Strategies for Integrating Green Packaging

For catalogers and online retailers who ship products to consumers and businesses around the world, packaging is much more than just a box with a shipping label.

Packaging is a way to protect the contents of your shipment. It can help control costs by minimizing package dimensions, weight and required transport space. Its design, format and materials content, for better or worse, constitute brand statements. And packaging speaks volumes about a company’s desire to reduce your overall impact on the environment.

That’s heavy lifting for a humble piece of cardboard or plastic. But direct merchants that pride themselves on embracing green practices are discovering what’s on the outside of a product can be as important as what’s on the inside.

Certainly, regulators are starting to take notice. Regulations such as PAS 2050 in the U.K. are emerging to limit, among other things, the impact of packaging on carbon emissions–the measure of CO2 emitted from the energy use generated by heating, light, power and transportation sources–throughout the product lifecycle. The World Resources Institute is now reviewing how to leverage PAS 2050 for the U.S.

Consumers, meanwhile, are looking for greener products. A recent Accenture study of 7,500 consumers in 17 countries found that 64% say they are willing to pay a higher price for products and services that produce lower greenhouse-gas emissions. E-tailers are therefore thinking strategically about making their packaging both cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

But green packaging can be a deceptively complex topic. Many think it’s just a matter of sticking products in boxes that are made of recyclable materials – and using earth-friendly packing materials. But green packaging is much more than this, and it has as much to do with the supply chain as the packaging materials.

And smart e-tailers are taking a balanced, thoughtful and business-savvy approach to green packaging that often results in fewer product damages, reduced transportation costs, less waste and a minimized impact on the environment. This typically involves three key strategies: minimizing the damage risks, incorporating appropriate sustainable packaging materials; and maximizing the product-to-package ratio.

Our three-part series will cover all three areas. Let’s start with how to minimize the damage risks.

Most shippers – e-tailers and otherwise – don’t make the crucial connection between minimizing damages and green packaging. In fact, a recent informal survey of customers by UPS found that the majority didn’t think managing shipping damages was related to green packaging at all.

But the two are connected. After all, a damaged product raises a company’s carbon footprint because the damaged product must be returned to the e-retailer. This return trip burns additional fuel in transport and creates new emissions.

Then, replacement products often must be shipped back to the customer, which means using additional raw materials, transportation and labor. Ultimately, damaged products can not only impact an e-tailer’s reputation but also raise costs and the environmental impact. Here’s how to minimize shipping damages through packaging:

Use the right damage-resistant packaging. In general, the stronger the box or container, the lower the risk of damages – at least, to the container itself – during shipping. The damage resistance of a box can be measured by its “bursting strength” and “edge-crush strength.”

Stronger containers usually mean using additional materials and adding more weight, which can run counter to green principles. In other words, it is a balancing act, so check the specifications of the product manufacturer and use packaging with just enough strength to provide damage protection – and nothing more.

Inside the box, the shipping filler you use also helps protect orders from damages, but be aware that sometimes the most eco-friendly dunnage may not be the best choice to protect the types of products you’re shipping.

For example, if your shipment is going to an area in a hot climate, sustainable materials such as cornstarch peanuts don’t always provide the greatest damage protection because they can melt with exposure to heat and humidity. If you’re shipping perishable products that need controlled temperature and humidity levels, test extensively to ensure that your packaging allows your products to arrive in excellent condition in a variety of ambient weather conditions.

Test before you ship. Before shipping a new product line, making any changes to the packaging or using a new mode of transport (air vs. ground), every company should have a third-party package lab test the packaging. Use a package lab that tests to an industry standard known as ITSA 3A, from the International Safe Transit Association, to be assured that your packaging will stand up to the everyday rigors of ground, air, sea and rail transport.

An area of special consideration is supplier compliance. More retailers are requiring their suppliers to adhere to special standards for packaging. Because these suppliers are an extension of a company’s brand, compliance is critical. Certification of packaging, including the testing of materials, is a necessary requirement for these vendors.

Meanwhile, it’s important to institute package design changes upstream in the supply chain whenever possible–even back to the point of manufacturing. This helps get it right from the start and reduces costs that will be incurred if changes have to be made at a point further down the chain.

Next time we’ll focus on incorporating appropriate sustainable packaging materials.

Nancy Parmer is senior director of sustainability, customer solutions group, at package delivery company and supply chain and freight services provider UPS.