Commentary

OPINION DHL Express on unwrapping sustainable packaging

Abigail Brodie, VP of sales for ecommerce at DHL Express, discusses the growing importance of sustainable packaging for retailers.

Packaging has come under intense scrutiny in the last three years. While the main focus has been on frontline plastics like bottles and carrier bags, the spotlight is moving to other materials and areas of waste. To get on the front foot, online retailers will benefit from looking at their packaging and the ways they could minimise environmentally damaging waste.

With online deliveries now such a fundamental way of life for most people, the impact of this lifestyle is rightly raising questions and causing concern for many consumers. In a recent survey 41% of people said they care about the environmental impact of their online deliveries. While online delivery packaging is not the only contributor to the global waste problem, shoppers are becoming aware of their contribution.

Retailers and manufacturers are feeling this growing political and consumer pressure to reduce the volume of cardboard boxes and single-use plastic packaging. Traditionally, ecommerce packaging was a hygiene factor, it needed to be serviceable and cost effective but little more. But in a recent DHL survey, the majority of business respondents said that introduction of sustainable packaging materials was their number one near future packaging priority.

There are a number of easy steps that ecommerce businesses can take to evaluate the impact of their packaging, and where they can start to make changes to improve their sustainability.

Resealable plastic envelopes have become the standard packaging solution in many ecommerce categories, but these envelopes have a very short lifespan, either being used for a one-way journey or a single round-trip if re-sealed and used for returns.

But there are alternatives to virgin plastic for these envelopes. Alternatives include solutions manufactured from post-consumer recycled material or biobased materials made using starch from sustainable sources such as corn waste, hemp, and seaweed. Some of these materials are designed to degrade safely through either domestic or commercial composting systems. At the moment many businesses are deterred by the higher cost but as with all innovation, this is likely to come down in the future and in the meantime could even be offset by stronger loyalty from eco-conscious consumers.

A more sustainable alternative to short-lived plastic or cardboard packaging is the adoption of returnable mailers; durable, water-resistant pouches, envelopes, and soft folding boxes designed for multiple round trips. In many cases a customer can use the bag to send returns back to the supplier or simply fold the bag and send it back empty.

The first use cases of this type of system have often been subscription services, where customers have regular interactions with companies but as the concept becomes established, it has the potential to expand into more conventional ecommerce transactions. Adopting standardised packaging designs would even allow different ecommerce players the potential to share the same packaging pool, simplifying the handling of them and further reducing costs.

As well as looking at alternative packaging materials, there is potential to reduce the overall volume of packaging being produced and reducing waste from oversized packaging. Analysis of ecommerce parcels, shows that around 24% of their volume is empty space, which has a major environmental impact. At DHL we’re working on void reduction technologies, which are designed to reduce the size of boxes by up to 40%. Similarly, machines are being trialled which can customise cardboard boxes for specific objects, creating ‘a box on demand’ which significantly reduces the amount of cardboard used.

Ecommerce parcels are handled twenty times more during the shipment process than in bricks and mortar retail and they need to stand up to this and keep the goods inside intact but some new packaging systems are designed to allow products to be shipped without the need for secondary packaging and or fill materials. This cuts costs, reduces waste, and improves the experience for the end customer.

In the case of ecommerce and online shopping, a customer’s first experience of a product’s packaging usually occurs after making the initial purchase, at the point of delivery to their doorstep. This changes the role of packaging, as it becomes an important touchpoint with the consumer to deliver an outstanding brand experience, of which sustainability is a now key element.

Four proven packaging strategies:

  1. Consider the use of materials, replacing virgin-fibre plastics with cardboard or biodegradable plastic alternatives wherever possible
  2. Optimise the use of packaging based upon the product – re-evaluate the level of packing required along with the original packaging design and whether it could be adapted for both on-shelf and shipping purposes
  3. Look at the cost-benefit of switching to reusable packaging to assist with returns
  4. If the current options for sustainable packaging are cost prohibitive but you want to give customers the reassurance that you’re a conscious business, consider giving an option for green shipments at checkout which allows consumers to offset their carbon impact