The Nexus Between E-Commerce, Packaging, & Sustainability

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E-commerce and sustainability may at first seem oxymoronic, and of course, there are very substantiated concerns about how this growth is affecting our planet. Nevertheless, I was delighted to discover that the number one topic of conversation at the most recent E-Pack Summit 2019 in Berlin was indeed sustainability.

It’s likely you’ve had the displeasure of receiving a small item bought online in an (almost) laughably large box with a ridiculous amount of void filler inside. The people have spoken and they are frustrated with this scenario. And when customers shout loud and far enough companies listen. Luckily for us, and the planet, shipping air is also — unsurprisingly — not good for business.

A lot of innovation is going into this space. However, it is not always as simple as just using less packaging. The most significant grievance for e-commerce customers above excessive packaging, is goods arriving damaged. So the challenge lies in delicately balancing the core functions of packaging with sustainability.

Packaging innovation

Neopost Shipping’s CVP500, for example, is a fit-to-size auto-boxing technology which measures, constructs, tapes, weighs, and labels each parcel in one process. Crucially, the machine recognizes the size of the items and customs makes the right sized box within about 7 seconds, eliminating the need for too much void filler, and saves space during transportation (thereby also saving emissions).


Other companies are going beyond efficiency and recyclability towards reusability. RePack, for example, has initiated a circular model of reusable and returnable packaging, which customers simply drop into a letterbox once they’ve received their goods. Stores can reward customers for returning the bags with store vouchers, for example, which boosts customer return rates.

E-Commerce & impulsion

However, not all of the discussion on the rise of e-commerce was uplifting and inspiring. Mars, a company which makes its money based on impulsion, was quick to admit that e-commerce poses a real threat to its core business model. After all, who is going to order a single Mars bar on Amazon to be delivered within 1–5 working days? Nevertheless, the speaker was quick to present new ways of harnessing the digital wave to ensure people will still be able to have that chocolate bar that they actually-didn’t-even-really-want-in the-first-place-but-then-they-saw-it-at-the-till-and-before-they-knew-it-they were-wolfing-down-their-second-Twix-stick.

For example, soon you may be able to buy a chocolate bar while you’re sitting in the back of an Uber, so you won’t even have to walk to the corner shop to make questionable dietary decisions.

Another method of staying ahead in the digital age is by using the internet to deploy brand activation strategies. One of Mars’ brands Snickers partnered with 7–11 stores in Australia as part of its ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’ campaign. The price of Snickers either increased or decreased in reverse correlation with how angry the rhetoric of the internet was. How’s that for the right incentive?

Honorable mention: Loop’s circular innovation

E-commerce has already fundamentally shifted many individuals’ purchasing behavior. With this structural shift comes the opportunity to innovate with sustainability at the helm. Initiatives such as Loop, a circular shopping platform that has partnered with brands to transform everyday essentials from single-use disposable to durable, might just change the game entirely.

“Not so long ago, the milkman delivered reusable bottles and later picked them up to be refilled. Loop is the milkman reimagined — honoring our past from a modern perspective”

So while there is ample cause for concern, there is also room for a whole lot of innovation. We’re watching this space with interest and optimism.

By Michelle Haworth

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