Consumers who embraced the necessity of shopping online in 2020 due to the pandemic have continued to do so at a steadily increasing pace. Although the growth of e-commerce spending in 2021 has slowed in comparison to the stratospheric escalations of 2020, our online purchasing habits continue to rise.
According to U.S. Department of Commerce figures, second quarter 2021 saw digital sales of $211.7 billion, a 9.3% uptick from $193.6 billion in 2020—but a significantly smaller rise when compared to the 43.7% surge from first to second quarter 2020. When it came to retail purchases, consumers spent $1 in every $5 online in the second quarter of 2021, finds Digital Commerce 360.
Yet there is a cost associated with the tremendous convenience of having virtually any item delivered to your doorstep within days, or even hours: packaging. A lot more packaging that consumers have to dispose of, including cardboard boxes, polybag mailers and void fill in a range of forms, such as air pouches, bubble pack, kraft paper, thermal insulators and more.
How much? Technavio Research projects that the corrugated box market will grow by 75.13 billion square feet between 2021 and 2025, a compound annual growth rate of nearly 4%. And breaking down all those cardboard boxes isn’t the only challenge facing consumers. Not every community offers curbside recycling. Those that do often don’t accept everything. Who hasn’t struggled to find a recycling center that can handle Styrofoam, chill packs or certain types of plastic?
With the increase in awareness of and concern about global warming, shoppers are increasingly expecting retailers and shippers to use more sustainable packaging. A Harris Poll survey found that 78% of Americans wish more brands used paper packaging (such as cardboard boxes, paper mailers, or paper fill inside the package) instead of plastic.
Further, 72% of respondents say they are more likely to buy again from brands that shipped sustainably by using less plastic and sizing the box to best match the item being shipped. American shoppers also expect similar sustainable practices from online grocery retailers, whether picking up their purchase at the store or having it delivered.
Consumers, ultimately, are tired of feeling guilty about packaging waste, said Bin Jiang, director of global sourcing for Veritiv, a packaging provider focused on delivering sustainable products. Jiang points to a late 2020 McKinsey survey that found 55% of U.S. consumers report elevated concerns about the environmental impact of product packaging. It’s a number she believes is growing because—thanks to e-commerce—shoppers are interacting with the shipping package far more than they ever did shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.
“The smart brand owners recognize this and are increasingly investing in the packaging solutions that provide an exceptional customer experience from end to end. And that includes figuring out how easily can the consumer deal with disposing of the packaging once they receive the product,” she said. “Sustainability has really become front and center from our customers as they focus on their own customers’ needs.”
Fortunately, thanks to ongoing innovations among manufacturers, it’s a whole lot easier for shippers and brand owners to ship products to their customers with more greener packaging.
Historically, Jiang said, shippers concentrated on reducing packaging size and weight, setting new goals annually for cutting total packaging consumption. “Now, they’re also concerned about making the secondary packaging completely sustainable, whether that’s through recycling or composting,” she said, noting that the latter is of particular interest in the food industry.
E-commerce shippers are also increasingly choosing packaging products with higher recycled content, rapidly renewable content or bio-based content. Sugar cane fiber, for example, has entered the market as an alternative to wood-based fiberboard and molded dunnage, Jiang said, because it’s from a fiber-based source that grows more rapidly than trees. It’s also a waste byproduct of sugar manufacturing. Also, bio-assimilation additives are being incorporated into certain plastics, enabling them to be degraded to a molecular weight that can be consumed by natural organisms if they can’t be recycled.
“We’re also seeing a growing trend in multi-use packaging, such as paper or pouch mailers with two separate sealings—one for the initial shipment to the customer, and the second that allows them to easily re-use the pouch for a return,” she added. “It’s a step in the direction of creating a circular economy, as well as a creative way to get a second life out of the packaging.”
Here, a look at some of the latest innovations in e-commerce packaging available today.