The growth of e-commerce and home deliveries has been a key development in retail over the past decade, but coronavirus has supercharged that trend in a way that was unimaginable even 12 months ago. “We are witnessing digital adoption at unprecedented rates,” says Stephanie Millner, executive vice president of customer experience management at the digital business services provider Teleperformance. “The pandemic has driven a shift in who is using e-commerce, how they are using it, and why. It has transformed those who once refused to download apps into advocates of online grocery shopping.”
The full extent of this shift is now becoming clear. Recent research from the retail and hospitality fintech app Ubamarket, for example, found that 38% of Britons have used online shopping more since lockdown. Similarly, ONS data reveals that the proportion of online sales stood at 27.5% in September compared with 20.1% in February. This increase occurred across all sectors, but is particularly noticeable in the groceries market, with online proportions for food stores almost doubling from 5.4% in February to 10.4% in September.
E-commerce and its associated home deliveries often entail more packaging – at a time when consumer concerns about sustainability are on the rise. According to figures from Deloitte, 43% of consumers have chosen brands on account of their environmentally sustainable practices or values, while research from the IBM Institute for Business Value found that 57% of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact.
Where do these parallel trends leave businesses? How can you fulfil booming online sales and meet your customers’ eco expectations? There are many factors when it comes to sustainable e-commerce, from how goods are transported, to last-mile delivery and local recycling infrastructure, but a sustainability strategy for your packaging is also important, as it directly reflects on the brand to the sender.
Future-proof your packaging
According to Tracy Sutton, sustainable packaging expert and founder of the packaging consultancy Root, some big brands are getting on board with eco-packaging. “They recognise the need for their businesses to be able to future-proof themselves in terms of being able to access renewable, regenerative, replenishable materials, as opposed to building a business on using fossil derived materials that we won’t be able to access one day,” she says.
Many smaller startup brands also have ethical sourcing in place, but often the middle tier of business doesn’t have a clear plan. This needs to change – and quickly.
“We will start to see more and more of the Blockbuster and Kodak stories,” says Sutton. “If you don’t keep up and invest now, we will see other businesses go under as those who are putting sustainability higher on the agenda will leapfrog and protect themselves longer term.”
Get the basics right
“One of the key things to think about is the shipment of e-commerce,” says Sutton. This entails looking at how you package goods. Depending on how automated your processes are, can you reduce the size and weight of your packaging?
“There is a lot of over-packaging,” says Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at the environmental consultancy Eunomia. “It’s understandable given the automated processes used, and the need for economies of scale, but it is a waste of material and you’re increasing the transport impacts, too.” But it’s not all just about excess when trying to minimise your packaging footprint. Under-packaging can result in damaged goods and therefore wasted resources, as a study from eco-apparel brand Patagonia has shown. The trick is to get the balance right.
Another area to consider is packaging materials themselves. Think about the whole lifecycle of the materials and the impact they have at every stage. Most people think about recyclability, says Sutton, but the renewability of the raw materials is important – as is the carbon footprint. With that in mind, Hilton advises minimising “whole system impacts” by ensuring the use of packaging of the correct size, which has been made from the lowest-impact materials available.
The solution doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, simplicity is an advantage. “I’m a great advocate of using paper and fibre-based packaging where it makes functional sense,” says Hilton. “FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] paper-based products, for example, are low carbon compared with most packaging materials and easily dealt with in the home recycling context.”
Work with the right suppliers
You can, and should, expect your packaging suppliers to work with you to realise your sustainable packaging strategy. Ask what solutions are available to help you. If you’re committed to eliminating unnecessary plastics, for example, the renewable materials company Stora Enso now offers eco radio-frequency identification tags, which are produced using a fibre-based paper substrate – making it more easily recyclable – and more sustainable electronic components. You should also check that your suppliers have appropriate environmental certifications, such as FSC accreditation for wood-based materials.
Sutton encourages businesses to make clear demands of their suppliers: “If you can’t help us meet these goals, we don’t want to know – that forthright approach is really important.”
“What makes a company successful is very different in e-commerce versus the traditional business,” says David Ekberg, executive vice president for Packaging Solutions at Stora Enso. With its wide range of renewable products for e-commerce, including its e-TALES product range, Stora Enso focuses on key value creators for customers. Over time, the company has seen a shift from traditional brown boxes to demands for much more exciting designs and supply chain optimised products.
“Well designed packaging can make the difference if the customer loves the product or not, says Ekberg. “At the same time, design can reduce both transportation costs and make the packaging process more efficient.”
Who to talk to?
Visit storaenso.com/who-to-talk-to to find out