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How to reduce packaging waste in ecommerce

a blue background with the text ‘packaging waste’ in white and a pink recycling graphic

Ecommerce provides consumers with unparalleled choice and accessibility. So, it’s hardly surprising that we’re flocking to online shopping sites more than ever before

But there’s a dark side to this convenience. The more packages that arrive on our doorsteps, the more packaging that has to be thrown away.

Excessive packaging, plastic packaging, non-recyclable packaging…we’ve all experienced it first-hand during our online shopping journeys. But as consumers at large grow more conscious about sustainability, the environmental impact of ecommerce packaging is becoming a bigger sticking point.

As the face of your brand, packaging design is a key area of focus for consumers trying to assess how eco-friendly you are. Wasteful packaging, to put it simply, is now bad for business.

In this post, we’re going to discuss how to reduce packaging waste in your ecommerce operation – and why it’s such a huge problem.

Why ecommerce packaging waste is on the rise

Ecommerce packaging is already filling up our recycling bins and trash – but it’s only set to get worse due to several factors that are exacerbating the waste problem:

Ecommerce is booming

The ecommerce sector has been experiencing steady growth for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in online sales that nobody could have predicted. With online spending now making up just over 20% of U.S. retail sales, it’s likely that we’re looking at a ‘new normal’ for ecommerce – and more orders mean increased levels of packaging waste.

The rise of ‘bracketing’

No matter how many orders you ship out, there’s always going to be a percentage that bounce back into your warehouse – sometimes as high as 60%.  High return rates are native to ecommerce, as consumers must grapple with the difficulty of purchasing products they have neither seen nor tried.

However, there is another trend that’s contributing to rising return rates; the practice of bracketing purchases.

‘Bracketing’ is when a consumer purchases multiple versions of the same item to try at home. This is particularly common in fashion and apparel, where many product variants exist for size and color.

While bracketing is logical from a consumer standpoint, it does provide difficulties for online sellers in more ways than one. As well as processing a higher rate of returns,  bracketing often means more packaging materials – and more packaging waste.

Packaging isn’t designed with sustainability in mind

What’s the first thing we do with packaging once we receive an online order?

Answer: Throw it straight in the trash.

Here, we come to the heart of the problem; that packaging simply isn’t designed with sustainability in mind.

If we picture a typical customer journey through ecommerce, packaging has a single purpose – to get items safely to the end customer. Once this purpose has been fulfilled, packaging has no further use.

This is known as a ‘linear economy’, where items move through a one-way process of production, use, and disposal. Naturally, this is the very opposite of sustainability.

By moving towards a circular packaging economy, where resources are continually repurposed to provide ongoing value, we can reduce packaging waste and create a much greener ecommerce sector.

4 strategies to reduce packaging waste in ecommerce

Stop over-packaging

At some point, we’ve all been on receiving end of an excessively-packaged item. It’s the moment when you find a huge box sitting on your doorstep – only to find upon opening that the item could have fitted into a container many times smaller.

Excessive packaging is one of consumers’ biggest pet peeves about online shopping, with almost a fifth of customers saying that it negatively impacts the brand experience.

It’s not hard to see why; the more packaging that’s used for an online order, the more consumers have to dispose of upon delivery. For consumers that are taking steps to be more sustainable, experiences like this can feel like direct sabotage. This isn’t good for your brand’s reputation – especially when ‘packaging fails’ are regularly disseminated on social media:

So, why does over-packaging happen? Usually, it’s because of a mismatch between a merchant’s product catalog and the packaging materials they have on-hand at their warehouse or 3PL. If audits aren’t made as new SKUs come in, staff are stuck trying to pack small items into too-big containers – thus wasting huge volumes of air pillows, polystyrene, and paper to cushion items from damage.

How to prevent over-packaging: Make sure that you have a variety of container sizes at your disposal – including mailer bags for very small items that aren’t appropriate for sending in boxes. This reduces the amount of filler you need to use. Best of all, this doesn’t reduce waste; it also helps to lower your fulfillment costs!

Minimize plastics use

You’re probably not surprised to see this one pop up. Plastic continues to be a massive contributor to packaging waste, with enough plastic packaging thrown away every year to circle the globe four times over. 

The impact of single-use plastic is not exactly a secret in 2021, but what about ‘recyclable’ packaging?

The quote marks are in place for a reason; while recyclable packaging does exist, there remains a serious lack of transparency over the process.

For example, many counties and states don’t allow for curbside recycling of soft plastics, as it requires specialist systems to sort. This means that it goes straight into the landfill – a major blow for conscious consumers trying to do the right thing.

This brings up the question of responsibility; is it fair to make your choice of packaging your customer’s problem? Placing the onus on the consumer is a long-running strategy by major corporate brands, but it’s starting to wear thin (if the Walker’s Crisps controversy in the UK is anything to go by).

So, what can you do to reduce your reliance on plastic packaging?

Paper-based packaging is a great replacement for plastic when it becomes to wrapping or cushioning objects. It also gives your packaging a much more high-end look, which is great for enhancing the customer experience.

Research biodegradable packaging alternatives

If you’re wanting to invest in sustainable packaging, there are a growing number of alternatives on the market that put zero waste at the heart of their design.

For example, naturally biodegradable materials such as corn starch and sugarcane are popular for single-use packaging items, like mailer envelopes and shrink wrap. Mushroom fiber packaging is also seeing growing popularity, due to its similarity to polystyrene.

So long as they are disposed of correctly, these materials don’t leave behind any harmful residues as they break down. Because this process takes months (as opposed to hundreds of years) consumers can feel confident that their purchasing decisions contribute to a healthier planet.

As R&D for sustainable packaging continues to accelerate, we can expect to see even more innovative solutions coming into the marketplace. So watch this space!

Consider reusable packaging designs

Reusable packaging offers your business the double advantage of lower packaging waste and easier returns management. When packages are sent out to customers, it’s important that brands are thinking about the post-purchase experience – which means the possibility of returns.

With return rates in ecommerce at all-time highs, seamless returns processing has never been more critical. Yet this is made more difficult by single-use packaging designs that force customers to source their own packaging to sent items back.

Not only does this add friction to the customer experience; it also increases the likelihood of items being damaged in transit if they aren’t packaged securely enough. Furthermore, if DIM weight is higher on the return journey, this could reduce your profit margins if your business is shouldering the return shipping costs.

By choosing ‘return ready’ packaging designs like double-sealed mailers or zip-locked garment bags, you save both you and your customer a lot of money and hassle. If you integrate this returned packaging into future orders, this circular approach lowers your costs even further!

The verdict is final; no customer wants to see packaging waste piling up on their living room floor. As an ecommerce merchant, you’re the one who’s in a position to change this. As the demand for ecommerce grows, all online sellers have a responsibility to lessen their environmental impact.

By following the recommendations above, your business can become more eco-friendly, save money, and make customers happy. In short, there are no real downsides. So, why not get started?

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