical mailbox and come at the cost of an ordinary postal rates.
Customer engagement through reusable packaging
Why use reusable packaging? The answer is very simple – to combat a single-use packaging, that is been proven to be damaging to the environment.
More customers are demanding businesses to be transparent on their sustainability policy and they want to take a part in making the planet greener.
Fashion e-commerce in particular can increase customer engagement through:
- Encouraging repeat purchases through giving a discount voucher when they mail back packaging;
- Enforcing the feel-good factor for playing their part in sustainability and saving the environment;
- Reusable packaging can be cleaned for other purposes’s use and unlikely to be disposed of without a second thought by the customer.
There will be an increased demand for reusable packaging. After the so-called “Attenborough effect” the dairy industries are seeing the return of the milk delivered in glass bottle, as consumer realises how much of the milk carton can actually be recycled. The ripple effect will be seen in the fashion ecommerce in time. With legislation already in place banning plastic and the EU has already launched a campaign to ensure that every piece of packaging on the continent is reusable or recyclable by 2030. This will definitely impact how fashion ecommerce decides to shipped its merchandise to their customers.
And one last fact; the best way to reduce waste is not to create it in the first place.
About the Author
A mother to three adolescence sons and a part-time wife first, currently working as a Customer Success Manager for Easysize - a fashion-tech company focusing on sustainability. My motto is “Be the change you want to see in the world - Gandhi”
Feel free to reach out to me for #sustainability programs and initiatives, #parenthood, #multiculturalism and international career advice.
Inspiration for the article came from an interview with Bo Bodum, CEO of Re-Zip.dk. Re-zip is based in Denmark and works with upcoming sustainable and ecological fashion brands to solve their packaging challenges.