E-Commerce Innovation: Leaders of the Pack
E-commerce brands looking to protect merchandise and reduce their carbon footprint are exploring surprising new packaging materials, designs, uses, and re-uses.
The sudden e-commerce growth triggered by covid-19 created a ripple effect that extends beyond supply chain, fulfillment, and transportation challenges. It helped change e-commerce packaging as well, especially for grocery items.
Fragile bags of potato chips, for example, weren’t designed to be handled as many times as they are now as e-commerce orders are filled and shipped. Leakage isn’t unheard of with laundry detergent bottles ordered online and moved multiple times, then jostled during shipping. Shampoo bottles shipped to consumers have been known to break on impact during shipping, too.
“Packaging for e-commerce is different than packaging for retail,” explains Hank Canitz, vice president of industry solutions at supply chain software provider Nulogy. “It needs to be more robust to meet the demands that come with being processed through multiple distribution centers and last-mile carriers so it arrives intact and undamaged.”
“E-commerce is the end of ‘up’ for packaging,” adds Jonathan Quinn, e-commerce packaging and shrink films market manager at NOVA Chemicals. “Packaging that was designed to sit vertically on a pallet or shelf now needs to be designed for 360 degrees of impact.”
Companies are also exploring new options for the external packaging that holds products ordered online as they continue to seek ways to reduce weight or improve sustainability.
Here are three e-commerce packaging innovations gaining traction today.
Packaging engineers and others are working to reduce or eliminate damage risk, particularly with packaging that wasn’t designed for direct-to-consumer shipping.
“We’ve done work to improve closures, reduce and eliminate leakage, and improve the barrier technology that helps air pillows and bubble wrap keep air as long as they need to,” says Quinn.
For example, NOVA Chemicals has developed a material for caps and closures that improves sealing properties while eliminating the need for using mixed materials that keep the package from being recycled curbside.
Using flexible packaging with leak-proof seals—think pouches—also helps minimize container breakage during shipping.
“The robust nature of this material, whether it’s plastic, mono-material, or a combination, helps reduce leakage and packaging breaks because pouches with liquid can withstand being dropped, moved, or crushed more than traditional paper or cardboard can,” says Alison Keane, president of the Flexible Packaging Association.
Protection is paramount for direct-to-consumer brand Fracture, which prints digital photos onto glass. When developing its minimalist but highly protective packaging, the brand sought to find the intersection of function, form, and sustainability. Form contributes to the customer’s unboxing experience.
“Unboxing can be a magical experience when it’s your memory you’re unpacking,” says Abhi Lokesh, CEO and co-founder of Fracture.
Fracture’s e-commerce packaging uses no bubble wrap or peanuts—just recyclable corrugated in a highly engineered design developed after Lokesh’s co-founder “invested a lot of time understanding the physics and angles around how to ship a piece of glass from point A to point B,” Lokesh says. “There’s a science to understanding how much pressure it can take and where the pressure points are.”
The brand’s hand-packed box enjoys a damage rate of less than 5% on more than 1 million orders.
A spot check of Amazon deliveries will show fewer corrugated boxes with dunnage—crumpled kraft paper or inflated poly film pillows—and more polybags and fully recyclable paper padded mailers.
The paper mailer has four layers of paper and a water-based cushioning material using components found in the glue used to make cardboard. “This kind of option is more expensive than plastic but sustainability wins are much better,” says Jarrett Streebin, CEO of EasyPost.
Using paper in new ways pales in comparison with Ecovative Design’s Mushroom Packaging, though. The firm licenses its technology to companies that “grow” custom-molded packaging from just two ingredients—hemp and mycelium (the root structure of a mushroom)—for e-commerce and other needs. What’s more, Ecovative’s product is fully compostable, dissolving into the earth in 45 days.
In the United States, licensee Paradise Packaging Co. creates Mushroom Packaging for e-commerce brands by pouring a mix of hemp hurds (the hemp plant’s woody inner core) and mycelium into custom-made, 3D-printed plastic trays, where it grows for four days. The packing parts are removed from the trays and left to grow two more days before they’re dried to ensure they’re no longer biologically active.
Low tooling costs up to a certain volume and the packaging’s sustainability make it particularly appealing to new businesses. “Because we can do small volumes, it tends to be a real boon for bringing products to market,” says Gavin McIntyer, co-founder of Ecovative Design Co. “Brands still get the engineering excellence they’d get from a molded plastic foam alternative.”
Returning and Reusing Packaging
Some innovators have devised ways to re-use, rather than recycle, packing and packaging materials. One such company, Imperfect Foods, delivers less-than-perfect groceries to homes in 80% of the country, and makes it possible for consumers to donate shipping boxes to food banks, recycle insulated liners, and return freezer gel packs for re-use (see sidebar).
“Customers have been asking for this for a while,” says Madeline Rotman, head of sustainability at the online grocer. “Imperfect Foods is the first national grocer to offer these options from the customer’s doorstep.”
Believing that recycling isn’t enough, Finland-based RePack offers e-commerce shippers packaging that’s returnable and reusable. “For every returned RePack, we remove the need to manufacture a new packaging, and the need to manage its waste,” according to the company’s website.
Its research shows that the packaging reduces carbon footprint by up to 80% when compared with disposable packages. It also reduces up to 96% of total packaging waste.
Each soft RePack is made of recycled polypropylene from post-consumer waste. Because the polybag isn’t designed for significant protection, it is used globally primarily by fashion and footwear companies that include California running apparel brand rabbit.
Shoppers use the package for returns or follow instructions printed on the outside to return it empty via the U.S. Postal Service. Some brands facilitate and encourage this by repeating the return instructions in package inserts or offering incentives such as a discount on the next purchase.
About 70% of bags are returned. In the United States, they’re inspected and cleaned in RePack’s Salt Lake City warehouse. Damaged bags are upcycled or recycled; the rest go back into the system.
Not surprisingly, the reusable bags cost more than conventional e-commerce packaging options. “The most common way that brands deal with the higher cost in the United States is with a pop-up at checkout that asks if the customer wants to ship the order in reusable packaging for an extra fee,” says Sophie Robel, sales and marketing coordinator for RePack in North America. “It’s a good way to appeal to those who do care and not force it on others.”
Everybody wins with innovation. “There’s less material needed to protect the product, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, less water used in manufacturing, more cost-efficient transportation, fewer product returns because of breakage, and less material going into landfills,” says Keane.
Innovating for Sustainability
With a goal of becoming a net-zero carbon company by 2030, Imperfect Foods, an online provider of less-than-perfect groceries, is innovating with conventional e-commerce packaging.
The San Francisco-based grocer offering home delivery for everything from produce to snacks extends its “cultivate sustainability in everything we do” core value to collaborating with customers to recycle or reuse packaging.
Its redesigned logistics system of distribution centers and last-mile delivery partners allows customers to donate flattened delivery boxes to food banks and return gel packs and insulated liners so they can be re-used or recycled.
While customers have always been able to recycle delivery boxes curbside, they couldn’t do that with insulated liners and gel packs. What’s more, most gel packs are in good enough condition to be used again. The packaging waste frustrated both them and the grocer.
The situation was exacerbated during the pandemic, when the company, which serves 80% of the country in 42 states, experienced a 60% increase in its customer base by Q4 2020.
“There’s so much consumer guilt because of all the packaging,” says Madeline Rotman, head of sustainability. “We wanted to provide a solution for our customers and to innovate on what it means to deliver food and how we can do it better.”
To return packaging, shoppers leave it outside for pickup when they’re expecting another delivery. Delivery and pickup in one trip mean the program doesn’t add to the carbon footprint.
The company donates flattened boxes to food banks; partner organizations recycle liners and prepare gel packs for re-use. “We aggregate the insulated liners in rail cars, then send them off via rail to recycling centers so they can be turned into household goods,” Rotman says.
In keeping with the brand’s values, it uses rail because that transportation mode has lower emissions. The rail cars storing and transporting the liners are as imperfect—but useful—as the groceries the company sells.
Gel packs go to sanitation partners that wash and dry them before returning the units to distribution centers so they can be frozen and used again.
The grocer’s e-commerce packaging innovation is paying off: Imperfect Foods saves 500,000 pounds of packaging waste from landfills every month.