What do plastic shopping bags, disposable coffee cups, plastic drinking straws and bottled water have in common? They’re all recent examples of both consumers and governments holding retailers and brands accountable for their impact on the environment.

Reducing your environmental footprint ain’t just for hippies and greenies anymore. The trend’s gone mainstream! Hell, even I’ve been known to recycle, use a keep cup and bring my own shopping bag to Coles on occasion. There’s been a massive shift in the collective consumer mindset and it’s likely just beginning.

What’s the next area we predict consumers will be demanding retailers get their act together? Online shopping. In particular, an overall greater awareness of the environmental impact of the packaging we’re receiving our goods in.

Last year in Australia online retail sales grew by a whopping 19%. Strewth! But whilst we love to shop online, we’ve traditionally turned a blind eye to the environmental cost of the supply chain. But this is quickly changing. And it’s only a matter of time before its’ impact comes under public scrutiny.

So if you’re a retailer or brand operating online, how are you going to prepare? But first, let’s look at why online shopping is starting to cause such a fuss.

Pressure from consumers and the Australian government saw both Coles and Woolworths ban single use plastic bags due to their harmful impact on the environment (photo: Troy Mayne, Turtle Island Restoration Network – Gulf of Mexico).

Understanding online shopping’s impact on the environment.

We’re buying more stuff than ever. Now we can shop from almost anywhere and get almost anything. Shopping has become too easy. And the push towards greater consumer convenience means we’re getting more stuff delivered. Unfortunately, the impact on the environment is growing along with it.

In the US, about 165 billion packages are shipped each year, the cardboard equivalent of about 1 billion trees. The Amazon Effect, which is commonly used to describe Amazon’s disruption in the retail sector, is now actually being used to describe the increased impact online retail is having on global waste output.

And let’s face it, how many times have you ordered something online only to receive a small package inside a relatively large wasteful box. Why? Online retail has many touch points, the average online delivery is dropped 17 times on route to a customer. Retailers want to ensure that goods arrive in perfect condition but unfortunately, this can result in over-packaging. Whilst this can be effective, it can often be wasteful.

San Francisco recently announced they are struggling to handle the increased cardboard waste from the rise in online shopping. Despite the fact people were ordering more online, they’re actually recycling less and overloading the city’s waste management system. (source: USA today / New York Times).

And that’s only cardboard.

There’s also an excess of plastic, some of which is not easily recyclable. One of the worst contributors to this packaging waste is one of the newest entrants to the market, meal delivery subscription kits. These typically come in polystyrene containers and ice packs to keep the food fresh, many of which are not recyclable or at best difficult to recycle.

For example being a regular Youfoodz customer, I can tell you that it’s ice packs have no recycling instructions on the packet. It was only after searching online did I find you can give these back to the delivery driver (although you’d have to place another order). Sure you could argue that you could keep these ice packs in the fridge for your own use, however if you order these meals weekly this is highly impracticable.

As we as consumer’s get more comfortable buying our groceries online, this waste problem is likely to get a whole lot worse.

Meal delivery kits have been identified as one of the biggest contributors to excess packaging waste from online shopping. Last year Blue Apron in the US delivered the equivalent of the weight of 2 million adult men. If consumers wish to recycle these, the company suggested customers donate these to charities (source: Mother Jones).

As delivery becomes faster, it’s actually making the problem a lot worse.

study comparing the environmental footprint of online shopping with its bricks and mortar equivalent found that if a customer requests next-day or same-day delivery both the emissions produced by the transport and packing waste are significantly worse. And as someone who works in retail can tell you, these are the two services consumers want most.

And who do you think is the biggest contributor to this push into faster delivery? You guessed it. Amazon Prime.

Amazon now has more than 100 million paying subscribers in the US, that’s roughly about 31% of the total population in America. 46% of these Amazon Prime subscribers buy something online at least once a week. At $1,300 per year, they spend nearly double the estimated $700 spent by non-Prime members. That’s a lot of deliveries and; unfortunately a lot of leftover packaging waste!

Whilst two-day or less shipping might be free to Amazon prime members, it is costing the planet.

Consumers are now starting to get the guilts. And they want retailers to start taking responsibility for their packaging.

The emotional ‘just-got-a-gift’ love affair of boxes turning up on our doorstep may soon be ending. Consumers are beginning to wake up to this packaging issue, starting to feel both guilt and frustration when they receive excessively wasteful boxes. And consumers are speaking up, calling out retailers who over-package, publicly naming and shaming them on social media.

Not to keep picking on Amazon, but want an example?

So if you’re a retailer or brand, what should you be doing?

Packaging is an important touch point for online customers, sometimes being the first physical point of contact with a brand. The challenge we see in the future for retailers is meeting consumers growing appetite for online shopping and same-day delivery, whilst maintaining their green credentials in both the eyes of the public and government.

So how do we begin preparing for this changing mindset? At the very least, in the short term, we need to ask for customer feedback and provide customers with education both on recycling and the negative environmental impact of faster shipping.

Perhaps given their contribution to the problem, Amazon has actually been one of the leaders in implementing steps to reduce their own excess packaging waste. Rather than doubling up, many items are now shipping in their original packaging. Envelopes have replaced boxes for smaller shipments. Amazon also asks for “packaging feedback” after shipping items. Between 2009 and 2016 Amazon received 33 million suggestions, resulting in the company reducing excess packaging materials by nearly a quarter of a million tons.

We need to reimagine the online shopping packaging experience

Long-term, more drastic methods are needed. We need to disrupt our current online delivery models and look at creative ways of reducing waste. Pardon the pun, but we need to think outside of the box.

There’s already a number of interesting start up’s overseas who are working to reduce online packaging waste whilst maintaining delivery efficiency. European company Repack offers customers incentives to return their used packaging. The Wally Shop in the US sells groceries online which are delivered in reusable containers.

The future of retail is green and taking responsibility for reducing your environmental impact from packaging is a long continuous journey. It’s a move that will involve significant investment, but it’s an investment that will pay off in terms of future customer loyalty and brand equity.

So what are you waiting for?

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Author Trent Rigby

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Amyfrench12@gmail.com' amy says:

    Online shopping does result in some much waste, it’s pretty frustrating! I now limit to buying from shops that offer recycled or minimal packaging and have contacted a few companies to ask what their policies are and if their product packaging is recyclable first. Of course many don’t reply. Hopefully it changes for the better 😃

  • mark.schroeder@permission.com.au' Mark Schroeder says:

    The price of convenience – so much higher than mets the eye. Appreciate the article and the perspective. Of course the growth in packaging waste isn’t restricted to online shopping, it’s everywhere.

    I totally agree that brands need to address this, and if they aren’t willing to they must brace for both the inevitable consumer backlash as well as government intervention in the form of packaging tax. After all, there’s a real cost to cleaning up excess packaging and if that cost isn’t reduce then I would support it being passed back to those generating the problem.

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